How to Eat a Thistle

It was on a trip to Underhill village where I first learned that thistles are edible. It was late summer. The mountains had turned brown from the summer heat. But they were not completely colorless. Amazingly, certain hard-scrabble plants chose the height of these rainless months to bloom. Their colors were not the bright shades of spring, like the gold and white of the small narcissus flowers or the blood-red poppies. No, they were much more subtle – pale violets, aloe greens, dusty yellows. Late summer in the high desert was a different theme, and brought with it its own unique color scheme. I was reminded of Lilias Trotter, the missionary artist to Algeria who would comment on God’s artistry in pairing understated colors together in the Sahara, an environment where bright shades would come across as gaudy and ill-fitting.

Our guide was Zoey*, a longtime friend of my wife’s. Zoey was very proud of the village lore she had inherited and delighted to teach us things like how to make village cuisine, how to handle farm animals, and how to eat what grew wild on the mountainsides. This is an entire category of food in our local culture, one that to us initially looks like eating weeds. I remember once being on a spring picnic and observing an older couple as they pulled out knives and began to cut the grasses next to their picnic blanket, popping them into their mouths and chewing like a pair of happy elderly goats. Before long they had cut a decent-sized swathe out of the hillside behind their blanket, and, satisfied, lain down for a nap. There seem to be dozens of edible grasses, herbs, and other small plants that grow wild on the slopes of our corner of Central Asia. And a skilled local will be able to snack on the bounty of the mountains on any given picnic or day of shepherding on the slopes.

Zoey was taking us to an ancient swimming hole tucked into a nearby valley where Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and Muslims had all once lived side by side. We were descending a dusty trail when Zoey motioned for us to pay attention. Grabbing two flat rocks, she snapped off the head of a nearby thistle, a spiky ball still partially covered in tiny violet flowers. Setting it on one of the rocks on the ground, she then proceeded to use the other rock to smash the sharp spikes off of the core of the bud. What emerged was a cream-colored ball, pock-marked like the center of a dandelion when you’ve blown all the wispy things off, and about the size of a marble. She gave it to us to eat and proceeded to harvest several more.

The thistle core had a nutty taste, similar to the flavor of an almond, but with grassy notes. I had the sense that if it were roasted and salted, it could make for quite the yummy snack. As I munched, I looked around the dry hillsides. Thistles were everywhere, growing wild and swaying in the wind. I thought to myself that this was very useful knowledge if one ever found themselves on the run in the mountains, as so many generations of local freedom fighters had once been forced to do. In a season where the green grasses of spring and fruits like loquats were all gone, yet it was too early for pomegranates or olives, it was good to know the humble thistle could provide some sustenance if necessary.

I enjoyed thinking about the curious nature of this plant. Here was something that grew wild and needed no tending. It matured in the worst part of the summer heat. It armed itself with fiercely sharp spikes. And yet a secret edible treasure was hidden in the middle of its imposing crown. Apparently, even in a world overrun with thorns, common grace means that some of these thorns can provide food for the needy. And though the knowledge of edible wild plants is increasingly an obscure field of study, they are still out there, growing and blooming just in case. How very kind of the creator to populate our world with so many thousands of these small acts of care.

Several years later I was out driving in the mountains with some teammates and local believers. We had come to see a waterfall, but it was a drought year and it had unfortunately all but dried up. I did find some baby toads in the mud to bring back for my kids, but for a while our crew just wandered around in the rocks trying to figure out what we should do now, with Mr. Talent* guiltily trying to explain how yet another outing he had planned had gone awry. We were several hours into the mountains, it was getting toward supper time, and we were starting to get hungry. As it was once again late summer, I noticed all the spiky balls poking up out of the dry grass. My edible mountainside lessons from Underhill village suddenly came back to me.

“Hey guys! Anyone want a snack?” I said as I started gingerly plucking off the heads of several thistles by the side of the road. I looked around for some good rocks to serve as my hammer and anvil. Rocks are never hard to come by in the stony limestone terrain of that region, so I soon had my own setup going similar to what Zoey had once showed us. The foreigners with me were perplexed, but to my surprise, so were all of the local guys.

“They’re thistles, we can eat these!” I said, expecting nods of comprehension from the local men. But these were city boys, and apparently the gap between village knowledge and city folk was wider than I had expected. True, eighty five percent of our people group now live in the cities and only fifteen percent in the villages, the direct opposite of forty years ago. A lot of traditional knowledge was bound to be lost in this kind of huge demographic shift. But I was still surprised that I was the only one in the group who didn’t seem weirded out by the concept of eating a thistle nut.

I beat the barbs off of a small pile of thistle cores and popped one in my mouth, and once again enjoyed the nutty, grassy flavor. But my audience of skeptics was a hard crowd to win over. In the end, only one TCK and one local brother was willing to try my wilderness snack. The reviews were mixed, but not entirely bad. And I consoled myself that if any of these brothers did ever find themselves stuck in the mountains without food, perhaps they would remember, as I had remembered through Zoey, that they could indeed eat the spiky painful plants growing wild all over the mountainsides.

The same goes for you, dear reader. Should you ever happen to be stranded in a Central Asian wilderness, or other similar terrain where thistles grow wild (Scotland?), know that with the aid of a couple good rocks you too can eat the hillsides.

*names changed for security

2 thoughts on “How to Eat a Thistle

  1. Another great post! I would definitely be willing to try them.

    I love Lilias Trotter’s book, and of course, found out about it through Elisabeth Elliot. I was very pleased to be able to find it on Kindle. As I’m sure you well know, Mrs. Elliot used Miss Trotter’s drawings in Path Through Suffering. Thanks for the reminder to revisit these treasures!

    God’s provision is abundant, merciful and very present!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When providences are difficult, spend some time to learn from those in the lands! Instead of casting off these small dangers, see the rock breaks off the edges to find a bit of humble sustenance. Take a small portion from his word and find a bit of rest in that desert of small flowers.. =)

    Liked by 1 person

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