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SOUP ON THE WILD SIDE
(e-SoupSong 18: September 28, 2001)
Once upon a time, EVERYTHING was wild.
No, really. Back in ancient times, alas for them, there were no juicy tomatoes; no plump chickens bred for breastmeat; no fat onions, creamy beans, or seedless watermelons. It was every man, woman, and child for their own selves, foraging weedy plants...chasing insects...eying passing animals...using quick hands to snare flickering fish.
Here's what the record says: That homo erectus, 1 million BCE, was living hand to mouth on wild roots, berries, nuts, termites, and bone marrow. That Peking man, 400,000 BCE, added wild grains, acorns, and wild beans to the mix. That Neanderthal man, hunter extraordinaire, added mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and the occasional human to his foraging, somewhere around 75,000 BCE. That when clever homo sapiens arrived on the scene, 38,000 BCE, he mastered fire, tools, weapons, even fishhooks, all the better to eat with. But everything he ate was wild. It was still a hand-to-mouth life.
Then came Neolithic times (10,000 BCE). It was then that man, for better or worse, began to get a grip on his environment. Settling in one place gave him time, over time, to notice patterns of nature and growth. He had opportunity to domesticate and amass animals. Likewise for edible plants. One small sign of his sophistication: he invented soup. Not so easy, either, as cooking pots hadn't been invented yet.
HOW CULTIVATED CAN YOU GET?
You'd think plants would have been domesticated first, since they couldn't run away, but animals came first by a long shot--and mostly in the Middle East. Goats first (10,000 BCE); then sheep (7,700 BCE); then pigs in Asia (7,000); then cattle from aurochs (6,500 BCE). Dogs, horses, camels, and buffalo, too, but not so much for eating. Chickens, from Malaysian jungle fowls, weren't domesticated til 2,000 BCE--which means you should be very suspicious of any stories about Sumerians eating chicken, since that whole civilization pretty much disappeared around that time (and no, I don't think there's a connection).
How on earth could these Neoliths find the ways to bend the will of truly feral animals to reliable docility? One book I read showed a speculative drawing of a Neolithic woman breastfeeding a ferocious-looking and very toothy baby pig. Ouch. One thing is sure: It couldn't have been easy sweet-talking wild animals into staying put, much less serving as one-stop shopping for ceremonial/sacrificial rites, milk, meat, tools, and clothing. But it happened, at least with some animals. Not all, though. In 2000 BCE, Egyptians finally threw up their hands and gave up trying to domesticate the oryx, antelope, and gazelle. And modern man hasn't been any more successful, to judge from the surly atmosphere at zoos.
What about plants, then? At what point did some incredibly observant people save the seeds they'd harvested, deliberately keep them safe during cold winter months, then use digging sticks to plant them on some plot of cleared land and wait for a miracle? In fact, the record shows it was likely about 8,000 BCE and in the Mideast. In this flash of insight, agriculture was born. And news traveled fast by prehistory standards. By 7,000 BCE, Emmer wheat was domesticated from wild wheat in Kurdistan/Iran; barley, millet, and lentils, in Greece. By 5,000 BCE, the Chinese domesticated rice. By 4,000 BCE, fields in the Indus Valley were systematically irrigated--and they produced a bounty: wheat, barley, peas, sesame seeds, mangoes, date palms, bananas, lemons, limes, oranges--and even grapes for wine; in China, people dined on millet, barley, rice, vegetable, and fish--still richly supplemented by wild foods. By 3,000 BCE, potatoes, corn, beans, chilies, and squash were cultivated in the New World; soybeans, in Asia.
Incredibly, by 1500 BCE, ALL MAJOR FOOD PLANTS THAT ARE USED TODAY WERE BEING CULTIVATED SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD. All of them!
That's a lot of progress for a world with just a few centers of civilization and a mere 40 million people in it. Forty million people. Not very many to perfect the great work of plant and animal domestication on earth. Think about it: that's the current population of Burma.
And just for perspective, think about what was going on back in 1500 BCE. That was before Biblical history. Before even the most ancient of the ancient Greeks. It was a time when Olmecs, with their Jaguar God, were settling on the gulf coast of Mexico, building Temple cities and carving huge sculptures. When the "Sons of Heaven" of the Chinese Shang Dynasty were riding around in horse drawn carts, overseeing the production of ceramics, bronze casting, writing, and human sacrifices. When Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut married her brother, seized power, dressed like a man, and ruled benignly though briefly. When Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro civilizations in India were decaying, leaving a vacuum for those infamous "Indo-Europeans" north of the Black Sea to flood south into India, east and west too, with their all-conquering language. And also when the explosion of Thera's volcano in the Aegean sea sent out tidal waves that destroyed the Minoan civilization and Egyptian croplands--thus creating the enduring myth of Atlantis. It was all these people who set the menu for at least the next 3500 years.
After 1500 BCE, it was just a matter of nailing down, improving, and swopping these foods from place to place.
WILD FOOD: DEMETER'S UGLY STEPSISTER
But wait a minute. What about all the edible foods in the wild that WERE not--and HAVE not been--brought into the cultivated magic circle? Believe me, there are thousands of them. Are they too stinky to eat? Too ugly and warty? Bad tasting? Wrongfully ignored? In need of an advocate? Just plain no good? I ask you: if they're edible, why haven't they been brought into the fold?
For the most part, they ARE Demeter's ugly stepsisters--gamey, tough, stringy, and bitter. Worse, they play hard to get, full of teeth and claws and stingers and spines.
Take the Wordsworth Guide to edible food, for example. Its guide to edible animals starts out "aardvark, aardwolf, abalone, and African pouched rats"...and ends with "wombats, woodcocks, worms, and yaks." Its guide to edible plants starts out " abutilons, acacias, acorns, and agaves"...and ends up "yams, yeasts, yuccas, and zamias."
