Maybe I was indoctrinated too thoroughly by those Grape-Nuts commercials from the 1970s, but the idea of gathering my meals from the forest has never been all that appealing to me.
If you’re old enough and you watched enough TV, you remember the ads. Outdoorsman Euell Gibbons would talk about eating stuff like cattails and pine trees, which I guess was supposed to make Grape-Nuts seem luscious by comparison.
Cattails? No thanks.
Last week, though, I discovered a more delicious side of foraging at an edible landscaping program at Secrest Arboretum near Wooster. It was also a somewhat, ahem, intoxicating one.
The program was cleverly named the ArborEatUm Workshop by leader Jim Chatfield, who’s as learned about plants as he is quick with a pun. Chatfield, an Ohio State University Extension specialist who also co-writes the Beacon Journal’s Plant Lovers’ Almanac column, was joined in leading the program by Secrest’s equally knowledgeable program director, the indefatigable Ken Cochran.
The point was to introduce participants to some of the culinary delights growing in backyards, woods and weedy lots — some of them cultivated, many of them wild.
There was tart Dolgo sauce, made from Dolgo crab apples. There was savory fig chutney. There were Melrose apples and grape molasses and blueberry buckle that was still warm from the oven. Yum.
Participant Lois Rose, a master gardener volunteer from Cuyahoga County, and her husband, Doug, kept us well-lubricated with their spirituous concoctions — among them, some rather potent homemade crème de cassis, a liqueur made from currants; figs in vanilla and rum; plums in port; and red and white raspberries soaked in vodka that to me tasted pretty much like chewable booze. Not that I’m complaining.
We marshaled our faculties enough to take a stroll around the arboretum, where Cochran pointed out some of the tastier trees and shrubs in the landscape. Unfortunately none of the pawpaws was ready for harvest, but I did taste the fruit of kousa dogwood (it reminded me of a squishy nectarine with a lot of seeds) and the needles of a white fir (tangerine). I learned that redbud flowers taste like fresh peas, that filé powder used in gumbo comes from sassafras, and that the fruit of the serviceberry tree makes a good jam.
(Oh, and I learned how the serviceberry got its name. The tree’s spring bloom used to signal that funeral services could be held for the unfortunate souls who had died over the winter, because it indicated the ground had thawed enough to bury them. OK, so maybe that tidbit wasn’t exactly tasty, but it was food for my brain.)
To me, the biggest surprise of the evening was Cathy Herms’ autumn olive jam, made from the berries of the invasive autumn olive tree that’s making a pest of itself across Ohio and much of the United States. The plant may be a menace, but the jam is delicious in a sweet-tart sort of way.
Herms, a research associate in OSU’s horticulture and crop science department, said she’d worked on the autumn olive problem for 15 years before she learned its berries were edible. They’re even being marketed as Lycoberries because they’re so high in the anti-oxidant lycopene.
Herms isn’t happy about the way the plants are bullying their way into the landscape, but she figures “we might as well use them while they’re out there,” she said. Besides, picking and eating the berries prevents the birds from getting to them and spreading the seeds to produce more plants.
In case you’re feeling ambitious, here is Herms’ recipe:
• Gather 8 cups of ripe autumn olive berries.
• Add 1 cup of water to 8 cups of berries and bring to a boil; then simmer 20 minutes.
• Run the mash through a sieve to eliminate seeds. This should result in 5 cups of strained fruit.
• Combine ¾ cup sugar with ½ box of no-sugar-needed Sure-Jell. Mix it in with the strained fruit and bring to a rolling boil.
• Add ½ to ¾ cup sugar to taste. Return to a rolling boil and let it boil one minute.
• Can or freeze.
The recipe makes about six 8-ounce jars of jam.
I love tart foods, so I’d put the jam on my toast anytime.
But I’ll still pass on the cattails.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.