Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ellen Zachos: Postcard from the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival

In mid-September, author Ellen Zachos attended the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Wisconsin where, in the company of other wild food fans and experts, she gave a keynote speech, judged a cooking contest, and indulged her love of cooking (and eating!) dishes prepared with wild ingredients. She was kind enough to share some highlights with us. 

If wild foods weren’t delicious, I wouldn’t be interested in them.  Sure, there’s the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of feeding yourself for free.  But for me, the single most important aspect of wild edibles is that they taste terrific.  Prepared correctly, with imagination and skill, wild edibles rival any food, anywhere.
Sweet Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata)

Last month, I celebrated the coming of fall with a group of like-minded people at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.  More than 120 wild foods enthusiasts filled the Wisconsin Badger Camp, pitching tents and rolling out displays of wild honey and homemade soaps.  I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Midwest but I’d go back in a flash.  The land between the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers was fertile and lovely and I felt positively joyous, immersed in the world of wild foods world for an entire weekend.

Spice Bush Berries (Lindera benzoin)

As we were beginning to settle in for the weekend, I jumped in the car with foraging legend Sam Thayer and we made a quick reconnaissance tour, marking the locations for foraging walks and gathering expeditions.  Supper was a potluck cooking contest, and yours truly got to judge!  Seriously, what could be more fun than tasting pickled cornelian cherries, wild apple and elderberry pie, and a curry of milkweed pods, daylily buds, and black locust flowers?  

I gave the keynote address that evening: Delicious Wild Edibles: More Than Just Survival Food.” The truth is, there were many people at the festival who are more experienced foragers than I am, but no one cares more about delicious food.  I was there to share some creative wild cookery and I was preaching to a very receptive choir.

Ground Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Saturday offered a range of wild foods classes, foraging walks, and cooking!  My morning class harvested sweet autumn olives and baked autumn olive/spice bush cake to feed 120 at lunch.  In the afternoon we sautéed lotus tubers (Nelumbo lutea) fresh from the Mississippi River with wild garlic.  Next we processed sumac, rubbing the flesh and hairs off the berries and grinding it to make a deep red, tart spice.  The sumac colored the lotus pink, making the already ornamental slices not only tasty but very pretty, too.
Lotus root (Nelumbo lutea) with sumac and wild garlic (Allium vineale

I sold a whole case of Backyard Foraging and bought a few new books for myself.  (I figured I’d earned a treat and books have always been my favorite gift.)  In the week following the festival, I was in touch with many new friends, exchanging recipes and talking about next year’s Midwest Wild Harvest Festival.  I have a feeling I’ll be going back. 
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Ellen Zachos is the author of Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn't Know You Could Eat and Down and Dirty. She is an instructor at the New York Botanical Garden and she blogs at www.downanddirtygardening.com.

1 comment:

Ken Mirr said...

Very nice, heheh. And quite a collection, too. Should be a fun thing to keep in a portfolio. Though it would be really nice if you don't get these bits of nature piece meal, but also get to kind of stake a claim in the whole territory where these flora are in. Take in a lot of it for yourself, everyday.

Darren @ Mirr Ranch Group