Monday, May 16, 2011

Edible Seasons


Ramp season has come and nearly gone in the Allegheny Mountains. The last few weekends, I’ve spent countless hours with my fingers in the dirt, trying to get them up by their roots – avoiding breaking them off at their stems. Some I pickled, some I froze, some are still hanging from my window frame drying in the sun. Some went straight into biscuits.

Just in time to take their place, the dandelions have arrived. The flowers can be battered and fried into dandelion fritters, their roots can be roasted, ground, and steeped into tea, and the leaves make excellent salad greens – all packed with vitamins. In Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons writes, “this herbal hero, one of the most healthful and genuinely useful plants in the material medica of the past, is now a despised lawn weed. Now that supermarkets sell green vegetables throughout the winter and druggists are vending tons of synthetic vitamins, we no longer need to depend on the roots and leaves of this humble plant to ward off sickness and death, so we have turned on the dandelion. Every garden-supply house offers for sale a veritable arsenal of diggers, devices and deadly poisons, all designed to help exterminate this useful and essentially beautiful little plant which has so immensely benefited the human race.”

Morels are out now too, though I haven’t seen any of these mushrooms that blend in so well with the forest floor. Before long, chanterelles will pop up in the mossy banks of Big Run. Chicory, a close relative of the dandelion, with many of the same uses and benefits, will appear in summer. So will yarrow, bee balm, mint, and st. john’s wort, all of which are excellent dried and brewed in tea. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries will cover the meadows near our observatory and flood zone along the headwaters of Big Run.

In fall, the trees will begin to fruit. That is, if the frosts this past week didn’t prevent it. Apples and hawthorns can be boiled into jellies or pressed and mulled into cider. Pears and paw paws as well. There are a lot of benefits to living on Spruce Mountain, but being surrounded by a constantly rotating supply of wild edibles is one of the better ones. One thing grows as another is fading out, just as the sun takes the place of the moon each dawn. The human race has long since phased out hunting and gathering as its primary means of sustenance. First, we cultivated plants where they would naturally grow. Then we started trading them, first on foot from town to town and now from continent to continent by plane and ship. An entire planet’s food geography is condensed into any given supermarket. We’ve devised new methods and chemicals to make things grow at exasperating rates. Meanwhile, every other species on Earth continues to hunt and gather.

In the past few years we’ve become more aware of the food we’re eating: where it comes from and how it grows. More and more people are buying organic food and planting small victory gardens. My friend in Brooklyn adopted a small square of unoccupied dirt in the courtyard of her apartment building to plant ferns and heucheras. My friend in DC grows hot peppers in a small box in his window.

Living in a place with such a bountiful natural harvest, I see little need to plant anything. For me, there are no simpler and purer things to eat than what is already growing, in places where they are meant to grow and in quantities which the topography and climate have dictated. Of course, I don’t have nearly the knowledge or ambition to subsist only on a natural harvest. I merely add it to whatever the world has funneled into my supermarket and subsequently my kitchen.

After awhile, the snow will come and the last of the wild edibles will be all but gone. Everything will shut down, at least on the surface. The spring will follow and the maple sap will start running. I’ll wake up before work and crunch over the snow to tap the trees and use the sweet water to brew coffee and tea and make syrup. In early April the sap will stop running and by that time the ramps will be up again. Humans are no longer dependent on the edible rhythm of the seasons, but these foods are all around us - whether we harvest them or not. -JPD

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