The Thanksgiving drill is pretty familiar: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie. But what would Native Americans have brought as sides? Turns out your backyard might have something tasty to contribute to this year's feast.
The Thanksgiving drill is pretty familiar: turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie. But what would Native Americans have brought as sides?
It's a brisk, clear morning at Adkins Arboretum, a peaceful 400-acre preserve on Maryland's Eastern Shore. I meet Bill Schindler, an anthropology professor at nearby Washington College, and Bill Trakat, a mycologist -- that's a mushroom guy -- to wander along streams and through meadows looking for something to eat. Right away, Schindler finds some tasty-looking weeds.
"One of the earliest wild plants that we think Native Americans began domesticating around here is Chenopodium berlandieri, which is lambsquarters," he says. "They grow all over. The greens are fabulous. But the seeds are also very healthy and full of wonderful proteins and oils."
Down in a marsh, we find both narrow- and broad-leaf cattail. The stalks of the young plants taste like cucumber, Schindler says. "Then later, in the spring, eat the pollen."
"There are some great plants that grow in the marsh," he continues.
We haven't seen many mushrooms when Trakat finds a little rusty-red one.
"It's a brown cortinarious," he says excitedly. An edible find, he says, though not very tasty.
Both Bills caution about eating anything you're not sure about. Some mushrooms are poisonous and other wild plants need toxins boiled out. Not the wild grapes that Schindler spots, though.
"The juicier ones are still pretty good," he says, munching on a few. "You can always tell the grapes – [they're] the only ones that have these curly-cue-looking things coming off the vines."
We walk through a patch of what look like more little green weeds. Schindler points out sheep sorrel. "It's supposed to somehow look like a sheep's head." It tastes somewhat like regular sorrel, a little lemony. "They're great in salads," Schindler says.
Dead milkweed proves to be delicious. "This is the end of this year's life for a milkweed," Schindler says. "Young milkweed shoots are fabulous and then you can eat the flower clusters. You can eat the seed pods when they're young," he adds. "They're great. You can boil them."
Naturally, Schindler has a trowel in his pocket. He digs up an evening primrose root, cleans it off and passes it around. It tastes like a radish.
"If you come at this wild plants thing from our modern perspective on food, you're not going to enjoy a whole lot of it," he says. "And you're not going to have a huge variety of things you're going to want to try. A lot of the plants we eat have been domesticated down to where they've lost a lot of their flavor."
But keep an open mind. The woods are an open-air food court. A lot of what you see -- or step on -- is edible. So as an alternative to the green bean casserole, why not try lambsquarters cooked with a little hickory nut butter and wild onion this holiday?
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