Thursday, July 28, 2011

New (to us) wild food: Sumac

Until about two months ago, I thought that this plant was poison sumac.

Poison as in definitely not edible, gives you a giant rash. It turns out I'd been missing out on some real tastiness all these years. This is staghorn sumac. Poison sumac is a completely different plant, which grows only in swamps and is apparently very uncommon. For a comparison check out this handy site:

Lucky for us, local forager Blanche Derby set us straight. A friend tipped us off to this local art teacher's amazing collection of foraging videos. They are quite...something. It's quirky public access TV at its finest. See for yourself:

Tell me you're not hooked.

Enough preamble. Here's Tristan's take on discovering this new wild food:

Today I collected a bushel of sumac drupes. I hope that will keep us covered for the rest of the year. We are using them to make sumac-ade, a traditional Native American preparation that's very similar to lemonade. The sticky coating of the sumac berry is high in malic and citric acid, and also contains ascorbic acid, making it fit for a summer drink. Most of us grew up drinking lemonade, the American classic. It's one of those traditions that's so pervasive - like milkshakes and classic cars - that people attribute to it an unimpeachable wholesomeness. Many would probably say they just couldn't go without it. To do so would be Un-American! But like Henry David Thoreau, who was also dubious of the industrial economy, I have to ask myself with all sobriety "do we really need tea and coffee and meat?", do we really need lemonade if it means trucking lemons from Florida or California or even somewhere in South American to my little town in Western Massachusetts? 

Instead, I strolled down my block to the edge of a wooded area and plucked an ample supply of sumac drupes.

Total cost: a bucket of sweat, and a dozen mosquito bites. Not too bad when you consider the scale of industry behind a single lemon.

Just because a product is pretty cheap on the shelves doesn't mean that it's so inexpensive down the road. When you take into account the long term effects of how it got there: the large scale manufacturing operations and their waste, the criminal and inhumane "employment" of downtrodden peoples, the huge trucking infrastructure and their carbon emissions - these have their hidden costs, absent from the budget sheets strewn about the desks of corporate headquarters. What is the true cost of a $1.50 carton of eggs at Walmart? Does anyone really know? Instead I can go for a stroll, get some sun, and experience the true and immediate weight of the exchange: sweat for sumac. And hey, it's kind of fun.

On my collection adventure I also had a chance to spy upon future fruits for harvest in the upcoming months. Scores of plump blackberry bushes laden with fruit are just beginning to ripen. Also the wild grape vines are covered with good sized fruits which will make for a good harvest this year I hope. For the blackberries, jams and preserves will be their eventual fate. Though I haven't tried it, I'm hoping to make wine with the grapes. Mwahaha!


Grant Wagner said...

Normally, I'm right behind you, but to take away a man's tea! That's downright unEnglish! Hehe, very cool.

I'm going to have to check out some of these foraging videos (and this is like, the third such thing I've seen in as many days, so I take that as divine providence). I wonder what munchables I have in my own back yard.

megan said...

We saw the first sumac ready for harvest on our way home this afternoon. I can't wait to grab a bucket in the morning and get our fill! We haven't had any for months now.

SomeGurrrl—GreenDigitalist said...

The one thing about harvesting a lot of sumac...I always leave some for the's a favorite food during snowstorms here in MI, when the snow is several feet deep and no greens are available for days or even weeks.

It's also VERY common in certain parts of the middle east, served like salt or pepper on everything; a dish is passed around with a spoon to ladle it on.

Planeteer said...

That stuff is all around Boulder. I had no idea it was edible. I'll have to grab some next time I'm in town.

Lighthouse Family said...

Hey, nice post, we love sumac- and drink it often in th' summer. Nice wood for carving too, thanks, ~rico

Unknown said...

haha i find it ironic that you mentioned Thoreau as i'm currently reading it this very moment and only stumbled across your blog to see what a sumac looked like to give me a broader image of what his surroundings actually looked like, how strange