A Taste of the Wild Side

Article from Community of a Plate

Wild Food Summit 2009

by Meredith Hart and Emily Larson

It is hard to get more local than finding your own food in the forest next to your campsite. Of course, it helps to have experts explain which plants are edible and nutritious, and which ones should be avoided like the plague. From cattails to wild mushrooms, and from plantains to wild sumac, there is a plethora of food in the natural world that we see daily but never view as food. The idea of bringing the wild into our lives was the theme of the fourth annual Wild Food Summit at the White Earth Rediscovery Center on White Earth Lake, White Earth, MN that occurred from June 17th to 20th. The White Earth Tribal and Community College Extension Service founded and hosted this event, and it grows and changes with each passing year.

Of all the events we will be attending for the Community of a Plate project, this one was probably the easiest to document, as we were literally picking the food ourselves, or standing next to the person who did, and all we had to do was point at the forest or the lake to locate the source. During our two days at the Summit, we learned about foraging for wild foods from highly experienced, enthusiastic people, many of whom have spent their lives educating themselves on plant identification and preparation. As for the rest of us, we were there to enjoy the food, the weather, and the company and to find out what was available in the wild that could be on our plates. We were certainly surprised.

The first day we arrived (the second of the Summit) was focused on harvesting wild fungi. In the morning, Tom Peterson, a professional mushroom cultivator, taught a class on the basics of mushroom identification. While the group crowded under a large a very local harvestwhite tent, he stressed the crucial differences between edible and poisonous mushrooms and where they can typically be found in the woods. After lunch, participants bushwhacked through the surrounding forest to gather mushrooms which they then brought back for Tom to identify, some of which later became part of dinner. We found ourselves stomping through shoulder-high grasses and collecting mosquito bites as we followed Steve Dahlberg, one of the Summit’s organizers on a search for edible fungi. Although we didn’t find anything significant enough to bring back to the group we did happen upon a small bird’s nest with four tiny eggs. The mother was nearby and audibly unhappy with our presence. Despite our empty hands, one of the younger participants, a teenage girl, hit the jackpot with a hefty find of Sulphur Shelf mushrooms or “Chicken of the Woods” as they are more commonly called. You may have seen them settling in on stumps and fallen trees, their flat, bright-orange brackets sitting atop one another. This type of mushroom is so called “Chicken of the Woods” because of its distinctive chicken-like texture and flavor, delicious in many different types of dishes. The dinner plans adjusted accordingly.

Other lessons throughout the day consisted of walnut and hickory nut cracking techniques with Mike Krebill, cattail harvesting with Laura Reeves, “sumac-aide” with Sunny Savage, and traditional clay cooking with Matt Mattson, among others. Kathleen, a regular at the Summit, shared stories and lessons that emphasized the power of the plant world and the value of giving back to the Earth. “My work is less about the food and more about the plant as self, soul, spirit,” she told us as she invited all the participants to become a part of her stories. Before each meal a small piece of each dish was thrown into the fire as an offering back to nature. The knowledge contributed by these individuals created a community of learning inspired by the bounty of nature. Francois, a seasoned forager who takes a leadership role in preparing the wild food, described the power of nature: “there’s something spiritual, the closer you are to natural things.” For many of the participants this was not their first year at the summit and most likely will not be their last.

Lunch our last day was almost entirely comprised of food harvested by Summit participants. The ingredients not harvested directly at the summit were grown and brought by participants to complete the meal. It included buffalo dumpling soup, cattail stir fry, grilled cattail rhizomes, curried chickpeas, rhubarb sauce, and fresh acorn bread. We chose to help harvest cattails, as we had absolutely no idea what part of the cattail you ate or how you would prepare it. We walked down to the lake with a big group of people and Laura Reeves showed us what to do. A few people waded up to their thighs in the lake and pulled the cattails up by the roots, then brought them to all of us sitting on the dock. The people in the lake were faster than those of us on the dock, so before we knew it, a large mountain of cattails rose before us. Despite the intimidating size of the pile, we sat on the dock, chatted about everything from carpentry to careers, and cut the inner white shoots out of the cattail. We ripped off the leaves, and cut the green stem off the cattail until all that remained was a thin, white, flimsy shoot, ready to be thrown into a stir fry. We dissected cattails for a couple hours while sitting on the dock, talking, laughing and enjoying the beautiful lake. In addition to the inner shoots, we harvested the rhizomes, a thick root with a tough skin and a starchy, fibrous center, and the male flower parts. The expert chefs wrapped the rhizomes in tin foil and roasted them on the grill, and mixed the male flowers into a curried chickpea dish. In total, there are five parts of the cattail you can eat: the inner white shoot, the rhizomes, the male flowers, the pollen, usually used with flour in breads or muffins, and the lateral rhizome shoots, small shoots often used in salads. We also saved the long, thin, rich green cattail leaves for weaving. After food harvesting, some women sat by the lake and learned how to weave with cattail leaves.

This plate was truly produced by the community. Everyone contributed to the success of this meal by participating at different stages of preparation, no matter of age or strength. While some waded in the lake to uproot cattails, others harvested the young shoots. While some found mushrooms in the forest, others cooked them in huge woks on the open fire. The entire community at the Summit worked together to create this plate while celebrating the sacredness of nature’s contributions to our meal, and our responsibility to give back.

The Wild Food Summit continues year to year because of the dedication of its organizers in creating community, education, and of course, delicious food. This is an event where people come for the comestibles and stay for the community. The success of the Summit will continue into the future as people absorb new values and knowledge and spread them throughout their own communities. As visitors, we were welcomed and encouraged to participate in the activities and now, being back in Minneapolis, find ourselves picking up plants from the ground and offering them to friends to eat. Like most new things, the skills we learned at the Summit will take some adjustment as we translate them into our daily lives, but will be incredibly rewarding once we do.