Looking to Nature for Food, Company and Wisdom
When I was in college, I ran a summer environmental education camp. We hiked with the kids every day, and our trail took us past a ditch by the lake where a water hemlock grew. The plant has lacy white flowers and bears a superficial similarity to wild carrot. The latter is edible. The former, deadly poisonous. I would eye the plant as we passed it each day, watching it as if it might lunge at me. The kids tramped past, oblivious, and I got the queasy feeling of standing at the edge of a height, or a subway platform, and recognizing how little prevented me from flinging myself off. It would have taken but a little trowel to dig up the gnarled root that could have killed our entire merry group.
Despite this, the idea of eating plants foraged from the wild always fascinated me. My father-in-law kept a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus in his basement, and my parents owned the complete set of Foxfire books, full of survivalist wisdom, and with instructions for a variant of hide-and-seek in which the hiders clamber up to the top of skinny trees and the finder must chop down those trees to win. It was evident, reading these sorts of books, that there was a bounty in wild foods to be had if one was willing to seek it out.
I am a runner, so I spend a great deal of time moving at a moderate pace along roadside verges. I get to know the daily progress of a dead porcupine’s decomposition, and hear the pelting rain of tent caterpillar dung on the leaf litter as the insects plow through the green canopy of the sugar bush. A number of exotic, invasive species thrive in the disturbed soil at the pavements edge, and many are edible. Japanese knotweed grows up in a dense stand by the stream bridge on my road, and in early spring, when the shoots are small, I consider harvesting some. They taste tart and crunchy, like a sour version of rhubarb. My knotweed patch is bathed in road dirt, salt and mounded dog feces, though, and my rhubarb tastes plenty sour enough, so I always move on by. The usual recommendation is to avoid foraging within a quarter mile of roads. In my neighborhood, that rules out knotweed, which has, fortunately for our native plants, failed to gain root purchase beyond those margins.
My romantic vision of the wild food harvester, an old man with a dun pouch hanging across his body, seeking out delicate ramps or morels in his secret spot in the woods, is driven from my mind more and more by these invasive species. There is no risk of overharvesting knotweed — quite the opposite. Garlic mustard is much the same, and spring here brings out bands of volunteers, pulling the plant by the trash bag full, trying to control its spread. There are broad swaths of it all over. It releases a chemical compound into the soil that lays waste to any other plants that are struggling to grow. It is its own Agent Orange. Garlic mustard makes a passable pesto substitute, flavored liberally with oil, cheese and, most critically, a pious feeling of self-satisfaction, since without that, one would have to admit it does not taste anything near as good as regular pesto.
I tend to miss most of the spring-harvested wild plants. By the time I shake free of my winter stupor, the tender green shoot phase of most things has passed. I have better luck with the late-season plants. The main limitation to my foraging endeavors is my lack of enthusiasm for cooking. This means I favor foods I can harvest and eat with little or no preparation. The best of these, to my mind, is sumac-ade. In the hot days of midsummer, when staghorn sumac berries steeple the bushes, you snap off the red clusters. They just need to steep in water overnight, or for a day or two. It’s the kind of time commitment I can handle. The first time I made it, I didn’t strain the juice well and got a mouthful of the furred fibers that encase the fruits. Still, the taste was sharp and humidity piercing in the dog days.
Before the sumac, in mid-June for just a very brief time, the cattails in the swamp by my house set their pollen. It’s hard to capture, requiring the shaking of the male part of the plant, a greenish hot dog at the top of the stalk, into a paper bag and keeping the wind off. It takes several of these flower clusters to give you a usable amount of pollen to sprinkle over oatmeal or add to pancake batter. I had an outdoor guide tell me once of an adage he’d heard — that if you’re lost and find cattails, you have four of the five things you need to survive: water (they grow in marshes), food (nearly the entire plant is edible), shelter (cordage made from cattail fibers can lash things together) and a source of fuel for heat (the fluff is good tinder). “What’s the fifth thing?” I asked him. “Company,” he told me.
Last winter I volunteered for a study sampling cottontail rabbit pellets for DNA. The work required tramping through thickets and tussocky shrublands, scanning the snow for nuggets of feces. I grew so focused on the task while out in my swamp one day in March that I almost walked straight into a cattail stand. I drew up and found myself face to face with the shaggy, impassive head atop the ramrod stalk. We were exactly the same height, the cattail and I, and after staring for a moment, I felt uneasy and rude in the quiet. “Hello,” I said to the plant, and stood a little while. Maybe they provide the fifth thing after all.
In a large jar or pitcher, place enough staghorn sumac berry clusters to loosely fill the container.(Harvest during dry weather; rain tends to lessen the flavor).
Add cold water to the container, covering the berries.
Leave in the refrigerator at least overnight.
When ready to drink, pour through a coffee filter into a glass.