THROUGH THE WOODS: Golden spring

SPRING IN COLUMBIA COUNTY abounds in the color yellow, which is a perfect welcome for a season of joy. Winter, we hope, is finally gone. The yellow flowers to be found along the roadsides and in wet ditches now are spice bush, dandelion, coltsfoot and marsh marigold (cowslip) to name a few.

When we were kids we scouted the wet areas in our south meadow until we found the emerging marsh marigolds, commonly called cowslips. Our mother told us that years ago there were few or no greens to eat during winter, so people looked forward to eating cowslips in spring. If there were enough of them and would not deplete the source she would cook up a batch for us to eat. They contain a toxin (glycoside protoanemonin, which is destroyed by heat) so cowslips must always be cooked well to be eaten. We didn’t try this, but the buds can be cooked, pickled and used as a substitute for capers.

Mom was always reading and particularly liked Euell Gibbons, whom she found to be a kindred spirit since both of them liked to find wild edibles. As we got older we were never sure what would be on the menu for supper. Fortunately our father trusted our mother’s cooking and would eat, with few exceptions, whatever she prepared. We were open to trying new things so meals were interesting and our palates were developed beyond the ordinary. From her viewpoint it reduced the cost of groceries and any savings was always welcome on a family farm.

Cowslips. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

Most of our food was grown on or obtained from the farm so we also ate cattail shoots, dandelion greens and dandelion wine, fiddlehead ferns, milkweed, a few easily identified mushrooms, wild strawberries and blueberries, and homemade maple syrup.

This required a lot of research and, for some items, searching, gathering and preparation. We roamed the countryside with knives, shovels, bags and baskets. Having saddle horses was helpful at times, but for the most part we went on foot. Mom loved to walk so we covered trails all the way back in our woods to almost a mile away. One trip I got asked to wade out into the cold water of a marshy area to get cattail shoots.

I hate to think about all the insects we may have eaten. Organic, wild vegetation often contains varieties of insects. My father’s classic remark was that anything like this just added a little extra protein, and after all, it was cooked.

When I took my horse on one of these outings he was happy to get a rest and a few mouthfuls of grass while I was doing the gathering. Picking wild strawberries was the best. Of course there was the temptation and reward to eat some of the sun warmed fruit. They have the most intense flavor of any strawberry in my experience.

The trip home had to be slow and easy so the berries remained intact. A covered quart pail worked well. These meals ended with strawberry shortcake on homemade biscuits with our own farm fresh milk. Those were good days. Maybe it is time to get out Euell Gibbons again for a refresher. The dandelion greens will be ready soon.

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