Regular readers may remember a very similar column from about this time last year, but this year’s version isn’t merely something Casey Stengel would have called “deja vu all over again.”
Instead, I’m revisiting a topic that presents a viable way to enjoy the outdoors while we’re waiting to see when–or if–area lakes and rivers will return to normal.
Interestingly enough, women only rank second in the race to see which group shows the highest per capita growth in the number of members who have taken up hunting and fishing in recent years.
Vegans–reformed vegans might be a more accurate term–rank first. That’s not really as odd as it sounds, because true-believer nutrition fanatics are not only aware how difficult it is to ingest sufficient quantities of complex proteins without eating at least some meat, but they’ve also begun to understand that, with a few notable and well publicized exceptions, wild game and fish are less contaminated by man-made chemicals than are many so called organic vegetables, let alone domestic meats.
I have spent and will continue to spend a lot of time and energy helping people learn how to obtain their own fish and game, but I’ll admit I’ve given vegetables short shrift. After all, there are plenty of places in Missouri where a seemingly infinite variety of fruits and vegetables can be purchased.
Some of these products are culinary delights, most are at the very least palatable and–individual allergies or introduced toxins aside–none of them will make the average consumer sick, let alone dead. That being the case, why would anyone want to leave an air conditioned supermarket behind in favor of tramping about the hot, muggy, insect-infested countryside in search of edible plants?
First and foremost, turning back the clock a few millennia to a time when foraging was a necessity can be a lot fun. Of almost equal importance, wild edibles add zing to summer menus, both in terms of flavor and in terms of nutrition.
When people throughout the Midwest are asked to name an edible wild plant, the morel mushroom will be chosen by an overwhelming majority. That’s a shame, because, delicious though morels may be, there are dozens of mushroom species that are not only every bit as tasty but that also have longer growing seasons.
Fear of misidentification is the most common reason people give for avoiding wild mushrooms. Such fears are not totally unjustified. Some mushrooms are deadly. Others won’t kill you, but they’ll make you so sick that, at least for a day or two, you may wish they had.
Still others aren’t poisonous, but they don’t taste like anything you’d want to put into your mouth more than once.
Like many other activities, gathering mushrooms can be as safe or as risky as the gatherer chooses to make it.
The best way I know to stay out of trouble is to carry a reliable identification guidebook into the field every time your purpose is to gather mushrooms.
Cautious gatherers–of which I am one–can get all of the information they absolutely need from “Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms,” a well-illustrated pamphlet which is available at no cost from any Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) office, but “Missouri’s Wild Mushrooms” by Maxine Stone is a worthy addition to any outdoorsman’s library.
The truth be told, mushrooms scarcely rate tip-of-the-iceberg status among the pantheon of wild plants that can provide some of the ingredients for every meal course from soup to nuts, but as is the case with mushrooms, there are wild plants that look good but which run the gamut from deadly toxic to merely unpalatable.
The best means for separating the vegetative sheep and goats is “Wild Edibles of Missouri,” by Jan Phillips. This book went out of print in 1979, but it’s still available on the MDC’s web site in the form of a series of pdf files.
As a general rule, edible wild greens are more nutrient-dense than their domestic counterparts. Their flavors also tend to be more, for want of a better term, robust.
People whose taste buds have been dulled by a lifetime of iceberg lettuce can tame the taste of almost any wild green by boiling it in several changes of water, but doing so will also remove the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that made them worth the trouble of gathering in the first place.
Most wild berries are smaller, seedier and less sweet than comparable domestic varieties, and most of the canes that bear them are well equipped with thorns. But none of these things are necessarily bad as anyone who’s used them to top a dish of ice cream on a hot summer evening will attest.
There are several families of trees that produce fruit under the common definition of that term. By far the best of these are the mulberry and the pawpaw.
It’s been a long time since I’ve found a producing pawpaw patch, but the next time I do, I’m going to sit down and gorge myself until I can’t stand back up.
And then there are wild nuts. Almost everybody knows how to identify black walnut trees. Hickory trees are distinctive as a group, but identifying the species that bear exceptionally tasty nuts may require the help of a book like “The Trees of Missouri” by Don Kurz.
A few species in the white oak family bear acorns that can be roasted and eaten or ground into flour.