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SHIPPINGSPORT, Ill. -- Bernard Strozewski, 84, straightens up his jeans and walks down the hillside on his riverside retirement property near the Illinois River so he can show a greenhorn the difference between tough, bitter dandelion greens and dandelion greens suited for a salad.
"This is a choice dandelion," Strozewski says, squatting down and pointing his knife at a dandelion with no blooms, only tiny round buds. It's partially buried in soil, its leaves pointing upward rather than outward, in contrast to a sprawling dandelion, flattened along the ground, which Strozewski wouldn't usually pick.
Each spring, Mother Nature provides the retired General Foods factory accountant with his favorite salad item. He likes them in oil and cider vinegar or in a simple homemade dressing, made with oil, vinegar, sugar and pepper. By late April, they become a subtle, somewhat bitter complement to mixed greens or iceberg lettuce, and by May they become a decent substitute for turnip greens or other wilted, cooked garden greens.
In fact, Mother Nature provides today much like it did back in the 1940s, when many area residents in La Salle, Peru, Oglesby and Spring Valley would collect watercress from clear cool waters in late winter, fill pails with dandelions in the parks and along roads in April, and harvest morel mushrooms in late April, wild mustard greens before the flowers came on in late spring and strong wild mustard seed in late summer. Strozewski sees fewer people gathering greens or wild asparagus along roadsides these days, and for good reason.
"I don't know anybody who hardly picks them anymore," the Shippingsport man said, noting that a lot of people have logical concerns about the insecticides, herbicides and other sprays used on lawns, parks and along roadsides.
He said he only collects greens if he knows exactly what they are and if he knows exactly what chemicals have, or have not, been applied to them. He figures the greens on his property are safe and poison-free.
"Years ago you could pick dandelions anywhere because there was no chemicals sprayed on the lawns, and today you've got to be very cautious," Strozewski said.
He buys lettuce, just like anyone else, but if dandelions are available and tender, he will use them. He likes their endive-like flavor. And he doesn't give them away. "It's too much work to pick them."
But some other Illinois Valley residents who like greens and soul food wouldn't eat dandelion greens if they were free. And they are.
Sue Wallace of La Salle grew up in Arkansas, where the delicacy was "poke salet," made from the pokeweed in early spring, cooked with bacon or pork hocks and then scrambled with eggs. Wallace misses that dish, and her sister, who lives in Wichita, Kan., religiously travels to fetch the greens in Arkansas, where they're plentiful.
The leaves cannot be eaten raw.
Wallace said she's tried a lot of types of greens "and they were good, but not as good as poke salet." And she never tried dandelion greens.
"Never been that hungry."