A couple years ago, Joel and I saw the movie Defiance. It tells the true story of the Bielski Brigade, a group of Resistance fighters in German-occupied Poland during World War II. Not only did the partisans fight the Nazis, they rescued over 1,200 Jews from likely extermination and brought them into their forest camp, even though doing so could bring unwanted attention by the enemy. They survived there for more than two years.
I began to think about what would happen if, God forbid, we should ever be in a situation in which we would have to hide in the woods to save our lives. How would we survive, we who are so accustomed to buying everything we need in the supermarket or the big-box store? Sure, we have a garden in our backyard, but that would supply us for a couple of months at most. Plus, our garden is nowhere near the forest to which my nightmare scenario indicates we would flee.
Around the same time we saw the movie, I had decided to make a second attempt at growing asparagus in the backyard, my first having ended poorly a few years prior. Determined to do everything correctly, I searched the public library’s catalogue for information on asparagus and found a book titled Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Naturally, I borrowed it.
Much to my surprise, the book had nothing to do with cultivating asparagus. It was all about harvesting edible plants from the wild, and its author was none other than Euell Gibbons. You may remember him as the spokesman for Grape Nuts cereal in the 1960s. He was the guy who proclaimed, “They remind me of hickory nuts.” As a child, I had no idea what hickory nuts were, why it was important to taste like them, or how Grape Nuts tasting like them was relevant to my breakfast.
Anyway, the two ideas — survival and wild foods – conflated into a quest to determine if we could survive in nature. It turns out that my next-door neighbor, Jane, just happens to own the entire Gibbons series from her own wild food phase back in the 60s. She graciously left the books on my front porch with the message, “No hurry to return them.” I guess one taste of acorn meal muffins can last a lifetime.
While Stalking served as a great motivator, its black-and-white hand-drawn sketches did not suffice, in my mind, to keep one upright and breathing, regardless of how unsprayed the plant is. But today, sixty years after Stalking’s original publication date, we have Google. Although I don’t feel at all comfortable picking mushrooms based on an Internet photograph, I am okay foraging for other plants when photos are accompanied by thorough descriptions.
As Gibbons predicted, the variety of edible plants that grow on our hill was astounding. I began with the wild apple trees on the property. We have learned a lot about apples over the past few years. According to Michael Pollan, every apple seed planted will result in a different fruit – even those seeds from the same fruit. It is rare that an apple grown from seed results in a product good enough to be named Macintosh or Gala or Delicious. And, trust me, having sampled each and every wild apple on my property, I can attest to the fact that some are almost good enough to eat and some are absolutely horrible. The varietal apples that we buy in a store or at a farm stand grow on branches of the one-in-a-million good results that have been grafted onto wild stock. (Our experiment with grafting is another, sad, story for another time.)
As for our second mission, the wild pears in the yard, my mouth puckers and my spine still shivers from the memory of that particular taste test.
The third item on our to-do list was wild grape leaves (much better for stuffing than cultivated leaves). Joel is a good sport to accompany me as we set out on the country lanes and back roads of the Berkshires to gather leaves in plastic bags. On our first foray, he took any leaf regardless of its size or the number of holes in it. However, after a mere thirty seconds of training, he became a grape leaf snob, er, connoisseur.
So far, we have stuffed dozens of grape leaves and cooked up gallons of applesauce. Good for a start, but not for sustaining us in the long term. We need more variety, so on the agenda this weekend: chicory. I plan to make salad and sautéed chicory. And, if we can dig deep enough in the hard-pack clay in our yard, I plan to roast some chicory root to brew New Orleans style coffee.
I really do hope that what I am picking is, indeed, chicory. The plants on the side of the driveway do look exactly like the photos on the Internet and they grow exactly as the horticulture articles describe.
If we survive, I’ll write about it. As for those mushrooms, I have found an expert and look forward to signing up for her next class.