STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton How to Forage for Healthy Wild Food Edibles in Spring Let's go foraging and learn to identify natural edibles in a grocery store I like to call ''nature'' Wild foods can form the basis for many tasty, healthy meals, like this pot full of ready-to-cook pokeweed greens. (Keith Sutton photo) Last spring, I went to one of my favorite backcountry lakes to enjoy a day of fishing. I didn’t have to take a boat. The lake edge was open, allowing me to easily cast from shore. After catching a few bluegills, crappie and bass, however, I decided I had enough fish for dinner and turned my attention to collecting some healthy wild side dishes. The first I gathered was freshly sprouting pokeweed growing in a disturbed area on one edge of the lake. Most folks consider pokeweed nothing more than its name suggests: just a weed. The dark purple berries, root and purplish-stemmed, fully grown plants are poisonous. But when pokeweed first sprouts in spring, the tender green shoots can be gathered and eaten. In case you’ve never tried it, let me tell you about “poke salad,” as we often call it in Arkansas. When it comes to greens, none can compare to poke salad’s wonderful taste. I love spinach, turnip greens, mustard, kale and collards. But I’ll take poke salad over those any day. Poke has a distinctive mild flavor that makes it one of the most commonly gathered wild foods wherever it is found. I hadn’t come to this spot intending to do any wild-foods foraging, so I had nothing to put the poke in if I picked it. The case off a pillow in my car provided an excellent container, however. I stuffed it with nearly a bushel of tender, green poke sprouts. Soon I found another delicious wild food: morel mushrooms! They had just started sprouting, so I didn’t find but a dozen or so. But I knew these easily recognizable fungi would be delicious when fried in butter, and 12 would be enough to feed my wife and me. I dropped them in the bag, too. On the woodland edge, I found yet another useful plant: sassafras. Many knee-high sprouts were scattered about. I pulled up a couple dozen. When steeped in hot water, sassafras roots make a delicious tea that tastes somewhat like root beer. While I didn’t gather them, I found other wild edibles as well, including spring beauties, which have bulbs with a delicious nutlike flavor; wild onions, which can be eaten fresh or used to season other foods; mayapples, which produce a summer fruit that can be used fresh, frozen or canned; and wild violets, the flowers of which are delicious and high in vitamin C. My interest in wild-food foraging started when I was in college in the 1970s. I was as poor as a church mouse then and lived in a shack in northeast Arkansas. Being a full-time student with no parents to help, I rarely had enough money to make ends meet. I never went hungry, however. Mealtimes were the bright spots in each day. I had plenty to eat. And almost all my food came straight from nature’s larder. When time permitted, I hunted, fished and trapped. In fact, trapping accounting for much of my winter income. I sold the furs of the raccoons, possums, muskrats and beavers I caught, and the meat from these animals provided many meals. In spring and summer, I fished for bass, crappie, catfish, bream and other fish, and caught frogs, crawfish, turtles and other delectable critters. “Catch and release” wasn’t part of my vocabulary then; this was “catch and eat” exclusively. In fall and winter, I also dined on fish, squirrels, rabbits, doves, quail and deer. Most vegetables in my diet came from a half-acre garden where I grew everything from tomatoes and squash to sweet potatoes and onions. What I couldn’t eat immediately, I canned or stored for later use. But a large percentage of the vegetables and fruits I ate, and ingredients for drinks such as tea, were gathered from the wild. Spring favorites included poke, wild asparagus, chickweed, chicory, chives, dandelion, day lily, elderberry flowers, lamb’s quarters, chanterelle and morel mushrooms, purslane, sassafras, huckleberries and violets. In summer, I had blackberries, wild strawberries, mayapples, mulberries, papaws, sumac, sweet goldenrod and watercress. Fall favorites included persimmons, hickory nuts, walnuts, wild rose hips and wood sorrel. Several friends taught me how to identify and cook wild food plants. One was a kind lady named Billy Joe Tatum. A mutual friend introduced us, and I remember with great fondness sitting on Billy Joe’s porch near the Arkansas community of Possum Trot and listening as she described how to use the variety of edible and medicinal plants she gathered from the woods. Many were hanging to dry in the rafters of her kitchen. Others were kept in sealed glass jars, in a freezer or were freshly harvested and still in baskets. Between puffs on her corn-cob pipe, Billy Joe described in detail the ways to identify and use each plant. “The flowers of elderberries can be dipped in batter and fried to make excellent fritters,” she might say. Or, “The roots of chicory can be dried, roasted and ground to make a coffee substitute.” She taught me how to make tea from a variety of wild plants, how to season foods with wild ginger, peppergrass and wild mustard seeds, how to recognize tender young greens such as pokeweed, milkweed and sorrel, and much more. At the end of each visit, we shared a buffet meal at her table that included many of the wild foods she had just taught us about, along with other specialties chez Tatum such as coon, crawdads, possum or groundhog. In 1976, the same year I met Billy, her book Billy Joe Tatum’s Wild Foods Cookbook & Field Guide was published. Like her mentor Euell Gibbons, she became a well-known celebrity, making numerous appearances on television and at speaking engagements nationwide. Invitations to enjoy a meal at her home were much sought after by fellow Arkansans like Gov. Bill Clinton and Winthrop Rockefeller Jr. But she always welcomed me into her home each time I dropped in for a visit, and always taught me something new about wild foods when I was there. A signed copy of her book, which still is considered a classic of the genre, has a place of honor in my library and is dog-eared from years of use. My foraging forays are much less frequent now, but my family still eats game and fish year-round, supplemented with occasional sides of poke salad, morels, asparagus and other wild favorites. We sometimes make jelly or desserts from wild fruits such as huckleberries, muscadines and blackberries. And I still love a cup of hot sassafras tea. I don’t have to rely on wild foods to keep my belly full any more. But it’s nice knowing if times get tough, I can still keep my family well fed from nature’s larder. With a little study, you can, too. Courses on wild plant identification are offered at many colleges, parks and other venues. Many excellent field guides to edible and medicinal plants also are available, and if you’re lucky, you might find a foraging enthusiast who will teach you the ropes the way Billy Joe taught me. Foraging for wild foods offers many rewards, both in learning and in the wild-food hunting itself. But the greatest reward comes in cooking the new and interesting finds you have made. After I returned home, I picked the stems off all the poke shoots, and my wife Theresa cooked up a huge pot of fresh greens. I pounded the sassafras roots with a meat mallet to loosen the bark, peeled them and steeped them in hot water to make a delicious tea. The morels were washed thoroughly, sliced and fried in butter, making a great topping for the butter-broiled crappie fillets I cooked for an entrée. A bowl of wild huckleberries with cream made a scrumptious dessert. That was a meal fit for royalty, and it didn’t cost a dime. Learn to forage for wild edibles and you can enjoy meals like that, too.