Dandelion Fest: enemy weed to edible green

What does it take to turn your enemy into a friend? A May 7 visit to Wisconsin’s Holyland – the German-Catholic towns that dominate parts of Calumet and Fond du Lac counties – will help sort things out, if the subject is dandelions.

Activities at the state’s only known Dandelion Festival aim to elevate respect for the ubiquitous springtime plant. That means making notecards with dried dandelions, walking an outdoor labyrinth amidst dandelions, creating yellow-green hats, hearing stories and music about the plant, peering through a magnifying glass during botany lessons, watching how wine from the weed is made and buying artisan breads and muffins that contain the flower.

Event sponsors – the Fond du Lac County Audubon Center, Open Circle Unitarian Eco Food Committee and SUNSEED Eco-Education Center (part of a Mt. Calvary home for about two dozen nuns, the festival host) – say the notion of using instead of abusing dandelions exceeds novelty.

“They’re so maligned but so important,” says Diana Beck of Fond du Lac, in defense of the dandelion. “I’m championing their cause.” She is an event organizer and considers it “a motivator to get people to stop spraying their lawns.”

Stop the use of chemicals for three years, and your dandelions are ready for plucking and cooking. The greens resemble slightly bitter spinach, and the flowers contain a slight honey taste.

No need to take our word for it. About 20 entries at the inaugural event’s recipe contest in 2010 proved the dandelion’s versatility as a cooking ingredient. The leaves or flowers showed up in lasagne, wine, tea, soup, savory appetizers, desserts, sauces and syrup.

“It was like a miracle to me,” says Jane Dennis of Fond du Lac, who entered the syrup, which she drizzled over cornbread. “I had never cooked with dandelions before this.”

Diana, who says she’s long had an interest in wild plants, foraging and “dandy cooking,” considers the dandelion an excellent food source. “Why are we poisoning it,” she asks. “There’s nothing as nutritious” because of the plant’s high levels of calcium and beta carotene.

“If it kills the plants, you know it’s not good for you,” she says, regarding weed killers, and declares “you could be eating (nutritious, free and natural food) before the garden ripens.”

She calls the average weed-free lawn “an ecological desert. It’s like putting a green carpet outside, one that supports nothing because it’s land that’s been removed from the eco-system.”

The festival represents SUNSEED’s ongoing priority to help others follow a healthy and sustainable lifestyle. The School Sisters of Notre Dame, in Mt. Calvary since 1852, began their religious community with two log cabins and nuns as teachers for the area’s girls.

On the hilltop’s 36 acres today are woodland, swamp, an organic garden and re-established prairie. The nuns raise chickens and make soap.

SUNSEED’s other food and sustainability events “apply to so many things we do and their impact on the Earth,” says Sister Mary Ann Srnka, Eco-Education Center director, who has lived at the convent 10 years.

“To spend so much money to have picture-perfect lawns is such a contradiction,” she believes.

For more about the Dandelion Festival, which is 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 7: www.fdlaudubon.org, 920-922-7931. Notice the link to recipe contest rules.

Festival admission is free. The sampling of contest entries, noon to 1 p.m., costs $2.

For more about the festival site, SUNSEED Eco-Education Center, 110 Notre Dame St., Mt. Calvary: www.ssnd-milw.org, 920-753-2131.

On the outskirts of Mt. Calvary is Villa Loretto and Cristo Rey Ranch, N8114 Hwy. WW, a Catholic-based retirement complex on 120 acres of farmland with a coffeeshop, gift shop and about 300 animals, cats to llamas, peacocks to emus, fainting goats to Clydesdales. Visitors may tour the grounds on their own; nuns or other staff arrange guided tours for groups. www.villalorettonh.org, 920-753-3211

Also in the community is the 150-acre St. Lawrence Seminary High School, founded in 1860. www.stlawrence.edu, 920-753-7500

Wisconsin’s Holyland – St. John, St. Anna, St. Peter, Jericho, Marytown and more – was settled in the 1840s and is east of Lake Winnebago. The Malone Area Heritage Museum, open since 2005 in a former train depot that is northwest of Mt. Calvary, documents the area’s immigration, farm and railroad history.

The museum, affiliated with the Wisconsin Historical Society, is open 2-4 p.m. Thursdays, the second Sunday of the month and by appointment. The contact is Richard Schaefer, 920-795-4773.

The Dandelion Festival is mentioned in “Sidetracked in the Midwest: A Green Guide for Travelers” ($23, Itchy Cat Press), which delves into four categories of ecotourism: food and drink, lodging and retreats, nature and wildlife, and the old and the new. The project covers rural to urban areas in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, plus sites of significance in Nebraska City, St. Louis, Kansas City and Indianapolis.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.