Death by Violets

| June/July 2006

For many years in my 20s and 30s, I worked as a landscape architect, which I greatly enjoyed. One of my largest projects was for a wealthy bachelor who owned several thousand acres of ranch land and chose a pristine location at the base of a bluff to build his home. He spared no expense: Stonecutters chiseled limestone blocks from the bluff behind the home’s site to create building materials for the house; workers dismantled a house in France for the 17th-century building’s massive doors; and artisans covered the bathrooms with Italian marble.

My first job was to rebuild the remains of the bluffs, featuring two 50-foot waterfalls with pools below and thousands of carefully selected plants. I spent two years there planting wildflowers, herbs and wild, edible water plants around the spring-fed ponds.

After the house was complete, the owner hired a private chef I’ll call Peggy, and her caretaker/chauffeur husband, Bob. Peggy knew I was enthusiastic about edible wild plants and culinary herbs, so we occasionally exchanged recipes, and when the homeowner was throwing a lavish party, Peggy would invite me in beforehand to taste and give her my opinion.

When spring arrived, lovely purple violets swept along the bluffs and creeks below the house. One day Peggy asked me to show her how to candy violets. I brought in a basket of violets, frothed up an egg white and we quickly had a few dozen violet blossoms drying on waxed paper.

“I had no idea it was so easy,” Peggy said with delight. There was to be a big party in a few days, a political fundraiser that would include the governor of the state, the attorney general, and other bigwigs, and Peggy had decided to use candied violets to decorate the desserts she was preparing. Bob would gather the blossoms, so I showed him a patch of violets near the house.

“Oh, yes, I can see. I know what to pick,” Bob said. His confidence reassured me.

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