Lucette of Cooking Vintage tapped me with the magic meme twanger for the meme that is travelling across the food blogosphere: “Five Things To Eat Before You Die.”
Lots of folks have answered with some beautiful, unusual and local (to them) foods that are truly inspiring.
But, I want to take a slightly different approach. I don’t want you to just eat something before you die–I want you to hunt, gather, kill, prepare and -then- eat it before you die. I want you to be fully engaged in the process of finding food in the wilderness and then consuming it.
In other words, I want you to try out eating like a hillbilly.
I want you (especially you city folks) to step out of your ordinary reality for a little while, and immerse yourselves into another world, a world that is precious to me, and which I miss living in the midst of. I want you to take a walk in the woods, not just once. Not just twice. Not just for vacation. But I want you to go out into the woods and observe, silently, and see, really see–with all of your senses–what is there. If you are silent enough for long enough, you will discover, as I did as a child, that you can -become- part of the woods, and miracles large and small will make themselves manifest around you.
You will be able to see the dance of water-walker bugs on the surface of a stream. They wheel and turn and spin, pirouetting like ice-skater, until with a silvery flash from below, a brook trout emerges from her hiding place beneath a stone, and sucks one down her gaping mouth, then is gone in a shudder of iridescence.
Squirrels will cavort like mad aerialists above your head, their antics as they chase each other for sex, for territory for stolen food, for fun, amazing to behold. They are graceful in a completely wild way, in a way that we two-legged groundhugging folk cannot fathom, and I can remember many long afternoons watching them as I sat huddled in the shadow of a great oak tree, so quiet I had become invisible to them.
What five things do I suggest you hunt or gather from the woods?
Well, in truth, it is up to you. I suspect that if some of you watch animals in the forest going about their business long enough, you won’t -want- to catch and eat them. This never stopped me–I can, on the one hand, appreciate the lithe grace of a deer, and then turn around and enjoy the gustatory pleasures of a bowl of venison stew.
But, if I were to suggest five foods, all from the Appalachian woodlands, for you to hunt, gather, prepare and taste before you die, it would be these five seasonal delights–two from spring, two from summer and one from fall. (As for winter–winter is for resting, and reflecting. There isn’t much to harvest then–hopefully in winter, your harvest is already done and put by, and you are eatng from a full larder.)
Ramps: I’ve written a lot about these emerald beauties of the springtime forest. They are also known as wild garlic, wild leeks and ramsons, though most call them ramps. You can find them in farmer’s markets all through the Appalachian mountain region, but it is more fun to go gathering your own. They tend to like moist areas near creeks and springs, and they favor shady, deep humus with lots of leaf litter to grow in. There are very few plants that they look like–one, which is poisonous is a garden plant, and that is lily of the valley, but I will say this–it you confuse the two you have no sense of smell. Ramps -smell- strongly of garlic and onions. You cannot miss that odor.
Some people only cut the leaves, but I dig up the roots as well and use the whole plant. Just remember to be a good naturalist and not harvest entire clumps–leave some to grow new clumps for the years to come. Some woods, though, will teem with these lovelies–you will see them carpeting the forest floor. In cases like that, you still should harvest responsibly–leave parts of every clump to grow back.
They freeze well as chopped up roots and leaves, as ramp butter or as ramp pesto.
Morel Mushrooms: I am not a lucky mushroom hunter, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I have harvested shaggy inkcaps (I have photos of these, too, but cannot find the pictures–of course!) and young puffballs from my woods, but I have never found morels. I -know- that they are out there–because I have eaten them at friends’ homes. But they are hard to find. (My suggestion when it comes to mushroom hunting is for you to go out with an experienced ‘shroomer who knows what is edible and what is not. Take a guidebook, too, and when in doubt, don’t eat it!)
Hard to find or not, they are well worth the searching if you -can- find them. They are delicious, rich, and full of the earthy scent of the early spring woodlands. They like to grow under oak trees and pines, and they blend perfectly into the leaf litter, so they are really hard to find. (Inkcaps and puffballs are simpler–they grow in grassy swards and meadows.) Again, leave some to reproduce, and mark the spot in your memory and return next year–if you find a good morel place, you have a treasure for years to come.
Wild Blackberries: These grow all over the place in Appalachia–and in summers where there is adequate rain and sun, they yield heavily. Their flavor is, to my taste, more complex than that of the larger, juicier domestic varieties which you find at the farmer’s markets, and besides, you get the fun of braving copperheads, thorns and mosquitos to pick these yourself!
