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.