Stalking the Wild CeleryUn-picky eaters on the Alaskan frontier
In the early 1980s, my family moved to Alaska—driven by my mother’s vision of finding someplace wild and beautiful. She was filled with dreams of homesteading, living off the bounty of the land, and putting food by. Such is the misfortune of children of parents with vision.
Every plant that anyone (Athabaskan Indians, gold miners) had ever used went on the platter. If there wasn’t a record of it killing someone, we tried it. We sampled fresh watermelon berries (watery and insipid), made bread with cattail pollen, drank beverages brewed with spruce tips and a shrub called Labrador tea. We ate fireweed and dandelion (surprisingly bitter even when small). Of the 34 officially recognized edible flora in our area, we tried 21, including a couple categorized as “edible plants that can be used in an emergency.” Yes, some lichens are edible, but they sure aren’t tasty.
From Cooking Alaskan, that classic work (“by Alaskans,” as the cover notes) on preparing Alaskan wild foods, we discovered the single most important ingredient of most plant recipes: bacon fat. Recipe after recipe begins with “Fry two strips of bacon . . . ” Then you add a smidge of wild sourdock, or sorrel, or nettle, and cook it up. Bacon fat is key because the flavor is strong enough to cover most anything. It could make a delicacy of moldy croutons.
One of the problems with determining which wild Alaskan plants might be appetizing on their own is that widely different species often have the same common name. Wild celery can supposedly be eaten if you remove the outer fibrous layer of the stalk. There was plenty of what we called wild celery—a plant with tall, dense umbrellas of yellowish-white flowers—growing around our home, so my mother cut some stalks, then scraped away the outer layer. We kids were nervous. Having played in the stands of wild celery, we knew the plants sometimes caused stinging and a skin rash (reactions that turn out to be due to furanocoumarin, a light-sensitive chemical). I kept asking how we could be sure we had removed all of the outer fibers, and my mother kept peeling.
Finally she said it was now or never. I bit down and chewed, waiting for the searing pain. Nothing happened. It was just a tasteless bit of plant matter, like the pinkish core of iceberg lettuce a week past its prime. I didn’t know until years later that our wild celery was the kind also called cow parsnip, Angelica lucida. It was not even in the same family as Heracleum lanatum, the one the plant books recommended.
The worst experiment started out innocently enough, with a recipe for “Eskimo ice cream.” You were supposed to combine berries, seal oil, water, and a little sugar and whip it all up into a froth. Lacking seal oil, my mother substituted Crisco, but the other ingredients were easy to acquire, including the suggested berry, soopolallie (Shepherdia canadensis). Soon our metal bowl was filled with gorgeous light pink foam. It looked like strawberry ice cream, and why wouldn’t it, with those heaps of freshly picked wild berries? Yet as we each took an eager spoonful, the flavors of turpentine, gasoline, and Dawn dish soap assaulted us. Of course, if you are botanically minded, you know that soopolallie has another common name: soapberry.
In fairness, I must admit that my mother introduced me to foodstuffs that, nowadays, I can’t imagine living without: tangy sorrel and lamb’s-quarters in fresh salads, highbush cranberries—with their slightly musty flavor that always reminds me of autumn—made into jelly or juice and served warm, or the bog cranberries that stand in for their larger cousins in my Thanksgiving Day cranberry sauce. More than that, it’s a comfort to know which of the plants around me to preserve for winter, brew for tea, or just munch on while hiking in the woods. And if all else fails, I know how to make nearly anything taste good: “Fry two strips of bacon . . . ”
DIANA REDWOOD, N04, MPH04, grew up in Palmer, Alaska. When she’s not sampling local delicacies, she engages in another Alaskan pursuit: ice climbing.