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Nibbling Bark Isn't Foraging
Bil Gilbert
March 27, 1978
It's the pleasure of tapping maples, picking poke, making the pawpaw connection: in fact, like a quarterback, taking what's given you
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March 27, 1978

Nibbling Bark Isn't Foraging

It's the pleasure of tapping maples, picking poke, making the pawpaw connection: in fact, like a quarterback, taking what's given you

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Whatever the reason, blessedly it affected only the morels. Chanterelles, yellow vase-shaped fungi that grow best on mountainsides under heavy deciduous or evergreen shade, were in at least regular supply. Oysters were in absolutely marvelous abundance. Choosing among these three species solely on gastronomical grounds is silly, like trying to rate ambrosia, nectar and manna. But for a variety of practical foraging reasons I am inclined, especially after last year, to give oysters the nod. They are cosmopolitan, being distributed across much of the country, and have a long fruiting season, appearing in the spring, slacking off in the hot weather, but coming on again strong in the fall and lasting until early winter. Last year had a lot of cool, moist weather, which they like, and oysters were there for the foraging in all but three months—January, February and July.

Oysters got their common name because they are usually dead- to cream-white in color, ovalish in shape, fleshy in substance. Individual caps are large—up to a foot across—and they grow, mostly on dead wood, in clusters of a dozen or more caps. Consequently, they are very easy to spot, and once you have found a colony it will always provide at least one meal and often several. You can do with oysters what you do with any mushrooms—put them in soups, salads or hors d'oeuvres, but we purists deride such mincing uses. All that is necessary is to fry them in butter, for 10 minutes or so, until the moisture has stewed out and the edges begin to brown and curl. So prepared, three or four of the big caps will make a substantial main dish that tastes something like a combination of good steak and fresh shellfish, and provides all the explanation any rational person needs as to why there are such crowds of wild-mushroom hunters.

The mushroom is a classic example of a wild thing that is not only edible but also preeminently worth eating. There is a lot of other flora that, while technically possible to ingest without harmful effect, gives very little sustenance or pleasure. As far as I am concerned, there is a whole mess of late spring and early summer herbage that falls into this category: knotweeds, pigweeds, lambs'-quarters, milkweeds, land cresses, plantains and a whole tedious assortment of docks. A good many contemporary authorities are very big on these weeds and have touted them in books, on TV and, for all I know, in art movies—perhaps because there are so many of them that a few remarks about each will give nice heft to a manuscript. Artistic value aside, most of this greenery tastes like either bitter lettuce or bland okra. Also, it is so common as to provide little in the way of exciting foraging.

Before setting forth to browse on such plants it is well to review certain historical facts. People have been into eating for a long time, during which they have investigated much of the flora, captured all they could of it, and put it into gardens and farms. The edible species left in the wild tend to fall into one of two broad categories. First, there are things like mushrooms that are very desirable but have stubbornly resisted domestication. Second, there are plants like, say, curly dock that could easily be domesticated (in fact, they are always forcing their way into gardens as weeds) but have not been because they make such sad, poor food. A good question to ask these herbs is, "Why hasn't the Jolly Green Giant caught you?"

So as not to be dismissed as an inflexible green-vegetable bigot, I will gladly admit there are exceptions. Mixed with cream cheese, watercress makes a passable sandwich, and it grows in boggy places that are usually a pleasure to visit. Day-lily buds, boiled and buttered or fried in batter, are not bad. Both are at least semi-domesticated, the former being available in better fresh-vegetable markets and the latter in Oriental specialty shops. A more curious exception is poke, which grows everywhere, including through stone walls. In the spring it sends up big bundles of tender green shoots that are at least as good as asparagus but have a nice peppery taste all their own. Considering how hardy, prolific and tasty it is, it would seem that the Giant would have caught the poke long ago. In parts of Europe this native North American plant is grown in gardens. Here it is generally left in the wild, probably because it scares a lot of people. The difficulty is that while poke shoots are agreeable, they turn ugly as they age. The mature stalks, leaves, berries and, especially, roots contain phytolaccin, a drug with both cathartic and narcotic properties, which, in theory, is potentially lethal.

Before we leave this interesting if formidable plant, another foraging attribute of poke should be noted. Late in the fall, when there is not much greenery, poke roots should be dug up. If nothing else, this is a very good exercise, because the roots are about the size of a Pekingese and have a great talent for wrapping themselves around rocks. The crown of the excavated root will be peppered with a lot of little green knobs. If the root is taken into a warm house or basement, planted and treated more or less like an indoor lily bulb, these bud knots will start sending up shoots. They can be picked (after which more will appear) and eaten, giving welcome relief from the spongy Florida and Texas truck produce that is about all that is otherwise available during Northern winters. If the shoots shoot faster than they can be eaten, that is all right, too. They will turn into large, coarse houseplants that are no uglier than philodendron.

Certain feral rabbit foods aside, during the nice summer days, respectable foragers concentrate on berries, for several good reasons. In the first place, though they may not be as superior to their domesticated relatives as wild mushrooms are to tame ones, feral berries are still better. It is well to remember that the object of most domestication is to maximize quantity and appearance, rather than quality. To get bulky, cosmetically appealing berries, the taste nodules are often compressed or eliminated.

The thorns on most wild bushes are much thornier than those on tame plants, but this is not all bad. Brier patches, even in very settled places, often amount to mini-wildernesses. In the middle of a stand of ferocious blackberry canes one is seldom troubled by salespersons, muggers or pollsters. They are also fine places to become better acquainted with nesting birds, woodchucks, snakes and a lot of interesting bugs.

In addition, unlike a lot of foraging that is solitary (either because practitioners cannot get anyone else to share their passion or because they don't want anybody along with whom they may have to share what they find), berrying, which goes better the more hands you have, has a long social tradition. After the hard work of planting corn and taking scalps was finished, the Iroquois made a festival out of berry picking, using the occasion for gossiping, cracking jokes, arranging treaties and plotting wars. More recently, but still a long time ago, there were always a couple of fine midsummer days, at least in the St. Joe River valley of southern Michigan, when extended family groups would take an informal holiday, pack a picnic and go off into the brambles to pick berries and have a little fun.

Such customs have deteriorated, but even so, during the lush 1977 berry season we were able to put together a congenial party of mixed pickers: two daughters, one daughter's boyfriend and three golden retrievers. The daughter-boyfriend team was handicapped, having only two free hands for the unit. The unattached daughter's concentration was poor by reason of her having to pay close attention to a disc jockey who was giving important announcements via portable radio about something called the Top 40. The dogs, however, did very well. Frightened of grouse, unwilling to fetch anything more useful than wet sneakers, they are splendid berry retrievers. If they have to, they will worm their way deep into the briers, nipping off and gobbling down the fattest berries, although they prefer to lurk about until a berry pail is left unguarded, then muzzle in as if it contained sweet kibble.

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