Why wild food matters: wildcrafting as a gastronomic art

acorns in the shell

Yesterday we raked our suburban backyard and gathered acorns. After we pulled the leaves off the grass, there were piles of them scattered all around in the dirt. We gathered them up in a bowl and are now in the process of shelling them.

Why acorns aren’t eaten more in the US amazes me.   Acorns are high in protein and fats, are easy to harvest, and are everywhere, at least around here in Michigan.  But even the nut companies don’t market them.  Why?  If super-fruit marketers can introduce a new exotic fruit to fight cancer, cure baldness, and make your breath smell good, then why can’t we get a little respect for our humble, native acorn?

I admit one of the appeals to gathering acorns and a lot of other wild foods is that they are completely free and not found in grocery stores or in gas station snack bags.  They are not foods that are generally consumed.  They are foods that have fallen through the cracks of the marketplace.  Although many of these foods have advantages over the staple, modern American diet crops like corn and soybeans.  For example, hazlenuts and chestnuts can be used in place of these as they have very similar nutritional values, fat and protein content, with the additional advantage that they don’t need constant tillage, as much watering, and hence a lot of fossil fuels.

Wild foods are appealing for other reasons, too.  Many are far more nutritious than comparable, conventional varieties, less prone to insect damage and disease, and tastier, but even this does not explain the preference that some people have for them.  This preferential obsession instead, I think, lies in the propensity that some people have toward adventure and exploration.    The magic is in the hunt.

Thoreau talks about this in his Wild Fruits book:

The value of these wild fruits is not in the mere possession or eating of them but in the sight and enjoyment of them.  The very derivation of the word “fruit” would suggest this.  It is from the Latin fructus, meaning “that which is used or enjoyed.”  If it were not so, then going a-berrying and going to market would be near synonymous experiences.  Of course, it is in the spirit in which you do a thing which it makes it interesting, whether it is sweeping a room or pulling turnips.  Peaches are unquestionably a very beautiful and palatable fruit, but the gathering of them for market is not nearly so interesting to the imaginations of men as the gathering of huckleberries for your own use. (Wild Fruits, Thoreau. Pg4)

Going outdoors to gather food, in other words, is like participating in a giant, art installation designed to fuel the participants desire for food by making knowledge and play precede the eating. While the supermarket may give you a fair amount of food for your money it does nothing for the imagination.

In the spring my family goes to a local park and harvests wild leeks and garlic.(also sometimes spring beauty tubers, wild ginger, and  spice bush). This is a city park but it’s in a good amount of woods.  Many people hike the trails, but we go off of the trail, slide down a hill and follow the river back into a nice grouping of leeks where no one else is watching.  Seven years we’ve made our harvest, had the ability to freeze some for the winter months, even tried to pickle some one year (hint: Don’t do it.  They taste really bad this way),  and we’ve kept this place and its bounty, pretty much a secret.

We know of other places too.  There are mulberry trees behind a local apartment complex; a high bush cranberry down the street; dandelion, plantain, chicory, wild grapes behind a baseball field; and solomon’s seal and nettle in our backyard.  All of which has been observed by us, identified by us, picked by us, cooked and eaten by us.  We keep on hunting and keep on finding.  All the while our neighbors have no idea all the foods that are just a few steps out their door.

My brother-in-law just recently sent me a video on entomophagy or insect eating.  You can watch it below.  What interested me immediately about this video besides the subject matter was how passionate and knowledgeable the guy is when they go out harvesting.  He knows the genus and species of all the insects he collects, he knows their body parts and the way they function, and he even knows how to use the sex glands as an attractant to lure them to where he wants them to go.  Here is play and science and art all fused together.  This man knows his prey very well.

This is what we intend to share on this site, not only information about acorns and other wild foods, but also information on ecological systems, wild medicine, backpacking, fire starting, plant and animal identification, and a whole lot of other good stuff to help you get out and learn to be a little more wild.  We want you to how to glean from your environment knowledge, food, and play.  We want to help you participate in the art of the wilderness.

As for the acorns, in future posts we’ll explore how to sprout them, leech them, and use them.  We’ll also talk about all the  good nutrients the acorn contains, explore the niche that the oaks fill in forests, and discover other uses of the oaks besides its nut.

All of this in due time.  But in the meantime if you’re out raking, try the acorns. They’re nuts.

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