If some apocalyptic disaster happened and there were no McDonald’s and few crops, or if you were stuck away from whatever civilization exists, or if you are just really hungry for a snack, it is OK. There is food in the wilderness (and your backyard). I will show it to you.
Last week I made tea from tree needles. But that’s just the tip of the edible iceberg. You can also eat pine nuts, obviously, and pine bark. Not the scabby brown stuff on the outside, but the moist, white inner layer of culinary goodness, called cambium. It’s filled with carbs, fiber, vitamins and good ol’ calories.
Native Americans ate bark, as did explorers and trappers. Apparently Katniss does this in “The Hunger Games,” too. I don’t remember that, but good for her.
Harvesting it is pretty simple. Just scrape past the dry crust and carefully carve out some inner bark. You can eat it raw, or you can stew it, boil it, fry it or dry it. (If you choose the latter option, you should soak it in something — water, juice, moonshine, whatever you have available — before eating it, to make it more chewable.)
I didn’t have a pine tree convenient, so I substituted a Douglas fir. Pretty much any conifer bark works — except for the poisonous yew tree, with its distinct and toxic red berries. Don’t chew yew; you’ll die. Or at least get a stomachache.
So with my handy dandy wood chisel, I scraped out a little cambium, which looks rather like human skin, but juicier. Appetizing, right?
I tried eating the bark three ways. Raw off the tree, Douglas fir bark is chewy and bland. Boiled, it is somehow tougher to chew and even more flavorless. But as Goldilocks found Baby Bear’s porridge most satisfying, so I highly enjoyed my cambium the third way I tried it: fried.
As the American carnival food industry has repeatedly proven over the past century, everything tastes better fried. At the Oregon State Fair last fall, my friend Erin tried a fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was repulsively delicious.
With tree bark, just throw some butter and salt in a pan and fry it up. Presto, bark chips. Still pretty chewy, but definitely tasty.
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If you have a tree allergy, don’t worry. Nature is filled with many other edible plants and things:
• Cattails: This plant is commonly referred to as the “supermarket of the swamp,” since so many of its parts can be eaten during so many seasons. Edible parts include but are not limited to: leaf hearts, flower spikes, pollen, shoots and roots. You can eat cattail raw, cook it or add it to a soup. You can make the shoots, or rhizoids, into flour, too.
• Maple trees: You can grind and bake the inner bark of maples to make a kind of bread. I bet it’s even gluten free. And of course, there’s always maple sap, although the right weather for tapping a tree rarely occurs in Oregon.
• Horsetail: I discovered horsetail last summer on a “writer’s camping trip” with some college friends and professors. We were identifying birds, butterflies and flowers. I’ve forgotten most of the plant and animal names, the triple-spotted kingsfoot and morningsinging graybeak and such, but I do remember the funny little bamboo-like shoots called horsetails, which I had not seen before. I didn’t know then, though, that you can eat them. Just peel off the outer layer of bark and nibble away.
• Dandelions: That weed you’re trying to rid your pristine lawn of would be a great resource during a food shortage. If you don’t have access to bananas or your Flintstones vitamins, dandelions can provide you with potassium and vitamins A and C. You can eat the leaves like any other greens, in a salad or on a sandwich or by themselves. You can eat the flowers and stems, too. You can boil and eat the roots, or dry and grind them into a coffee alternative. It’s like Starbucks, hippie style.
• Sea creatures: Go fishing; catch some crab; harvest some seaweed. Oregon has a lot of water, and it’s filled with lots of foodstuffs. But we’ll cover this subject more in-depth later in the year.
• Insects: Hey, protein is important. We’ll also cover this later.
• Berries: I know berries are rare in the mid-valley, but foraging is all about perseverance. If you search long enough, I’m sure you can find a few clandestine blackberry bushes hiding somewhere around here.
Next week: Hunting, unconventionally.