I’ve known about West Virginia’s Wild Food Weekend for 20 years (see Adventurer Vol 5 #4, 2000). While attending the 33rd annual conference last September I was shocked to discover that another wild food event had been going on for 25 years. How could I have gone so long as a wild food professional without hearing about this second event?
Evidently, the wild fooders of North Carolina, inspired by Euell Gibbons and the West Virginia event, decided to put on their own shindig years ago. It has developed a faithful following over time. The organizers are low key and hard to get a-hold of. They do not advertise and are not sponsored by any state organizations – everything is by local word of mouth.
To spread the word and share the fun, here is my account of the experience.
It was Bill Faust, a long time wild food aficionado and wild game specialist who put me in contact with Ed Kessler, the current President of the North Carolina Wild Foods Association. After some conversations, and because of my extensive work with wild foods, Ed invited me to be the featured speaker at their Spring 2001 event.
I jumped at the chance. It was a great opportunity to travel again to North Carolina, to make some new wild food friends, check out this great event, and to do some plant-based research and photography.
The 2001 Weekend was held from April 20-22 at the Betsy-Jeff Penn 4-H Educational Center. This 4-H Center has been the home of the North Carolina Wild Food Weekend for years. It’s about 20 miles north of Greensboro North Carolina.
Prior to the event I flew to my folks place in Michigan for a visit and to borrow my brother’s car. The long drive from Michigan to North Carolina and back allowed me to stop along the way to study and eat the local wild foods. I also got to visit the impressive Toledo Botanical Garden in Ohio, and the North Carolina Botanical Garden at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Aside from a small stipend for my speakership, Ed arranged for my pre-conference accommodations. I had the pleasure of being hosted by Al Mora in Haw River, North Carolina for a couple of days. Al knew lots about wild foods and was a great story teller.
The conference began on Friday afternoon. Friends became reacquainted, people were registered, and dinner was served. I gave the program for that evening – a slide presentation about wild gourmet garden vegetables. My talk was followed by a social hour during which participants enjoyed wild food dishes including chickweed pinwheels with pecans, rock tripe crackers with ramp and mustard flower dip, thistle seed raisin rounds, redbud muffins, venison sausage balls, and black walnut oatmeal cookies. In preparation for the next day’s events, each person assigned themselves to a food category. Categories included Salads and Greens, Vegetables, Breads and Baked Products, Entrees, Wild Game, Fruits, Beverages, and Desserts.
On Saturday, after a hearty conventional Southern breakfast, we broke into our food groups and went foraging. In reality, my group was more a wild food plant identification walk with a local expert than a harvesting experience. Evidently, much of the wild foods to be used for the evening meal had already been gathered by core conference people the day before. This was still, however, a fun and educational experience.
We lunched back at the education center and divided into our food groups. The next four hours involved over one hundred people together cleaning, processing and creating over one hundred wild food dishes. This was really something to see, participate in, and to savor. I wish I could see this kind of event going on all over North America.
I was assigned a simple acorn bread. Sam Thayer, who couldn’t make this event, had sent some ready-made acorn bread mix. This convenience allowed me to do my journalistic job and cook some wild food at the same time.
I saw people washing greens, slicing tubers, skinning snakes, designing pizzas, blending fruits, baking wild breads and pastries, cooking wild game, decorating wild pies with wild flowers and much more. As the preparation wound down, anticipation grew for the upcoming evening wild food feast.
The main dining hall became a wild food extravaganza. Over one hundred dishes were laid out on long tables. Once everything was artfully displayed, participants entered the hall with amazed looks on their faces. People just walked around for a while looking at the bounty before them. It took a few brave souls to break the impasse and dig into some of the food art, then a wild eating frenzy ensued.
Some of the dishes made included lots of fresh wild salads, wild taco salad with wild spinach and violets, sauteed watercress, knotweed pie, kudzu shoots with sesame peanut sauce, lambsquarter and sorrel soup, chicken of the woods in a blanket, sumac blueberry jelly, ground cherry preserves, lemon-redbud gelatin salad (containing the flowers: redbud, blue violets, and dandelion), water cress dip made with cream cheese, chickweed pesto pizza, wineberry cobbler, herbal cheese bread, wild blackberry juice, rattlesnake salad, creasy greens, paw paw nut bread, elderberry wine, wild muscadine grape wine, mixed wild fruit wine, red-bud wine, as well as wild squirrel, quail, venison, bear, and buffalo dishes.
We all just ate too much. In my experience, nine out of ten dishes were good to excellent. I wished I had had room for more.
That evening people socialized. There were informational and plant-related booths for people to check out in the main presentation hall. The evening was topped off by a bonfire where stories of every nature were shared – some spooky, some ribald, but mostly humorous.
After breakfast on Sunday, there were plant walks whose topics were tree identification and basic wild edibles. After lunch I gave my second slide presentation “Important Wild Foods of North America.” I covered plants like cattail, wapato, and camas in detail, along with many others. After some questions and answers we broke for the day, and I headed back to my parent’s home in Michigan.
All in all this was a rewarding event that would be of interest to any wild food enthusiast. Take a trip to North Carolina some spring and join the frenzy. The now 40th annual event is set for April 24 – 26, 2015.