Author Ellen Zachos writes about her September trip to the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Wisconsin.
If wild foods weren’t delicious, I wouldn’t be interested in them. Sure, there’s the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of feeding yourself for free. But for me, the single most important aspect of wild edibles is that they taste terrific. Prepared correctly, with imagination and skill, wild edibles rival any food, anywhere.
Last month, I celebrated the coming of fall with a group of like-minded people at the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. More than 120 wild foods enthusiasts filled the Wisconsin Badger Camp, pitching tents and rolling out displays of wild honey and homemade soaps. I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Midwest but I’d go back in a flash. The land between the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers was fertile and lovely and I felt positively joyous, immersed in the world of wild foods world for an entire weekend.
As we were beginning to settle in for the weekend, I jumped in the car with foraging legend Sam Thayer and we made a quick reconnaissance tour, marking the locations for foraging walks and gathering expeditions. Supper was a potluck cooking contest, and yours truly got to judge! Seriously, what could be more fun than tasting pickled cornelian cherries, wild apple and elderberry pie, and a curry of milkweed pods, daylily buds, and black locust flowers?
I gave the keynote address that evening: “Delicious Wild Edibles: More Than Just Survival Food.” The truth is, there were many people at the festival who are more experienced foragers than I am, but no one cares more about delicious food. I was there to share some creative wild cookery and I was preaching to a very receptive choir.
Saturday offered a range of wild foods classes, foraging walks, and cooking! My morning class harvested sweet autumn olives and baked autumn olive/spice bush cake to feed 120 at lunch. In the afternoon we sautéed lotus tubers (Nelumbo lutea) fresh from the Mississippi River with wild garlic. Next we processed sumac, rubbing the flesh and hairs off the berries and grinding it to make a deep red, tart spice. The sumac colored the lotus pink, making the already ornamental slices not only tasty but very pretty, too.
I sold a whole case of Backyard Foraging and bought a few new books for myself. (I figured I’d earned a treat and books have always been my favorite gift.) In the week following the festival, I was in touch with many new friends, exchanging recipes and talking about next year’s Midwest Wild Harvest Festival. I have a feeling I’ll be going back.