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The Harvest: Picking horta and making memories

Tuesday, July 2, 2013  | 

Next week, on July 9th, Chicago resident John Taris will go to court and face justice for his shocking unlawfulness: the picking of dandelions from a Chicago forest preserve. For plucking weeds from the ground, Mr. Taris received a $75 ticket and a court date. The Chicago Tribune‘s John Kass has more:

With so much crime in the Chicago area, from murderous gangbangers to those thug mobs and everything in between, it’s nice to know that law enforcement finally cracked down on Public Enemy No. 1:

He’s John Taris, 75, retired tailor and notorious dandelion picker.

Now this alleged criminal is facing a $75 fine for the terrible crime of picking a weed that most Chicagoans hate.

A few weeks ago he was hunted down by a Cook County Forest Preserve cop and caught red-handed in possession of dandelion greens. For an old man barely making it on Social Security, finding $75 to pay the ticket will be tough.

“They make me a criminal for picking dandelions in Chicago,” Taris told me the other day. “And all I wanted was something to eat.”

As Kass explains in his piece, horta hold a valuable place in Greek cuisine and culture. Horta are delicious and healthy, but they do much more than feed our body. The process of picking horta in America feeds our tradition and culture as well.

Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are when my grandparents would spot a plot of horta in a field during a long drive up north. Σταμάτα!, they’d call as they waved to my dad the driver, who promptly pulled over. Together, we would travel into the fields.

Me, my sisters and my Papou, who taught us to love the land and nature, and yes, to love horta too.

My grandfather, who loved nature, farming, and the earth, would explain how to choose the best ones. The tradition didn’t stop even as I grew older. In my teens, it was my yiayia, the mavrofora now, who would be the first out of the car, armed with a beaming smile, bags and small knives to get to work.

It didn’t take long. Usually no more than 15 minutes or so. But in those 15 minutes we harvested more than just dandelions. We harvested memories, values, and family bonds.

Some children cherish memories of their grandparents taking them to baseball games or the movies. I cherished our spontaneous stops along the country roads. They were the perfect bursts of Greek heritage on the otherwise all-American road trip.

As Kass points out, though, as ordinary as it may seem to Greeks and some other cultures, anyone pulling over to pull out weeds is a weird and funny sight to most. The comedian Basile even made it part of his bit on growing up Greek American:

Yes, it’s a weird sight. Yes, it may technically be “illegal.” But it’s an idiosyncrasy of growing up in a transplanted culture. It’s our way of picking up — literally I suppose — where our ancestors left off. It’s pulling over and taking a few minutes to remember that even in the midst of bustling American society, there is a part of us that recalls the cuisine, tradition and technique of the culture that runs through our veins.

For Mr. Taris, the cost of celebrating that culture in a forest preserve is $75. The act of preserving that piece of culture through generations, however, remains priceless.

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