So, understandably, most people today are attracted to wild foods out of need, not out of choice.
Example 1: And, alas, always, always, the poor and dispossessed of the world. A week doeesn't go by without news features on victims of drought, war, and oppression barely subsisting on thin soups culled from the wild. Just this year, Albanians in Kosovo, Ethiopians in Kenya, North Koreans in China, American children holed up with survivalist parents, Bosnians, Chechnyans, Macedonians, and San bushmen in South Africa. This week in the New York Times Barry Bearak reports from Peshawar, Pakistan, that Afghani refugees--cut off from United Nations aid--are stripping off wild grasses and boiling them into a soup for their families. Shame on us for letting it happen.
Example 2: Contemporary hunter/gatherers across the wild areas of the world. The Mapuche people of Northwest Patagonia gather pehuen seeds (Araucaria araucana) and grind them into a soup. Pume Indians in remote Venezuela dine variously on lizard soup, fish head soup, and boiled root soups. Ndorobos in Kenya brew croton bark soup as an electrifying stimulant, but prefer lion or antelope soup for an empty belly. And Inuits in Nunavut relish caribou soup and fish soup.
Example 3: Outdoorsmen and others who need wilderness skills to survive outside of civilization. Just this past week, in fact, 2 Canadians and 2 Australians completed a 3500-mile (5,500-km) voyage down Siberia's Yenisei River, taking 4 and 1/2 months to row and run its rapids in 17 degree F (-8 C) temperatures. When 29-year-old Colin Angus was separated from his friends, he robbed birds' nests and foraged wild rhubarb, birch sap, and nettles. And what did these intrepid adventurers eat at journey's end when they celebrated with those same Nunavut Inuits? You guessed it: fish soup and reindeer stew.
WILD IS AS WILD DOES
And yet, after all, it's not JUST the poor, the primitive, and the adventurous who value wild foods. Most everyone yearns to reconnect with Mother Nature on some level, and more adamantly, I think, as we bend more and more profoundly into our computer screens and lose sight of her.
Family outings for berry picking. Fishing trips. Clam digging and crabbing with chicken necks. These are universal "good times." Wild mushroom hunting is practically an Olympic sport in Russian and Central Europe. I have friends who grow fur at the very thought of hunting season. Apparently, you can take people out of the wild, but you can't take the hunter-gatherer instinct out of people.
So this month I re-read my Euell Gibbons and took my instincts outside to, in his immortal words, "stalk the wild asparagus."
Good friend Maggie and I trudged the W&OD trail, books in hand--and to our surprise found wild grapes, blackberry canes, milkweed pods, pokeweed, sunflowers, and things we weren't exactly sure of. In my own back yard I found mulberries, amaranth, dandelions, sorrel, and purslane. Even the night before last, after I metro'd home from work at 9 pm only to find my car had been towed, I walked the two miles home in high heels and found sassafras, chickory, and tiger lilies by moon and street light.
So I'm a believer: wild foods are everywhere for the picking. All you need are sharp eyes, a good guide (Gibbons, Peterson, Henderson, the Krockmals, Berglund & Bolsby), and, oh yes, gardening gloves come in handy.
That said, these wild foods don't always make great soups. Edible soups, yes. Great soups, no. And let me tell you what a pain it is scraping and peeling gnarly dandelion roots or boiling wild sorrel in 3 changes of water to take out the bitterness.
So this month I leave you with 2 recipes that are delicious, authentic, and easy. One a cold blackberry soup adapted from Norway, chunky and tart, clean and woodsy; the other a rich Native American soup with bison (or beef), wild rice, and dried blueberries. If you'd like to dig a little deeper into wild food soups, please check my references at www.soupsong.com/zoct01.html.
BLACKBERRY SOUP (for 4)
Heat the blackberries and water in a saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the wine, sugar, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Simmer for 10 minutes. Chill. When ready to serve, ladle into bowls and garnish with dollops of whipped cream.
BISON-BLUEBERRY SOUP WITH WILD RICE (for 4)
Brown the meat in a little oil, then add the onions and mushrooms and saute on high for 5 minutes. Pour in the water, bring to a boil, and add the wild rice and blueberries. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 45 minutes. When the meat and rice are tender, thicken the soup with cornstarched dissolved in water. Let it reboil, then reduce the heat and simmer a few more minutes. Season with salt to taste. Ladle into bowls. Maybe eat in front of a roaring fire, cold wind to your back.
Best regards, Pat Solley
p.s. I'd meant to try out some killer soup recipes for wild onions, wild garlic, wood mushrooms, and ground cherries too, but ran out of time. I hope to locate and cook all of them this weekend--am dying to see if they turn out well....
References: Berndt Berglund and Clare E. Bolsby's The Complete Outdoorsman's Guide to Edible Wild Plants; Don and Patricia Brothwell's Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples; The Cambridge World History of Food; Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder; Gail Duff's The Countryside Cook Book; Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus; Robert K. Henderson's The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet; Leon R. Kass's The Hungry Soul; Connie and Arnold Krockmal's A Naturalist's Guide to Cooking with Wild Plants; Eleanor and John Lewallen's Sea Vegetable Gourmet; A.D. Livingston and Helen Livingston's The Wordsworth Guide to Edible Plants and Animals; Jim Meuninck's The Basic Essentials of Edible Wild Plants and Useful Herbs; Lee Allen Peterson's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants; Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat's History of Food; James Trager's The Food Chronology; and a variety of articles from journals and newspapers.* * *
NEXT MONTH: SOUPING THROUGH SLOVENIA