Friday, November 30, 2012

Thanksgiving (part 2)

Like many couples, Katrina and I were blessed with the opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving twice. We spent Thanksgiving day with her family in Seattle, and on Saturday, Christian, Dad, Monica, Brian, Katrina, and I all met at Mom and David’s house for a second feast. My family was also excited about preparing a meal of wild and local foods and our feast looked very similar to our first thanksgiving, with a few exciting exceptions.

For an appetizer, Dad brought a nice mix of nuts that he grew on his property in Ferndale. These included Black, Japanese, and Manchurian Walnuts as well as Hazelnuts.

Our meat dishes included a ham that was raised by a 4-H kid in eastern Washington that Mom and Uncle Joe purchased and divided up. I prepared a venison roast from a large muscle on the rear quarter of the dear that I shot this fall. I don’t know the name of the cut, but years ago Sam taught me how to cook it during his all wild food thanksgivings and since then I have adopted his practice of just calling it a “thanksgiving roast.” If you are careful not to puncture the muscle fascia as you cut out the roast, it will hold its own juices and swell up like a balloon as it cooks. Both the ham and venison were served with cranberry sauce (one of the few commercially available “wild” food products native to North America).

For vegetables we enjoyed some local Brussel Sprouts that David sautéed to perfection and Dad made some delicious Yams that he caramelized with Apples from his property. Katrina and I also prepared Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorn bread and Wild Rice (Zizania palustris) pilaf using the same recipes as our first meal.

The dessert menu was diverse and included Monica’s homegrown Pumpkin pie, Apple bread, and my hand-harvested Evergreen and Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum and V. parvifolium) pie.

After dinner we had a nice discussion about the sustainability of different food systems, and I shared my thoughts about why I work so hard to promote wild foods. I believe that wild foods are more sustainable than agricultural foods because (1) they are native, (2) they are adapted to local ecological conditions (not requiring much watering, fertilizing, or pest control), and (3) they require relatively little disturbance. If we compare a managed corn field to a managed camas prairie, we might notice that they corn field requires the total destruction of a native ecosystem to clear the land, annual soil disturbance to maintain the crop, and huge inputs of fossil fuel derived fertilizers, pesticides to ensure a productive harvest. If the farmers are doing everything right, they are growing ONLY corn. A camas meadow, on the other hand, is a native ecosystem, requires no watering, no fertilizing, no pesticides, and yields a myriad of edible foods including half a dozen edible roots, a few greens, one or two nuts, Deer, Elk, and more. 

People often argue that the size of the human population necessitates the consumption of agricultural foods because domesticated foods are so much more productive than wild foods. While this sounds logical at first glance, I believe that the jury is still out on the matter. It is true that corn may be more productive than Camas itself, but I don’t know of any study that compares the total productive capacity of a managed wild food producing ecosystem to that of an agricultural system (especially one that is not dependent on fossil fuel derived inputs). I like to think of the comparison in terms of geometry. Farmers do an excellent job of packing a plethora of plants into an acre of land. However, they are limited by the annual nature of agricultural plants to a productive biosphere of at most 10 feet or so (from the bottom of the roots to the tips of the corn stalks). By comparison, the often perennial nature of wild food ecosystems allow native plant cultivators to take advantage of more vertical complexity giving them a much taller productive biosphere, that is often upwards of 100 feet from root to tree top.

It doesn’t stop there; when comparing wild foods and agriculture on a landscape level, wild foods really shine. In the Pacific Northwest, arable land is restricted to the lower floodplain deltas that range from sea level (with the aid of dikes) to a couple thousand feet above sea level. By contrast, wild food landscapes (and seascapes) include almost every ecosystem from as deep as a halibut can dive to as high as a mountain goat can climb. There are millions of acres of land that are unfit for the plow yet abundantly produce tasty food.

