Wild Snacks – Raw and Cooked: Euell Gibbons, Meet Richard Wrangham

If you love to cook, you will love  Richard Wrangham’s cooking hypothesis. This British primatologist proposes that we humans stepped away from the other apes (who still spend most of their time grinding bitter berries and  fibrous roots between their massive molars) when we tossed those tubers into a fire and then drew out something infinitely more savory and digestible.Catching-Fire-cover

In his new book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, he suggests that when we tamed fire and began to cook our food, we increased the flavor and the volume of energy we can get from food — and at the same time reduced rot.  Win-win.  Wrangham’s theory is summarized in Scientific American:   modern humans need a lot of high-quality calories (brain tissue requires 22 times the energy of skeletal muscle); tough, fibrous fruits and tubers cannot provide enough.  Heat alters the physical structure of proteins and starches, thereby making enzymatic breakdown easier.

I’m all for cooking food.  Guests gathering in my kitchen as we all prepare a meal is my favorite kind of get-together — but there is something so elemental about spotting a bramble laden with blackberries, followed almost instantly by the sensation of a mouthful of rich juice and nutritious seeds.

Eaten immediately after photographing!

Eaten immediately after photographing!

Last week, while contemplating our building site, on a day when I underestimated how much food to bring, I was more than fortified by a clump of ripe chokecherries from a low branch, as I carefully spit out the seeds and meditated on this dark, almost sweet fruit so rich in antioxidants. Earlier in the year I multitasked by munching peppery, young garlic mustard spears –  simultaneously getting my daily greens and clearing out a nasty patch of invasives in my woods.  (See my post Pass the Garlic Mustard, Please .)

Walking up Lloyd’s Lane and spotting a patch of the rare wild red raspberries, putting down my tools and pausing to enjoy their exceptional sweetness makes me feel a kinship with ancient ancestors who must have relished these gifts from nature as much as I do.  (Well, probably a lot more.)   These days I appreciate my wild food finds’ unconditionally organic quality and the way I can almost feel it revving up my immune system.

Stalking-the-Wild-AsparagusEuell Gibbons (biography here ) was my hero from my first year in college.  My well-thumbed Stalking the Wild Asparagus gave a city slicker dreams of off living the land – an ideal I have never come close to achieving — yet.

Gibbons’ own survival during the dustbowl, and that of  his whole family,  depended on the wild food he foraged for them in that sparce landscape, and later, during his hobo period, he lived by what he could forage on the road.  His books are full of practical information on how to find and prepare wild foods, and as I learn how to turn some of my acres to sustainable agriculture, I also want to make more and more use of the edible plants already growing there.

Wild plums waiting to be sauce.

Wild plums waiting to be sauce.

Last week, while pushing our way along a trail we did not clear this summer, Doug and I rediscovered a handful of wild plum trees that line the fence row along our eastern property line.  Their fruits were starting to ripen,  to an orange-tinged pink, and inside the biggest ones was sweet, musky flesh with eye-squintingly tart skins.  Yesterday we went back with a tarp and a bag to shake the branches and harvest.

Wrangham, who has spent much of his life studying the way apes eat, notes that the typical fruit they live on is not like a grape or apple from your grocer’s produce bin, but something we spit out as too  fibrous and bitter.  I must admit that my pretty little plums, after that first burst of sweet pulp, do indeed have  bitter skins.

So as a card-carrying human, I have elected to cook them.  After searching online for a way to best process this precious bounty, I have found just the thing.  Wild Plum Sauce.  Check it out here .  This site has every last detail needed to complete the project plus gorgeous photos.

With 44 acres, it’s a challenge to keep all the trails cleared, but the trail past the plum trees is now high on the list.

Let me know what you have been foraging!

6 replies

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  2. I too love to forage in my city garden. Lambs quarters – ubiquitous weed – said to have more calcium per ounce that dairy milk with an earthy flavor. There’s a clover like week in my beds which spice up a salad with a sparkly tart flavor. I need to find it’s name. Then there’s Mulberries galore. Decades ago I planted that indigenous weed – jerusalem artichokes – also know as sunchokes – prolific with crispy roots which the native indigenous tribes ate. Though tastey baked they bring farts. Young fronds of ferns are great sauteed in spring as are steamed nettles.

    • What a pleasant surprise to read a comment from you on my blog. I totally agree about the lambs quarters. I used to have a good crop of them in my backyard rock garden in Libertyville and thought they were a wonderful green in the spring. I didn’t have the amazing farmers markets available to me then that I do now. We did have a pretty good farmers market in Libertyville in the summer (I was actually manager of it for one year–but didn’t actually like managing that well.) But it didn’t last that long and didn’t offer the greens I can get here now.
      I also like to do “urban foraging” by eating the things farmers market items like the tops of my beets in the spring and the leafy tops of the brussel sprout stalks in the fall. They are as good as any specifically marketed bundles of greens and then some.

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