The Banquet of Life
Chard and Feathered
By Dave Stinton
Jan 9, 2008

I signed out of my Hotmail account and was taken to the MSN.com screen. It’s a collection of links to articles with headlines like “Is Your Boyfriend a Liar?" and “No, Trust Us: Your Boyfriend is a Liar.”

One story caught my eye. I don’t remember the title. Something like “5 Superfoods” or “10 Vegetables You Aren’t Eating – But Should Be.” The item that jumped out at me was Swiss chard.

It’s good for your eyes because of the amount of lutein it contains.

What is lutein? Apparently, it’s something that’s good for your eyes.

• • •

Turns out Swiss chard goes by several aliases, such as silverbeet, mangold, and “perpetual spinach,” all three of which are much more kickass names than “chard.” I found some in the produce section, bundled several fronds to a rubber band.

I’d never seen it before. For a kid, this would be a nightmarish Frankenstein’s Monster of a vegetable; it’s essentially a stalk of celery with a big leaf of spinach growing out of it.

On the way home on the train I idly rifled through some of the leaves in my grocery bag. One was tattered at the edges and punctured with tiny holes. I knew that the easily-creeped-out part of my brain was capable of plunging into fantasies of pests gnawing away at the chard, possibly still alive in my grocery bag. I brushed those thoughts aside.

On the next leaf was a small, light green, curled object. The easily-creeped-out part of my brain recognized it as a caterpillar.

It was immobile, possibly stunned by the cold journey from the store to the train. But an invisible thread attached its spinneret to the next leaf, so it performed a curt little bow when I drew the leaves apart.

This opened up a rabbit hole of squeamishness for me. Of course there were bugs in the produce section. How could there not be? It’s a huge, open trough of raw food! I thought of all the produce I’d consumed in my life, all of it teeming with insects. How many apples have I eaten whose skins writhed with hundreds of tiny beetles? How many crickets have deftly avoided my teeth to breed parasitical colonies in my digestive tract?

And the farms that provide the produce! They’re right out in the open for any vermin that pass by. I don’t know if you’ve been on many farms, but their nasty little secret is that they grow their plants right in the dirt.

In my kitchen, I set the stack of chard leaves in my sink. Gingerly, with the very tips of my fingers, I lifted one leaf at a time. Perhaps this was overly cautious, dealing as I was with a tiny and possibly dead caterpillar. But if it were still alive, it would feel cornered and disoriented, probably the most dangerous condition for a caterpillar to be in.

There it was.

Still motionless, but in a slightly different position than I remembered.

I pulled off the half of the leaf it was on and put it in a plastic bag, which I then immediately took down to the Dumpster behind my building. Then I returned to my kitchen and rinsed the hell out of the rest of the chard.

• • •

A week later, I rediscovered it in my refrigerator. Perhaps in an effort to escape thoughts of infestation, my brain buried the chard’s memory until I caught the leafy green tint of lutein out of the corner of my eye.

Deep in my soul, I hoped the chard had rotted. It hadn’t.

So I started looking online for ideas of what to do with it.

I kept finding incredibly complex recipes involving huge lists of ingredients like pine nuts, gyoza wrappers, or Gruyère, or requiring exotic contraptions like triangular tart pans, deep fryers, or the broiler compartment of my oven. Either chard inspired flights of culinary adventure, or it was too bland or nasty to eat without disguising it.

Maybe cooking with chard was less a matter of preparing it and more a matter of distracting yourself from it.

Finally, I found a recipe that simply involved pushing the leaves around in some hot olive oil and garlic.

(You actually remove the stalks and boil them separately for a while before adding them to the leaves, further underscoring my sense that this is two vegetables in one. I can’t shake the suspicion that, if I looked close enough, I’d see tiny sutures. Swiss chard: the Feejee Mermaid of the vegetable world.)

The idea of sitting down to a plate of sautéed chard for dinner smacked of misery and destitution, so I added some baked chicken. (The breadcrumbs had a “use by” date of September 2007. This gives you an idea of how long things sit around in my kitchen: I let a substance that by definition is already stale, expire.)

The two went together very nicely. The plump, warm comfort of the chicken was embraced by the wilted, steamy, and vaguely sinister fingers of the chard. The chard itself was the greenest-tasting stuff I’ve ever had in my mouth. It was like eating forkfuls of chlorophyll.

• • •

I’d made enough chicken and chard to last until lunch the next day. When I microwaved them at work, they hadn’t aged well, like a couple that had given up on appearances. The chard looked even darker and wrinklier. The chicken looked a little jaundiced and seemed to slouch in the Tupperware.

Or maybe I was just seeing them better because of my increased eye health. My macula has never felt suppler.

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