Thanksgiving is about honoring food through feasting. I believe that in order to honor any particular food, we need to understand its natural and social history. Ultimately, we are able to give the highest praise to those foods in which we ourselves assumed the responsibility of harvesting from the land and sharing with others in a respectful and selfless manner. Thanksgiving is therefore essentialized by the relationships we have with plants and animals, with our family and community, and with the land.
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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Feast! (part 1)

In planning this year’s Thanksgiving dinner, Katrina and I discovered that her family was excited to try some of the wild foods that we are always raving about. We decided to orchestrate a feast at their home in Seattle that featured some of our favorite edibles. The culinary choir included venison and salmon, acorns and wild rice, and wild greens and huckleberries.

Crackers and Cheese
Local Brie with Cranberry sauce

Stinging Nettles
Wild Stinging Nettles* (Urtica dioica) blanched

Steamed Beets
Locally grown beets steamed to perfection

Chef Salad
Organic vegetables tossed together with a light dressing

Main Course
Broiled Sockeye Salmon
Wild Copper River Sockeye Salmon seasoned with South African pepper jelly

Venison Tenderloin Steak
Locally hunted wild Sitka Black-tail Deer*

Wild Rice Pilaf
Wisconsin Wild Rice* (Zizania palustris) with Seaweed* (Alaria nana), American Hazelnuts* (Corylus americana) and homemade sea salt*

A-corn bread
Vancouver Island Garry Oak (Quercus garryana) acorns*, wheat flour, olive oil, and eggs sweetened with Wisconsin Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) syrup, seasoned with Katrina’s homemade sea salt*

Crabapple Meringue
Like your favorite Lemon meringue but with juice from Wild Vancouver Island Crabapples* (Malus fusca)

Wild Berry Pie
Local hand harvested Evergreen Huckleberries* (Vaccinium ovatum) and Red Huckleberries* (V. parvifolium), mixed with a few Saskatoons (Amelanchier alnifolia) from Eastern Washington

*Items that we harvested from the wild

Preparing such an extensive menu was actually much easier than it might seem. We started with the desserts, since I prefer to let pie cool before serving. The Stinging Nettles were already blanched and frozen, so they only had to be thawed and steamed. The pilaf only required 20 minutes to boil and the acorn bread needed only 25 minutes to bake. Perhaps the most time consuming foods in a typical Thanksgiving are the stuffing and turkey. Our Salmon and Venison substitutions were both delicious and expedient. The salmon cooked in less than half an hour and our thinly sliced venison steaks cooked in less than a minute on each side!

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Homemade Berry Rake

With the help of my friend Ric, I finally got around to finishing a berry rake project that I started last year. The concept of the rake is that the leaves and branches slide between the tines, while the larger berries get plucked off and fall into the storage chamber. The tines extend all the way into the storage chamber allowing any small and unripe berries, insects, or leaves that came off with the berries an opportunity to fall out. In theory, this will make cleaning the berries much faster.
My materials are entirely recycled and include a copper plated steel firewood rack, stainless steel bicycle spokes and some scraps of oak wood. I got the copper at Goodwill and pounded it flat, and then cut out my container, and bent it into shape. I soldered a small portion of the original firewood rack handle onto the top my berry rake, and soldered a rectangular plate of metal onto the back of the rake so that four of the six sides are enclosed. The bottom is made up of stainless steel spokes that I got at the Hub, which is a bicycle repair shop that saves bikes from the garbage and fixes them up for sale. They have a scrap metal bin that the owner let me rummage through. I fastened the spokes to the back plate of the berry rake by drilling a series of holes about 3/16 of an inch apart. Then I laced the spokes through the holes until the spoke nipples seated against the holes. The spokes are held into place in parallel rows by three oak brackets that are drilled, laced over the spokes, and fastened to the sides of the rake with brass screws.

The specifications are as follows:
Length- 9"
Width- 6"
Depth- 3"
Length of spokes- 10"
Number of spokes- 26
Distance between spokes- 3/16"

I have enough material for a second rake, so I think I will make one with more widely spaced tines.

My berry rake in action on some Evergreen Huckleberries

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