Friday, April 2, 2010

Where the Wild Things Grow

     Mother Nature is hosting her annual free food party. The first course is dandelion greens, gathered fresh and tender and served with a warm dressing of vinegar and eggs. My mother-in-law called dandelion greens her spring tonic and the first time she put them on the table I was pretty skeptical. In the city I was taught that anything that grew in your yard was toxic. I guess maybe with all the chemicals used on a lawn that’s true, but apparently in the country almost anything green is fair game. Next there’s poke, which like dandelions must be gathered in its infancy. Poke has to be boiled a couple of times to remove the bitterness but then it’s pretty tasty. Sort of like turnip greens. I like mine topped with homemade cucumber relish.
      Ramps appear next. They are a cross between a wild onion and wild garlic and grow in green patches on mountain slopes. They are considered a real treat, but because onions don’t agree with me, I’ve never tried them. When I first started teaching, students used to eat ramps so they would be kicked out of school. If you eat them raw, your body exhausts the pungent odor through your skin cells. Kids knew that most teachers couldn’t stand the smell, so they would eat them and laugh as they were sent home to stay until they smelled better.
     After ramps come fresh asparagus. Spring isn’t really here until the peepers sing and the asparagus appear. I have discovered a secret wild asparagus patch where the spears are as big around as my thumb. It’s in one of our meadows where the sheep feast on it until the end of March. When they are moved out to pasture, it’s mine. Planted by the birds and tended by God, those asparagus are far better than the ones I grow in my yard.
     At the same time that we pick asparagus, we also start hunting for morels. The first time I ate one of these wild mushrooms, I lay awake all night because I was sure I would be dead in the morning. I grew up on mushrooms wrapped in cellophane, and I wasn’t sure a wild one could be trusted. But, I lived to tell the tale and now I’m an avid eater. Morels are pretty safe to hunt as there aren’t any other mushrooms that resemble these brainy looking fungi. They grow in abandoned apple orchards and old growth ash groves.
     Last spring, my friend Lori and I grabbed some walking sticks and paper bags and headed up the steep side of her family’s mountain where a grove of ash trees clings. We only managed to find one morel because a scoundrel neighbor had beat us to the patch. He was trespassing and when he saw us he skedaddled. He was carrying a pretty bulgy bag, so we gave up. We were angry, but really who could blame him? I am a terrible mushroom finder. I don’t have mushroom eyes like Lori and my oldest son, Justin. Morels disguise themselves by looking just like the patches of withered leaves where they grow, but still I love the thrill of the hunt. We like them dipped in batter and deep fried, or sautéed and scrambled with eggs.
     When the morels are finished, it’s time for the rhubarb from the old patch in Geneva’s abandoned garden. It’s also time for the wild strawberries that grow on the brow of my hill. These two spring foods sing in gustatory harmony when baked in a pie. Once the wild strawberries are done, then the party is over. It’s time to look to my own tame garden for lettuce and peas. While I love to eat things I’ve grown, my heart will always be with food that comes from God’s hands to my mouth. I love to eat where the wild things grow.


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