Sunday, August 8, 2010

Foraging for Sochan

Eventually, the food movement had to go this far. As soon as a lot of people started buying organic, locally grown farmers'-market fare, food snobs had to do something else to feel superior. They had to look down on the masses' reliance on the whole modernized "growing food on purpose" thing. They had to go back to a more honest, preagricultural method: foraging.
Time Magazine, July 26, 2010

I was on my way home from a weekend of permaculture study.

With no reason to be in a hurry, I turned from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Craggy Gardens and walked the trail to the summit. Always one of my favorite short hikes, it was no exception this time. I nibbled on wild blueberries and watched the roiling fog obscure and reveal range upon range of mountains, looking like waves in the ocean.

When I got to the observation deck at the top, a man and his teenage son were enjoying the sky show. One second, the quickly dropping sun gilded a row of clouds, and then the fog would take away the view of the sun completely.

They both had some good stories, and the three of us talked for a while. I mentioned “permaculture” and explained it in brief, and that I’d just been briefed in the culinary potential of native woodland plants. Coincidentally, the dad had just read a Time article on high-end chefs using foraged ingredients. I told him I’d look it up and read it, and he said he’d find out more about permaculture. After I got home, I did find the Time story, Joel Stein’s “Into the Woods.”

…searching the woods or parks or even cracks in the pavement for edible plants has become the latest culinary obsession. In June, forageSF's Iso Rabins gathered 70 vendors and 2,000 customers in San Francisco for his once-a-month Underground Market for foraged food. There's a restaurant in Los Angeles called Forage that lets people take in stuff they find (or, for slackers, grow in their gardens) to exchange for credit toward their dinner. Meanwhile, menus across the land are listing wild leeks, fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles and berries you've never heard of.

Chris Hastings of the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala., often goes foraging and explains its appeal: "You can pursue a bunch of b_______ cooking like sous vide this or sous vide that or foam this or foam that, but to celebrate wild, foraged things and get back to an elemental place is an intellectually much more interesting place for me as a chef." In early summer his customers can order a completely foraged dessert. "It freaks them out," he says. "The flavors are intense. They're unique. They're not like a cultivated strawberry."

…Tyler Gray of Oregon-based Mikuni Wild Harvest sometimes rides the New York City subway with $50,000 worth of foraged truffles in his backpack. "It's such a crazy subculture," he says of food finders, who speak in "traveling-gypsy code," as he puts it. "You don't want anyone to know where you're foraging," says Gray, whose truck has been shot at while he was out searching for food.

Ava Chin, who blogs about urban foraging for the New York Times, won't say where in the city she once found nearly 100 morels. She recently tapped a maple tree near her Brooklyn apartment, which upset her neighbors. "In New York, everyone freaks out and figures you must be hurting the tree," she says. "I don't know where they think maple syrup comes from."

Even with its many jumps around the map, the Time article leaves out a lot. The story succeeded in bringing a worthwhile topic to broader awareness, while it came close to trivializing the subject.

Actually, foraging can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. We could talk about it from the perspective of anthropology, biology, spirituality, economics, ecology....or as a pop culture fad.

Euell Gibbons told us how to fry up a batch of elderberry blossom fritters. The question is, why would you want to? A new generation of wild foodies is advancing the concept of knowing when to pick, and how to prepare, native plants so they aren’t merely edible, but delicious. Among the books to emerge from this new wave is Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate, by John Kallas.

Green-headed Coneflower

Here in the Southern Appalachians, one wild plant that happens to be blooming right now, is considered by many the number one native plant deserving a place on the plate. If you know it by the flower, you might call it green-headed coneflower. But if you treasure it for the spring greens from the young plants, then you might call it sochan. Several years ago in the Smoky Mountain News, George Ellison described it.

Sochan (“Rudbeckia laciniatum”), called green-headed coneflower by non-Indians, is one of the most prized spring greens the Cherokees gather. They sometimes call it “sochani.” Many of their gardens have semi-cultivated patches of the plant in protected areas. Closely related to black-eyed Susan (“Rudbeckia hirta”), it grows to 10 feet tall in wet areas and along damp woodland borders. The flower heads that appear in mid-summer are about three inches wide with drooping yellow rays and a center disk (unlike the purple disk of black-eyed Susan) that’s greenish-yellow.

The Cherokees recognize sochan as soon as it comes out of the ground in mid-spring by its distinctive irregularly divided leaves and smell. Consult your wildflower field guides for flower and leaf-shape diagrams of green-headed coneflower. Then you will be able to locate the plant this summer along backcountry roadways when it’s in full bloom. Mark the spot and return next spring for greens. Prepare the young shoots and leaves (boiled with several changes of water) have a rich texture and zesty flavor. It’s even good cold as a snack with a little vinegar added. In the opinion of many - this writer included - sochan is the very finest of the traditional potherbs gathered in the Blue Ridge region.

Though you certainly would not have to go that far to find it, the walk to the top of Clingman’s Dome takes you through acres of green-headed coneflower blooms...or next year’s sochan patch. Considering how these things go, I wouldn’t be surprised to find sochan on the menu of any hip restaurant in Asheville or Sylva come next spring.

As permaculture makes more inroads into the culture, what’s old is new again. (After thinking further on this, I'm not sure it is a matter of permaculture making inroads. Permaculture reflects the deepest and most eternal laws of nature, and nature has plenty of self-correcting strategies to deal with anyone who would defy those laws.)

For more links on this -


Jackson County up in the Mountains said...

Nice article -- sounds like a project for next year, or a hobby to begin with my boys when they get older (my 5yo still thinks anything green is poison ivy, that is when he's looking for a way to importantly warn the adults about something).

Are there any nature center type workshops on this kind of thing in the area?

GULAHIYI said...

One I thing I've enjoyed about landscape painting, birding, wildflower ID, etc. is that it forces one to look at his/her surroundings more acutely and in a different way. The plant diversity of this region produces a bounty of wild foods and medicines, and harvesting from that bounty provides one more opportunity to see our earthly dwelling place from a different perspective.

I don't know of classes in the immediate area, though it would be something our community could use. Mixed blessing, there - more classes might mean more competition for the goodies that are out. Within 100 miles, there are some very knowledgable individuals offering classes and workshops on the wild plants. I might work on that and post links soon.

Jackson County up in the Mountains said...

That would be great -- I am sure you would create a pretty thorough resource for all of us. There's some kind of educational center near Franklin or Hayesville that might, and Turtle Island may.