As Spring begins to sneak across the land, thoughts turn to gardens. Here are some thoughts from Kara Still at The Organic Prepper on growing and foraging food – Eating What We Grow: What We Learn and What We Love.
I grew up in Alaska. My family bought most of what we ate at the store, shipped in from the “Lower 48,” as the rest of the U.S. is known up north. The supply chains were long and fragile, and the produce was both expensive and terrible. Wilted lettuce, fuzzy strawberries, bruised apples. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would eat a peach or an ear of corn on the cob because after weeks in transit these delicacies taste like cardboard (or like rot). I ate ice cream, frozen hash browns and plenty of McDonald’s. Alaska is America, after all.
There was also another cuisine in my household, one born out of connection to the land. My family picked tart wild blueberries on the steep mountainside, with the tundra a spongy vermillion carpet around us and the first snows dusting the bare peaks above. We spent hours on icy glacial rivers or motoring past a pebbly shore, casting after salmon and halibut. We scoured the woods for wild mushrooms: nutty white King bolete (porcini), sweet-sour butter bolete, blue-bruising birch bolete, shaggy manes, and oyster mushrooms.
My eyes were opened when I was able to access other foods.
I got so sick of salmon that I refused to eat it, but the joke was on me because the salmon was already in my soul, residing there as a deep curiosity about unusual foods. As I attained adulthood and went traveling I sampled a long list of strange stuff: raw whitefish roe and muktuk (raw whale skin with the fat still on) in rural Alaska, alpaca and guinea pig in Peru, kangaroo and saltwater crocodile in Australia. I nibbled whatever was available: feijoa and loquat and dragon fruit, carpenter ant and raw jellyfish and bladderwrack seaweed, oysters smashed open on the beach.
This isn’t as strange as it sounds. Dr. Weston A. Price, the author of the classic book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, was a dentist who traveled the world in the 1930s to document what people ate. His research includes 500 pages of pictures of people’s mouths and long lists of who did and who did not have cavities. At the edges of the Earth, Dr. Price found healthy people thriving on almost every imaginable diet: dried fish with a little oatmeal and cabbage in Scotland, cattle milk and blood plus wild vegetables in Africa, seal or caribou and berries in Alaska, cheese and rye bread with a little cabbage in alpine Scandinavia. Their teeth were flawless, their faces beautiful.
Not everyone was healthy, though. Some places Price visited, most people had had every tooth pulled from their heads by the age of 20. Some populations also had underdeveloped chests, high incidence of tuberculosis, crowded mouths and facial deformities, all from lack of nutrients. These folks were not eating a wide variety of different diets. They were all eating the same diet, which mostly consisted of white flour and jam.
There isn’t one perfect diet, because humans are omnivores that can thrive and be healthy on lots of different sets of foods. Just not on white flour and jam.
Now we’re eating wild and foraged things, plus what we grow.
These days, I live on a little homestead in rural North Carolina. My family has 17 acres of mixed woods and overgrown fields, with a pond and a stream. We have a little house we built with our hands, a garden, a young orchard, a few goats, chickens and geese.
We still eat wild things, mostly violets and sheep sorrel, chickweed, wild spring onion, a few puffballs and blackberries, bass out of the pond. One year we found a bumper crop of shaggy-bark boletes that taste like the butter boletes I grew up with. One year I killed and cooked an egg-stealing rat snake (it made fine tacos).
But my county is farm country, a thoroughly humanized landscape since before Columbus when the natives burned the undergrowth to create a fantastically productive landscape that white settlers thought was a park. If we want to eat from the land rather than the Walmart (and we do), most of that food has to be encouraged to grow, not just hunted and gathered.
Growing food is a fascinating and complex endeavor fraught with failure and surprise. My favorite potatoes and English peas are tougher to produce here in the baking south than in the frozen north. Instead, I’m gradually learning to grow exotic things even the luckiest Alaskan gardener can only dream of, like eggplant, grinding corn, hot peppers, and sweet potatoes.
This year was an education in drought. In June we had a 100-year flood that took out the bridges on two of the four roads into our property. Nine months later, those bridges still aren’t fixed. After that deluge, it hardly rained for three months. Seminole pumpkin, for several years running a heavy producer, utterly failed because of squash bug combined with too little water. My tomatoes made only enough for the table and about 15 jars of salsa. I have a brand new solar dehydrator, and I was looking forward to dried tomatoes with everything. Instead, I have more frozen green beans than I know what to do with…