Sunday, January 3, 2010

Wild foods in urbania? Wild Grapes and Chicory

Just adjacent to my current neighborhood, Silver City, I have come upon small portions of vine, which I know to be wild grapes. The leaves cannot be mistaken, with their three separate points, the middle one higher than the two flanking it on either side. The deep purple, almost black berries grow in small bunches, and like the domesticated larger concords, often hide under a layer of leaves, so that, in order to find them, one must poke and prod. It’s really a shame, however, that I am extremely loath to eat these, since the part of the city in which I live has been an industrial wasteland for so long. Many are the chemicals that have probably leached into the groundwater and thus polluted any of the plants that have come to depend on this water. One has to wonder how many families could be fed just by wild plants alone, were the city not so polluted.

The very fact that so many dandelions and plantain plants have been poisoned by weed killer and that so much car exhaust settles on the leaves seems to make this a moot point. Too, bad, though, because these greens are extremely rich in vitamin A and protein, much like spinach. The grapes are rich in vitamin C.

There are two herbs known to dwell in urban areas that make wonderful tea: gill-over-the-ground and yarrow. In addition to these is the ubiquitous chicory. With its pale-blue flower, there is so much of it that this could constitute an industry in itself in the Menomonee Valley.

One day this summer, on my way back from biking, as I rode along the almost abandoned industrial throughway from 6th St. to the Pick and Save on 19th and National, I decided to stop and pick some of this root, well-known especially in Louisiana. The road workers may have thought I looked pretty strange, but I didn't mind.

It took some work, but I finally pulled up enough of the stubborn taproots to make one tiny cup of chicory. Home I went with the roots peeking out of my tan shoulder bag. I washed them and cut off the endings. I roasted them in the oven at 350° until they were a rich dark brown. I cooled them off and then ground them in a standard hand-held coffee grinder. I decided to make the chicory in my one-cup Italian stove-top espresso maker. I mixed it with some soy milk. It was delicious! It has a smoky flavor that does bare some resemblance to coffee. Of course, it is the roasting that creates the taste. Dandelion roots can be put through the same process.

The fact that this drink seems to bring to the mind and palate the flavor of Americas’ favorite upper has to do with the fact that we are extremely overzealous with the roasting of our beans. Anything liquid burnt tastes like coffee. In fact, the coffee known as Ethiopian Sidamo contains a very brazen blueberry note, when the bean is not roasted for so long and at so high a temperature that the subtleties of the bean are lost. Many coffee beans from Central America are known for their citrus notes and an espresso I drink regularly (The National CafĂ© on 9th and National) is supposed to evoke not only Merlot, but chocolate and fruit. Now, not everyone will smell these with their “pif”- the French word for a nose that knows-, but we can all appreciate taste and smell if we concentrate on these senses that, along with listening, are very often lacking nuanced distinctions in our society. We’re all too quick to assume that we should just wolf down our food and drink to achieve the result (satiety and quenched thirst). Unfortunately, but for a growing minority, we are all product and no process.

Wild foods

At one time, we lived in a government-subsidized townhouse on the edge of the city of East Moline, Illinois. Because it was a new development, there were woods directly behind almost every outer row of homes. This was a boon for children who spent much time outdoors, as we all did for lack of anything else to do. I was one of these.

I spent many hours in the summertime traipsing through fallen tree trunks and small streams, giving way to yet another outlet for my culinary curiosity. At the tender age of ten, I clearly and distinctly remember the moment when my mother brought me to the bookstore to buy a copy of the Audubon Guide to Wild Edible Plants. The rich photos in the middle of the book had grabbed my attention, and I had to have it. Anyway, I had already seen some of the plants in the book, and wanted to know more.

From an adult perspective, it really seems unsafe at the very least that my mother allowed me to cavort in the woods alone, knowing fully that I was in search of edibles, and that some could be poison. I survived, very obviously, since this is not being written posthumously. I soon after acquired a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by the famous and much revered wild foods expert Ewell Gibbons. (I just recently read a short biography of this man, and it appears that part of his fascination with wild edible plants came from his own stint under the same watchful eye of poverty that kept watch over me when I was young.)

In the winter time there was a sledding hill that every child had descended at one time or another (against the warnings of all adults). At the bottom of this hill was a chain-link fence, and beyond was a stream. In the summer, the stream was full of cattails. I had read in the books that cattails were the wild equivalent to corn on the cob. Since I adored this vegetable, how could I not taste this plant growing so abundantly in such close proximity to our home?

I slowly climbed down the steep incline, slipping and sliding on the bare patches of dirt between what I had thought were groundnut plants, but in actuality were rue. Finally arrived at the bottom, straining to reach over the chain-link, I snipped a good ten cattails, still green and tender. I climbed back up the hill and crossed the street to our abode. I do not remember my mother objecting, so she may have been upstairs. I carefully followed the directions in the book, and snipping off the extra stem, I washed and boiled the spikes. When they were tender, I lifted them out of the pot, and dowsing them with salt and slathering them butter, bit into one. It was delicious. Everything in my mind wants me to remember a nutty overtone, with a texture quite unlike anything I had eaten previous. I cannot be certain of the accuracy of my souvenir. I should like to try them again some time.