I wonder if… you will try a new food

Missy wondered, “Will you try a new food?”

Were you were thinking perhaps of something made from kangaroo or wallaby? meatThey have many such products in the grocery stores, and last night some friends prepared a meal with minced wallaby. “Grass-fed!” Dan said it tasted like hamburger. I’ll let you know what he thinks of the open range, sustainable kangaroo steaks.

I prefer adventures with eating wild plants. When I arrived here, Peter took me on a walk around Windgrove and showed me many different plants that were all new to me. One kind of bush had lots of small white berries, and he told me that it was called native currant.

nativecurrents
Leucopogon parviflorus

He popped one in his mouth and offered me one to try. I did (a little nervously, because do you know what Maryland plants have whitish berries that you would not want to eat? Poison ivy and mistletoe!). It was just a little bit sweet, with a small hard seed. Every morning since then, I take a walk down to the beach and eat native currants on the way. The birds also like them, so the bushes are usually busy with breakfast customers. Another wild fruit that I tried is called native cherry. It doesn’t look or taste anything like the native cherries in Maryland, except that it’s red. It grows on a parasitic tree that looks like a pine tree, and its seed is outside of the fruit instead of in the middle.

cherry
Exocarpos cupressiformis

One of the edible wild greens along the trail is called coastal spinach or ice plant (Tetragonia implexicoma). Its leaves are very salty! There is also a plant with a pink flower called pigface that grows on the rocks along the beach. The leaves and seed capsule are also salty but juicy and tasty.

pink flower.jpg
Carpobrotus rossii

One day we had a visitor to Windgrove who was an expert at diving for seafood. When he dives, he holds his breath, so he has to know the animals’ habitat and behavior very well in order to catch them quickly. That morning he had caught abalone, crayfish, and butterfish – all new to me – and made a delicious stew for us.

Would you care to try any of these foods? Sadly, I won’t be able to bring them back with me; the airport biosecurity dogs would certainly sniff them out!

 

Edibles

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Finding and sampling wild edibles at school is something I’m willing to bet very few schools would allow, let alone encourage.  I can’t recall exactly how I got started teaching kids about sour grass (oxalis), making acorn pancakes and dandelion fritters, and collecting wineberries; it seems like it was always a part of being and learning outdoors.  Actually, they introduced me to wild onions, coming back from recess happily reeking. I didn’t grow up doing this, I am fairly certain.  Though I spent a great deal of time playing in woods and fields, my palate was not adventurous.  But when I started teaching science, I came across  several foraging books that intrigued me, and I began to experiment myself with safe, easily recognized plants. Kids quickly became curious, and when I was confident of my ID’s, I let them try sour grass (“no more than three hearts”), shell and nibble on an acorn, and eat garlic mustard and plantain leaves. Sometimes, the taste would make them spit with disgust (an acorn’s tannic acid, or a spicebush berry’s powerful flavor).  Along the way, I provided cautions regarding hazards: location (“Stay away from mowed areas, roads and paths) and plants to avoid (poison ivy, pokeweed, most berries). I was amazed at their accuracy in quickly distinguishing edible and poisonous species.

That spring day when, much to my astonishment, I found a morel mushroom growing in the Jemicy woods, I knew that10258374_661305690613599_6396863428621363374_o I would have to draw a line between the kingdoms of plants and fungi in terms of eating wild foods with kids. Mushrooms demand a different order of attention and respect. The kids could see my excitement, and my concern, and seemed unfazed when I explained that they would be unable to eat these – unless their parents requested that they bring some home for them to prepare – but that they held great value for me. For the kids, the pleasure was in the hunt, and the delight of discovering another “brain on a stick” hiding on the hillside.  They guarded the site and warned away anyone who seemed likely to trample chickensthe mushrooms.
This same protective attitude emerged the next fall when we found a dead log near the stream sprouting a wealth of bright orange sulphur shelf mushrooms: chicken-of-the-woods.  Again, I exclaimed over this bounty, and the kids seemed both curious and glad that I would be able to enjoy them. I hope that they will bring this enthusiastic attention to fungi along into their own adulthoods.

When we take hikes specifically to search for plants, “Is it edible?” is almost always the first question asked.  Curiosity about which wild plants can be safely eaten would seem to be an inherent trait, essential to survival. It also powerfully supports the notion that every plant can be regarded as affording some sort of human action, further stimulating the desire to know, to learn, to recognize what that affordance might be.