A forest of flavor

This winter, we invited a group of close friends up to our Barnardsville house for New Year's dinner. After the trek up the steep, ice-covered driveway, everyone was glad for the warmth of our fire and the home-dipped beeswax candles scattered around the room. We welcomed everyone with an "Appalachian Reishi" mead aperitif.

Ramping it up: Zev Friedman has a passion for native foods. Here, he holds a bundle of ramps, an Appalachian specialty that really packs a punch.photo by Jonathan Welch

I had been working on a stew since the day before that incorporated a stock made from the bones of a pastured heritage turkey raised by Gateway Farm out at Earthaven. In the stew pot was hominy made from Oaxacan Green corn we grew the previous fall, frozen ramps from spring '09, spicebush berries and sun-dried tomatoes from a friend's garden.

Natalie provided a crock of shredded venison that her partner had hunted and that she had processed, as well as a big frozen block of peppered deer sausage from earlier in the season. Joe was trying to cram a candy-roaster squash roughly the size of his torso into the oven. Twenty pounds of meat from a goat he had slaughtered earlier in the year waited in the freezer for our next stew.

To our stew, we added venison, goat, Maitake mushrooms and nettles. Also on the table: hominy cornbread, chickweed pesto and wild mustard salad with walnut oil. Occasionally we cleansed our palates with wild blueberry and muscadine wine, blackberry sassafras beer, and James' elegant, bronzy persimmon-and-autumn-olive mead.

In the morning, we had eggs and fresh "walking" onion greens from our friends down the road, hominy corn cakes with maple syrup we cooked down from sugar maples last winter, venison sausage and stimulating rounds of toasted yaupon holly tea.

If you're unfamiliar with some of the foods described above, you're not alone. Most of the ingredients are part of what I'm dubbing "forest cuisine," a specialized palette of the animals, plants and fungi that want to live here in our bio-region. When I say "native," I mean "naturalized." I'm talking about perennials — species that will grow from one year to the next with very little help from us. Many of the foods that we all currently grow in our gardens or buy at the farmers market don't want to grow here.

I'm not interested in native foods out of purism, but out of practicality and passion. Raising crops that require re-planting every year is a constant uphill battle. If you, in a fit of native cuisine envy, were to suddenly up and move to Italy, your veggie garden would rapidly revert to a patch of aggressive weedy plants and native forest. We live in the great Eastern forest, which would quickly retake our roads, fields, parks and cities if we stopped clearing for a few decades.

Historically, unless they were a slave-holding people, our indigenous ancestors were always committed to minimizing work for their food, so they invented the forest and poly-culture techniques upon which permaculture design is based. By working with natural cycles and patterns, permaculture helps us to work less while providing for our needs in a regenerative approach, meaning that what we leave behind when we die is nicer than what we found when we got here. In conventional agriculture, we're constantly trying to meet the requests of these European crops, who easily succumb to pests and diseases, fungus and more, providing us with plenty of extra work. 

It's only in a land of recent immigrants like ours that we have to talk each other into eating locally grown food. Elsewhere, even though industrialization has recently changed many things, the food legacies from pre-industrial living continue. In Japan, the people eat a diet of ocean fish and seaweed, tea, rice and more than 20 varieties of indigenous mushrooms. The people are inheritors of a long, unbroken chain of living (by necessity) off of the ocean and their particular soils and climate and those species that have adapted to it all.

In Italy, people feast on olives, blood oranges, rich, spicy wines from skillfully "tortured" grapes, tomatoes and regional cheeses. In real Mexican food, you find cilantro, avocados, corn and beans, and the occasional lucky chicken or pig spiced with mole into incendiary ecstasy. Middle-eastern, Ethiopian, Indian, Thai — each of these food systems hang together in the imagination and in reality. 

Somehow these people, eating the seasonal food that grows near their homes, possess a mysterious vitality — even when a biochemical analysis of their diet says that they're eating too much fat or not enough vegetables. Each of these places' peoples have gradually honed an understanding of their wild foods and the soils and ecosystems they've come from. In the southern Appalachian mountains, a hotspot of biodiversity and rich forest ecosystems, this native cuisine is rare.

Sure, we have barbecued pork, venison that's illegal to sell, and a few people still making hominy. Some people daringly eat persimmons off the ground, know what paw-paws are and play around with black walnuts. The native cuisine vanguard is eating sochan and basswood leaves, processing acorns and even the occasional tasty groundhog speared with spicebush and grilled over hickory coals.

We have gourd banjos and river-cane baskets, Shining Rock Wilderness and the legacy of Jesse Helms, but we don't have native cuisine. That is, we don't have a distinct palette of foods defining each season's mood, foods that grow naturally here with minimal persuasion, that we prepare with the accumulated wisdom of generations of people testing what grows well, what tastes good, and what makes them feel good. There's no reason we shouldn't — it's more of an issue of memory and rediscovery than invention.

Zev Friedman, a Sylva native, has a B.S. in Human Ecology from UNCA. He is a principal in Living Systems Design, which focuses on whole system designs of ecologically beneficial human settlements. Friedman's specialty is forest agriculture; he runs the Forest Cuisine Project, which helps landowners to start forest farms and market their products. For more information, visit www.livingsystemsdesign.net.

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