No, I have never been bitten by a snake while picking berries, but I have -seen- them lurking under stands of blackberry brambles. They are waiting for unwary birds, I suspect, but if you take a long stick or a hoe with you berry picking, you can beat the bushes and scare the snakes off before they scare you. There are no poisonous look-alikes to blackberries, wild raspberries, dewberries or any of the other summer bramblefruits, so pick gleefully. These tend to be found in liminal areas,at the edge of woods near old fields, meadows, on creekbanks, and on fairly open slopes of mountains and hills. On a good year, you can go out and pick five gallon buckets of them in a few hours, and still have eaten enough of them fresh from the vine to stain your lips and tongue purple.
They make the best pies and jellies in the world.
Trout: Well, I suppose if I can’t get you to shoot a wild turkey, a squirrel, a deer, a boar or a rabbit, I can probably get even the most citified of you to catch a fish. And there is no fish sweeter than a troat from a coldwater mountain stream. Doesn’t matter if I am talking about rainbow trout, brook trout or brown trout–they all have the sweetest flesh you can imagine. This was my most favored food growing up, and I didn’t care how it was cooked. Fried in cornmeal with a bit of bacon grease was beautiful, but so was broiled in butter with just salt and pepper and parsley for seasoning.
Trout fishing takes some skill and I haven’t been out to do it in years, but the results are so magnificent. Besides, it isn’t like I am saying you need to wade into the ice cold water barefoot and tickle trout and catch them with your bare hands like the Native Americans and the mountain men did! Even I, who can catch bass and bluegill with a net, can’t do that, though I have known a dog good enough to catch fish with his bare paws.
Black Walnuts: These native American nuts are treasures of the autumn woodlands. Both sweeter and muskier than the more common English walnuts you find at the store, they are rich and buttery in texture, with a pronounced, lingering scent.
They make you work for theier goodness, however, which is the case with most wild-foraged or hunted foods. They come wrapped in leathery green casings that mature to black; these fruits are filled with a compound which will stain your hands brown or black if you gather and work with walnuts without wearing gloves. This covering, which was used to Native Americans and settlers to make clothing dye, ink and stains for hides and wood, needs to be removed after you gather the nuts.
How do you gather them? Well, you find them on the ground, most often, in these often smushed or broken leathery black spheres. Watch for a lot of squirrel activity–they love these nuts as much as you will. Black walnut trees tend to be hugely tall, so climbing up and shaking the nuts down or beating the branches with sticks is not a good choice for getting more to fall. We just kept an eye on our trees and gathered affter most of the nuts had naturally fallen, usually in late October or early Novemeber.
After you peel off the outer covering, you leave the nuts themselves to dry for a week or so, depending on the weather. Once they are dried out, it is time to deal with the thick, rock-hard shells, which necessitate the use of a hammer and sometimes a chisel to get through.
We used to lay a tarp down on the concrete floor of the barn, and spread the nuts out in a pile in the center. Then, we’d all take our hammers, chisels and nutpicks, and grab a nut, and leave it laying on the tarp-covered concrete, and give it a mighty thwap. Sometimes this broke the nut, and sometimes it didn’t. If three thwaps didn’t do it, we’d pin it against the concrete with a chisel, and give it a good tap with the hammer, and that usually split it.
Then, we’d dig the nutmeats out with picks and our fingers, and toss them, sans sharp shell bits, into bowls Grandma had set out to collect them.
She always froze the nuts, and each year we gathered enough to keep us in nutbreads, nutcakes and cookies for the rest of the year.
Was all of the work worth it?
Working for your supper makes it have more meaning. It connects you intimately with the natural world, much more so than just running out to the grocery store and picking something up does. I am not suggesting that everyone has to “go back to the land” and live like our pioneer ancestors did–far from it. I honestly don’t think that such a life would suit very many people anymore. But, what I would like to see, is more people trying out this life–even if it is for only one meal–and seeing what it is like.
I guess I just know how much being able to wander the woods, fields and streams of Appalachia have meant to me in my life, and I would like to see more people experience that viscerally, by not only walking in the woods, but tasting them, also.
So there we have it–Barbara’s Field and Stream Edition of the Five Foods To Eat Before You Die Meme.
Thanks for tapping me Lucette–I hope you enjoyed my answers as much as I enjoyed writing them!
Note: All of the photographs in this post came from our woods that came with our house in Pataskala. I did a good bit of foraging from them–ramps, mushrooms, blackberries, violets, wild greens and black walnuts, mainly.I don’t much miss that house–it was pretty, but this house is much more “us;” but I do miss my rambles in the woods, and my huge garden.
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