Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Going Wild

As I have already mentioned I spent about half of my first 18years in Alaska. Like most people who spent time in Alaska, my family and I ate wild. It isn’t uncommon for a friend or even a friend of a friend to swing by your house or in my case more often than not the boat with fresh wild food. I recall eating octopus that some friendly gents at the cannery caught on their off time, deer meat and bear sausage shot by some friends in the Native village near the cannery, fish, various berries and plants. When we moved to Oregon I remember my mother having an edible mushroom book and spending weekend hikes on the lookout for morels. But I realized a few years ago while on a hike with a friend how uncommon this type of life style is.

A couple years back while walking up a rather large hill with a  group of friend I subconsciously pulled some small red berries off a bush and began eating them. When I looked at my friends and saw their shocked faces my first instinct was “Is there a bear behind me?”, being from Alaska this was a normal response but we were hiking in Oregon rather close to decent sized town and they all just laughed at me. After a few confused few minutes on both parties I managed to work out that the concern was actually with the berries, Coastal Huckleberries actually. But they didn’t know that. Or if they had any recollection that there were in fact edible berries in the coastal range in Oregon they in no way knew what they looked like or would be confident enough to eat a large amount of them. I assured them all it was fine, but they refused to eat them and fearing perhaps a berry induced spontaneous zombification they kept an eye on me the rest of the day.  The whole hike I kept thinking how funny these people were, being terrified of some innocent berries no bigger than a pencil eraser. It was only later that I put my background and my confidence in eating wild things in perspective. The terrified friends weren’t the weird ones, I was.

{July 2011 Astoria Oregon}

Being weird is fine by me, but that is beside the point. The whole experience made me realize how seldom most people get to eat wild foods. In hindsight I am a little in awe of how amazing it was getting to eat so many different foods that have never been touched by human intervention (other than cooking it). These pure organisms, that evolved over millions of years being perfected for their environment by their environment has resulted in some amazingly diverse and unique foods. And the taste really cannot be matched by anything cultivated by humans.

Huckleberries for example are a diverse group of plants from the family Ericaceae. The plant grows all over the North America in different environments and thus has a varying look and flavor. In Nova Scotia the plant grows in bogs and have a blackish color. Huckleberries growing in eastern Oregon and Washington are Mountain Huckleberries, they are large, blue and very sweet. My favorite Huckleberries are the small, tart, red berries that can be found in the coastal range of the Pacific Northwest. They like cool, damp, acidic soil and because of their specific needs have managed to thwart my every effort to grown them in my back yard a mere 40 or so miles from their native home. But every plant is adapted to a certain environment when you poke and prod and breed a plant to grown in a place is doesn’t naturally grown in you wind up with a totally new plant, that bears slight resemblance to its wild cousin but tastes worlds apart. In the case of a wild Huckleberry if bred to grown on the eastern side of the Oregon coastal range you’ve created essentially a  blueberry.

Currently the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde are trying to protect the remaining wild edible plants of the northwest. Sadly in the last 70 years or so most have been killed off by development. As sad and staggering as the number of extinct wild plants in the Willamette Valley is, there are still many more to be enjoyed and protected. If you even have the opportunity to eat something wild do so with reverence and joy. It’s a rare experience to taste such amazing foods, one that hopefully with last.

{July 2011 Astoria Oregon}

*Trivia about Huckleberries - The Coastal Native tribes not only ate and dried the berries for year around eating. But they also used them to bait their hooks because the relative size and color so closly matched salmon eggs.

Though this is in no way an endorsement to go out and eat the next plant you find. Talk to experts, read up on plants and ALWAYS respect the native habitat. And if you aren’t 100% confident in what you are picking do not pick it. Oregon doesn’t have a lot of poisonous animals but are plants can be pretty wicked.

{July 2011 Astoria Oregon}

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I had the same experience last year on the wildwood trail. My hiking partner, and some random passersby were very concerned about my sanity and safety as I tossed back every huckleberry I could find. It is a gift to have grown up being exposed to plant life as food!