The cold air seems to steal the very breath from your lungs, you’re surrounded by white, and the ground you stand on is frozen solid. Would you be able to survive winter in the northeast without access to grocery stores and restaurants? This thought experiment usually goes one of two ways for people: either they view it as a completely hopeless situation, or they romanticize the idea of hunting for deer, bear, and rabbits and daydream about roasting huge chunks of meat over the fire. I have both of these thoughts myself, but the fact is that winter survival would have to be much more complex. As the poet Wallace Stevens alludes to in his poem “The Snow Man”, “one must have a mind of winter” to recognize its stark beauty. I like to think of this poem whenever I think of the challenge of winter and how awesome that challenge is.
Anyway, back to the food.
Ever heard of rabbit starvation? It’s a phenomenon where you can literally starve to death if all you eat is rabbit meat. The meat’s lack of fat leads to protein poisoning. So, to combat this you could attempt to eat animals with a bit more fat like deer and bear. But, even if you could find a way to take down large game in a primitive survival situation, if you ate nothing but meat you’d get scurvy. No matter how you slice it, plants have to be a part of the mix. But it’s winter?! Most of what we think of as edible plants in the northeast are either dead or frozen solid in the hard ground.
This is where trees become a critical survival food and vitamin source, and where food preservation becomes a required survival strategy. You can bet your ass that the native people of this continent didn’t head into winter unprepared. They knew how to dry and store key wild plants that could provide essential vitamins, starches, salts, and proteins.
Last summer and fall, I made a concerted effort to practice wild food preservation at a higher level than I have before. Not all of the techniques I used would be possible in a primitive survival situation. I aimed to preserve enough food so that I could eat something every day and have some variety. The effort was part of my larger goal of eating wild edibles every day for an entire year. I achieved this goal on April 1st.
This winter I ate the following species (most of which I preserved by drying or freezing): wintergreen, woundwort, elderberry, golden rod, reishi, staghorn sumac, chaga, stinging nettle, wild blueberry, chokecherry, summer oyster mushroom, king bolete, dryad’s saddle, chanterelle, nannyberry, highbush cranberry, guilder rose, white pine, king bolete, mountain ash, dandelion, ground bean, chicken of the woods, bear’s head, lobster mushroom, ox eye daisy, sassafras, burdock, wild parsnip, wild mint, acorn, eastern hemlock (tree), garlic mustard, and black walnut. We made some fantastic meals using these items. A few of the meals truly stood out.
One was lobster mushroom eggs benedict. Its delicious seafood flavor dazzles the taste buds when paired with rich egg yolks, lemon and butter, all drizzled atop a poached egg and steamed asparagus.
Another meal we relished was shrimp gumbo with traditional dried, wild sassafras (AKA file powder) sprinkled on top.
And, of course, the King Bolete mushroom never disappointed, becoming a prime feature in dozens of meals when we needed some warm comfort food. We dried most of it and tried freezing some, and in every application the dried mushrooms were preferable both in flavor and texture.
All said and done, it was a tasty winter, and one we certainly survived, though we had the small privilege of being able to shop at a grocery store and live in a warm apartment!