Wild Thing

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I cannot drive by a clump of cattails without thinking of my father. Long before Les Stroud ( Survivorman) and Bear Grylls (Man vs. Wild) were biting the heads off frogs, my father was out there chowing down on all manner of wild edibles. Where did he get this seemingly insatiable appetite for off-road cuisine?

My dad had the first edition of the landmark foraging guide ‘Stalking the Wild Asparagus‘ by Euell Gibbons. The book is tattered and worn and more than forty years old now but it has a proud place on my bookshelf.

It was Euell Gibbons who said that the cattail was the ‘supermarket of the swamp’. You can eat just about every part of a cattail, depending on the season..from the roots to the tip.

Armed with the Gibbons guide my father and I would continually prowl the backcountry roads of Southwestern Ontario looking for mushrooms, hickory nuts, wild honey and, of course, asparagus. One day we happened upon a bountiful cache of elderberries, which were quickly harvested for use that night in a homemade pie. Believe me when I say that you have not lived until you have eaten a piece of wild elderberry pie with a scoop of good vanilla ice cream.

My father was a foodie almost from the start but because my mother had died at a relatively young age there was no one around to put the brakes on some of his more unique culinary techniques.

For example, he would occasionally rinse several hundred pickling cucumbers in the bathtub. He would make his own beef jerky by draping long strips of marinated flank steak over curtain rods in the kitchen. If he needed a spot to store a big Virginia ham, he’d hang it in the front clothes closet. I’d take a jacket out of there and dogs would follow me for blocks.

My father also crafted his own sauerkraut, spiced beef and chili sauce. All of which made for a very aromatic upbringing.

One morning I was jolted out of bed by the sound of someone pounding on the door, only to discover that my dad was trying to knead some bread in the clothes dryer.

Sure, he was eccentric but he knew an awful lot about good food.

There’s a famous story in the Gerry family about the unexpected side effects of eating wild.

One evening Angie and I dined at my father’s home. Part of the meal was a stir fry of wild day lily pods which he had collected from a field that morning. They tasted fine but later, as the two of us sat enjoying a movie in a downtown theatre, the day lilies returned with a vengeance. It turned out we were sitting on more gas than Kuwait.

I don’t remember much about that film but as we bolted from the theatre and headed toward the parking lot we both lifted off like a scene from The Rocketeer.

There is a world of wild food right outside your door. Remember, graze responsibly and please..stand downwind.


7 Responses to “Wild Thing”

  1. This is a beautiful story, Dave, thank you for sharing it with all of us.

    I think most people have become so seperated from the origins of their food, that they have forgetten about the bounty we really do have right outside even the most urban doors. Take blackberries for example: $4.95 a pound at Granville Island Market, but free along many alley’s and parks or trails even in downtown Vancouver. Good food doesn’t need to be contrived or complicated, it impresses with its aroma and taste without having to be packed into a mold and topped with hibiscus petals.

    You really got me thinking with one of your other recent posts,about how the people and the way we grow up colours the way we eat as adults.

    For myself, growing up in the bush of northern BC in a Danish/ German family, (as well as a father who hunted and fished), provided an interesting diet as well – although the techniques to prepare the food were not nearly as interesting! Your father perhaps stumbled onto the first food processor or bread machine in using his dryer to knead dough!

    While it wasn’t uncommon in our neck of the woods to find a skinned moose, or deer. hanging in everyone’s garage in the fall, we were the only people around that ate rollmops( pickled herrings) and sauerkraut.

    We smoked lake trout in a homemade smoker derived from an old oil barrel….(talk about food additives!!) and harvested whatever wild huckleberries the bears didn’t already get to ! And, I know all too well about those versatile cat-tails! We always tried to harvest the pollen at the right moment to use as flour for bannock over the campfire in our backyard. We would wind the dough around our sticks taken from the willows along the ditch, and our stomachs would grumble and growl as the dough baked in amongst the flames and sparks.

    To this day, the way I grew up has an impact on what I love to eat! While most people run from fat, we love a good pork roast with the skin on – to make into crackling, of course! And nothing tops a well done Bienenstich…. ah, to sink into those layers of almond and cream is but a rare pleasure….. Of course, moderation is the key- we don’t have to harvest fields nor tend the farm animals so there is no need to eat like they used to in the ‘old days’.

    I think you have the beginnings of a good cookbook, Dave, one where the best recipes of our youths are recorded for posterity. The way we eat is as much a part of our heritage as is our roots, and where we come from. Whether it is birth, or death, a marriage or a birthday, these associations remains with us long after the event has unfolded…and live on if successfully passed from parents to children as time marches on.

    • Laila, thanks for that thoughtful response. I really think that food is one of the greatest bonds across generations. I did have the chance to write a letter to my father telling him how much some of those experiences meant to me.
      Some people, unfortunately, let that opportunity slip away.

  2. David Kincaid Says:

    Do you think cattails would be of any use in case of an oil spill?

    • David may be referring to a tv feature I once did on a couple who had tested the capacity of cattail fluff to absorb oil. It was a pretty impressive demonstration and an eco-friendly alternative to more conventional absorbing agents. I know they were trying to get some government interest, but this was more than twenty years ago and I have no idea if anything came of it.

  3. Geez, that is a gem, David and Dave. Those cat-tails are possibly the next super plant AKA cotton. Doubtful whether or not such large scale production would be possible as they grown often in protected wetland areas. Worth a look anyways.

  4. Jocelyn Laidlaw Says:

    I know I’m woefully late in jumping in on this thread but…a thought occured to me. I recall, God at least 8 years ago now, Dave giving me a really hard time because I used a jacuzzi bathtub to soak a cedar plank on which I was to barbeque a delicious salmon. The tub was scrubbed clean, of course! But Dave still picked on me …asking me who last bathed in the tub and if perhaps the salmon might start giving off bubbles! Now that I read your Dad’s creative history of food preparation I feel much better.
    In fact, that salmon was probably like a taste of home for you. It was quite yummy if you recall.

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