Each spring, with a shovel and paper sacks in hand, my maternal grandfather foraged for wild edibles on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He returned from the wilderness with those same sacks stuffed full of wild onions, filling the air with the aroma of fertile soil. Grandma, Mother and my aunt took up positions around the kitchen counters to clean and trim the bounty. It’s hard to remember at what age I was allowed to help — being allowed to help is always more exciting than becoming forced labor — but I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11. If you’ve never cleaned wild onions or wild garlic, it’s no small task. The bulbs are small, which makes soily root removal delicate work, and many of the green shoots are woody and tough. Don’t let this description of tedious work dissuade you, though, because the feast is worth the effort.
From that early time until now, the wild food adventures continued. My dad was raised in the Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri, and he passed down the lore and knowledge of eating off the land. My husband and I, along with various family members, hunt morel mushrooms. We also forage for wild greens — nettles, cleavers, henbit, dandelion (leaves, buds and flower heads), plantain, chickweed, sorrel, dock, purslane, and more. In addition, we dig wild alliums, pick wild berries (which we use in cobblers and for making jams), harvest the occasional wild fruit tree (with permission, of course), and collect pecans, hickory nuts and black walnuts from native Oklahoma and Arkansas trees. We love wild foods so much, we even grow wild edibles in our vegetable, herb and flower gardens.
Over the years, part of the satisfaction with this way of life comes from researching wild foods: reading the works of Billy Joe Tatum, Euell Gibbons, and other wild foods authors; collecting identification guides; poring over numerous knowledgeable magazines; and learning recognition skills, botanical names, nutritional data and proper cooking methods. Joy is found in the knowledge that these undomesticated beauties come from unadulterated sources.
Collecting foods chock-full of nutrients, taking them straight to the kitchen for use, and then serving them fresh from the field is very fulfilling. Also, using some of these same untamed delicacies for healing during injury or illness brings a smile to my face.
Last fall, my dad found a woodland beauty that we’d not seen or eaten before: a hen of the woods, or better known as a maitake mushroom. The family was gathered for our annual fall campfire at my parents’ place, and my dad couldn’t wait to show us his discovery.
When he took us out to where it was growing, debate commenced. Do we leave it to make sure it reproduces, or do we take the chance and harvest it now? The decision was made, and we plucked this rare gem from the forest floor. Once it was in the kitchen sink for cleaning, its size and beauty was even more greatly appreciated. It was huge. We cooked it over the fire with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper. Reviews were mixed, with some declining a taste, but I thought it was delicious, just as was promised in everything we’d read. Apparently, this mushroom is considered quite a delicacy.
Culinary ways and means change with the generations. Cooking methods for wild edibles may not always be the same as those used by our ancestors, but the results are. Fresh, free, delicious foods found not far from the back door. To this day, our grown sons still tease me about preparing skillets and bowls full of greens, cut, pulled, or dug from the yard. “Eating out of the backyard,” they called it. Or, exaggerating their wild growing-up years by mimicking me, “Hey, boys, run out to the yard and graze for lunch!”
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