Implausible vegetables

I don’t know if it’s spring or the big rains we had a while ago, but bamboo shoots from the neighbours’ giant hedge are popping up everywhere.  I say it’s the neighbours’ bamboo hedge but since it’s running bamboo, it’s ours as well.  It makes a frequent guest appearance amongst the native shrubs, pokes through cracks in the concrete driveway, squeezes its way around the foundations of the house. Regularly hacking it back is the only thing stopping our yard slowly transforming into panda paradise (in fact, every time I get out the saw the kids accuse me of species-threatening habitat destruction).

But rampant bamboo is actually fine.  In fact, it’s great, since I consider myself to be an artist whose natural medium is bamboo stakes and zip ties.  So far my oeuvre includes four gates, a 10 metre long enclosure for the vegetable garden, five trellises in a range of styles, a pergola, some windchimes and more bean tripods than you can shake a stick at.  Obviously, if you did shake a stick in my vicinity I’d probably grab it from you, attach zip ties to it and turn it into a trellis.

The wall of bamboo is a magical swaying whispering verdant thing.  Every year it manufactures the living fenceposts that keep our property’s ancient teetering side wall more or less upright.  And now it feeds us!  Okay, it feeds us with grass.  In fact, grass laden potentially fatal amounts of cyanide.  But it’s still food, even if you’re not a panda.

Bamboo shoots, I think, should be included in a new class of produce I’m calling “implausible vegetables”.  I’m not 100% sure how we define this category of foodstuffs.  One possible definition: “a vegetable that, in the process of preparation for human consumption, shrinks to a tiny fraction of its pre-preparation size.  The amount of the implausible vegetable that can actually be eaten is dramatically smaller than the quantity of peelings, husks, stems or leaves destined for the compost bin”.  Another possibility: “a vegetable which even rats refuse to eat”.

But is it simply implausible vegetables, or should it be implausible and dangerous vegetables?

The pics above were taken for our 7 year old’s class presentation: an explanation of a  simple procedure in the kitchen.  In her notes, she did stress that you needed to boyl the sliced shoots for at least 20 minits or you will be poysned.  Even so, if a wave of year twos with histotic hypoxia turn up at the local hospital, we will be keeping a low profile.

After three meals on the trot containing home-grown bamboo shoots, there has been some hypochondriacal consultation of Dr Google.  Hard to distinguish the early symptoms of toxicity, though, since weakness, confusion and headaches are, in my experience, a fairly normal consequence of a day at work.

Globe artichokes, of which I am a passionate admirer, are also clearly implausible, to wit:

But lethal?  Well, for a start, it’s clearly a mistake to allow anyone as unhygenic as I am near any kind of sterile procedure.  The throwaway line in my recipe that inclusion of raw garlic in the jar could induce botulism did not significantly reduce Home Canning Anxiety, either.  And to me, pickled veg and stuff in jars just scream deranged-scientist-in-subterranean-lab-full-of-body-parts-in-formaldehyde.  My own disturbing inaugural effort at artichoke hearts in oil was no exception.

But the more I think about it, the more all plant-based foods seem deeply implausible and highly likely to be dangerous.  You grow grass, pick the seeds, grind them into dust with rocks, add a single-celled micro-organism found on the human body, warm the mixture til it produces carbon dioxide, pummel it until the carbon dioxide diffuses, warm it again, pummel it again, heat it in a fire until you kill the eukaryotic microorganism, cool it and eat it.  What a lot of effort.  No wonder we all used to eat gruel.  And I’m not even factoring in the possibility that along the way the grain might have collected another fungus that causes hallucinations, convulsions, burning of the limbs and gangrene.   

But it’s not just modern, non-paleo foods.  You eat the tiny tiny flower buds? You eat the tiny tiny inverted flower buds?  You eat the stems of a plant traditionally giftwrapped before eating? You eat the extremely sour stems of a plant whose leaves are full of a toxic chemical used as a metal cleaner?  You eat the fruits of a carnivorous plant closely related to deadly nightshade? You grow and then systematically bury a plant closely related to deadly nightshade so you can eat its roots without them going green and prompting delerium, hypothermia and paralysis?

And I’m not even considering the implausibility of cheese – stealing the breast milk of a lactating mammal, mixing it with the stomach lining of a ruminant until it curdles, straining it, pressing it, putting it in a cave until it gets mould on it and then eating it. Hard to imagine the weird circumstances that led to this culinary breakthrough – although I guess cow-keeping cave dwellers with an acute food shortage and limited access to the internet were less thin on the ground in the past.

My conclusion: hungry people will eat anything, even if it takes weeks to prepare it and if, at the end of all that effort, it may well kill them.  We’re just lucky we have so many things that will potentially kill us on our doorstep.

Apples of the earth vs the hungry gap

Truth be told, Sydney doesn’t really have a hungry gap – when your late winter dessert fruits are custard apples, the chillier months don’t hold too many terrors.

Nonetheless, things are moving… very…. very… slowly… in the garden at the moment.  Everything except whatever ate my first-formed head of broccoli, which moved far too damn fast – faster than I did, anyway.

A few stalwarts – purple mustard, parley, garlic and shallots – are ticking along despite winter sunlight and absolutely no rain, and the globe artichokes are still standing, like gorgeous silvery statues scattered around the garden.

Artichokes and peach blossom

But it’s harvest-time for one thing: yacon.  A real pomme-de-terre – the mostly delicious root vegetable you’ve never heard of.  Just when the apples are getting a bit meh, the granny smiths slipping out of your hands and the rest of them hardly worth picking up, it’s time to dig up the “apple of the earth”.

The whole eating experience is deeply implausible.  The tubers look a bit like turnips yet curiously you don’t feel like Baldrick when you eat them.

Baldrick and turnip

They’re crisp and sweet, a little firmer than an apple in texture but just as juicy.  You have to peel them, and the flesh has a distinct resinous tang – someone has described it as a little like sugar cane, which is spot on.  They would make a fantastic addition to a fancy-pants cheese plate, though my rather meagre harvest didn’t make it that far – too easy to crunch them as a snack.

Yacon share many features with jerusalem artichokes, but, critically, *not* the dangerous flatulence in the dining room or the irritating weediness in the garden.  Like artichokes, they shoot up to six foot over the summer and then die back down.  Mine have tended to keel over at a certain point, overburdened by their large, shapely leaves, but that hasn’t seemed to crimp their style.

I’ve been growing them along a fenceline that gets very little light from autumn equinox to spring, and they seem to handle those conditions, though I think I may need to fertilise and water them more generously this year.  The copious fruits of our Eureka lemon tree are being pressed into the hands of all our visitors at the moment – I’d love to to the same with yacon, like some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the Apple-of-the-Earth.

Autumn on Hawkesbury sandstone


Things are looking a bit Miss Havisham in the garden at the moment. A fallow season – my attempt at growing green manure an abject failure – hasn’t yet been chased away by the autumn seedlings.  There are scraps of sweet potato vine, regrown from last year’s tubers, heading towards the (rather peaky) citrus, and disorderly “Fat Bastard” asparagus and frazzled raspberry canes toppled over the pathways. The artichokes are proving their thistle heritage: seeds bursting out in a most non-food-like manner, though a couple of weeks ago they made really quite impressive display in a vase.  They make me think of other edible flowers and buds: nasturtiums, violets and borage; the spicy flowers of daikon radishes and bok choi; as well as the weirder ones – broccoli, capers, figs.

Better get out there and cut those giant thistles down to size.