Jul 13

Non-Fiction Friday: Stalking the Wild Asparagus

I can’t get my kids to eat their vegetables at the dinner table. This isn’t news to most parents of course. I was the same way as a kid I suppose. If you tagged along with us on a hike deep into the forest, though, you would see a different side of them both. They won’t turn down Indian cucumber roots or scoff at the chance to chew on wild carrot or sourwood leaves. There is no more delightful experience to them than getting a ripe huckleberry or service berry before the birds beat us to it. They get this from me. I passed it to them. I have been studying and eating wild foods since I was a teen. It started one day in my high school library when I happened to pull a book off the shelf written by a man named Eull Gibbons. It was about wild food and how to enjoy it. I was hooked immediately.

I don’t know why the thought hadn’t occurred to me earlier that there was a world of culinary fascination outside of what I had been exposed to. I spent as much time alone in the woods as a child as I ever did in the company of other people. I had seen most of these plants before, recognized them long before I knew what to call them or that they could be eaten or used in some way. I suppose that up to that point the two worlds were separated in my mind. There were the things that interested me, the things I studied about, the world of theory. And then there was the world I inhabited. Sometimes they overlapped but not that often. Here was a book that promised to bring those two worlds together in a big way.

Prompted by this one book I began a journey of exploration. I studied, experimented, scoured the woodlands at some faint recollection of a plant I had seen years before. I learned about the toxic plants and how to distinguish them. I dug roots and peeled bark and ground up seeds and grains. I immersed myself in the ingenuity of tribes that originally acquired this knowledge. I learned to build primitive shelters and fires. For as long as my memory can trace back I have been drawn in some magnetic way to the tree line and what lies beyond. It is like a membrane that absorbs me. I become part of the scenery, I blend. As a kid It was just familiarity. I was comfortable in the woods. I wandered far and wide but I always felt the tether of the civilizing world tugging at me. I needed that world. It was essential to my survival. In high school something changed. Now, when I stepped into the forest, I was coming home. I was no longer tethered to civilization by some thread of necessity. Every time I came back to the modern world it was because I chose to be here. Every time I visit some grand nature preserve or park and look out over the vast expanse of unspoiled woodland, I know I could fade into the canvas of greens and browns in a moment if I chose to.

The book isn’t a field guide. There are no detailed pictures or scientifically precise descriptions to help identify the wild foods it speaks of. It is a personal testimony. It is at times a cookbook. It isn’t written for a survivalist audience. It has done for many exactly what it was intended to do, inspire a lifetime of learning, joy and respect for a world and ways of life too easily forgotten by those of us caught up in the cycles of modern life. If you have no experience with these things it will likely spark a curiosity hard to resist. If seeing cultivated strawberries at the grocery store brings back memories and longing for the sweet, wild counterpart. If you drive by a wooded lot after an early summer rain and the smell prompts you to stop and hunt for morels. If your heart warms at the thought of fresh sassafras root tea or you get a twinkle in your eye remembering how your first ripe, golden may apple tasted, then this is a book worth reading.

Stalking the Wild Asparagus is a piece of history and not just for me personally. Many who are considered pioneers or innovators in the field of wild foods or various incarnations of gastronomy au naturale have taken their early inspiration from Eull Gibbons. Read the book. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

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