The wild side of local food
A friend brought me a gift I never dreamed I’d ever see, or rather eat. A loaf of pawpaw bread. Just like banana bread but with pawpaws. Why didn’t I think of that? He used English walnuts in it, where I might have used pecans, which is interesting in itself because the nuts came from a grove right here in northern Ohio, not in warmer climes where these nut trees are grown commercially. The Ohio Division of Wildlife planted the trees years ago and when my friend spotted them, with nuts mostly going to waste, he asked and received permission to gather them.
My pawpaw bread-baking friend, Bill, is a true revolutionary of the local food movement although he wouldn’t say that. He and his kind need more of our admiring attention for what they know and do about wild food. Bill never finished high school, and so by today’s educational prejudices, he should be living a life of dismal poverty. The truth is quite different. Although the humble job he has worked at now for nearly 30 years does not pay very well, he and his family have lived a contented and happy life thanks to their positive attitude and very careful parsimony. Years ago he grew garden produce and sold it directly to customers for extra income, but now he saves money by making use of free wild food and working as a professional hunter and trapper. He doesn’t always charge for his services, but the need for really skilled hunters is growing and with the surge in wildlife of all kinds, “pest control” is becoming a lucrative career. (You mean there is such a thing as a lucrative career without a college degree!!!) Bill traps beaver right here in our county. I had no idea beaver were again re-populating our area, but know that they can become quite destructive for farmers and orchardists. Beaver pelts sell quite high at the moment. Bill eats the meat and says it is quite delicious. He says that otters and bobcats are also increasing in number in this rather urbanized farming country, not to mention wild turkeys and Canada geese. Bill showed me photos of an astounding array of fish he has caught in rural ponds hereabouts, including large muskies (muskellunge), a species few of us ever dreamed would proliferate on their own in Ohio farm ponds. And the number of farm ponds continues to increase.
He also traps for mink and muskrat as so many of us did years ago. Muskrat fur prices are quite high now, going to China as I understand it. He also knows his way around wild mushrooms and herbs like ginseng and goldenseal. Right now, a delicacy called “chicken of the woods” to our mushroom hunters is being harvested (I can see the big oak stump out my office window where a clump of it comes up every year). Some of these fungal clusters weigh as much as fifty pounds each and are almost as good as springtime morels. We picked a meal’s worth of common meadow mushrooms from our lawn in September. Bill has planted wild persimmons and gathers them now too. Another visitor who grew up in southern Indiana coincidentally stopped by just the day before Bill visited, and he said that wild persimmon pudding is a delicacy in his family. And of course there are always hickory nuts and black walnuts to gather this time of year.
As readers on this blog site pointed out recently, squirrel stew is delicious. Young deer, especially does, make good eating too (two yearling deer were standing right beside the clump of chicken-of-the woods this morning) and as the deer herd increases, the state wildlife authorities will surely increase the number that hunters can harvest in a season. (“Harvest” is now the word of choice.) In a rural county like mine, where deer now outnumber cows, venison could become part of our usual diet.
What I am wondering, against all popular opinion, is whether, as wild plant and animal life increases (I even have wild peach and pear trees) the ancient art of food foraging may again become honored in society. Maybe people like Bill will take their rightful place alongside doctors, lawyers, home builders, master mechanics and farmers as valued professionals. I wonder who will be awarded the first PhD in Hunting and Gathering?