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Edelene Wood



Go Wild with your Holiday Meal
From Meat to Nuts and Berries - An Interview with Edelene Wood

By Hoy Murphy

Once your have the main dish on the menu, it’s time to plan for some wild side dishes and desserts. Wild foods includes plants you can find in a field or in the woods, and that’s been a long-time specialty for Edelene Wood of Parkersburg. Wood is the founder of West Virginia’s Nature Wonder Wild Food Weekend, which began at North Bend State Park in 1968 and has continued every September since under the sponsorship of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

The event is a fun weekend that is designed to promote education and provide experience finding, processing, and feasting on edible wild plants and other forageables. It draws hundreds of enthusiasts each year, and the highlight is the Saturday afternoon wild foods potluck feast in which participants cook up and share their day’s harvest.

Besides showing adventurers how to identify, collect and cook wild foods, Wood says another important educational aspect of the event is to help overcome what used to be a stigma associated with the process.

“During the Great Depression, we called it ‘make do’ food. Appalachians were ashamed of it and did not like others to know that during hard times they had to rely on it to survive. When things got better, people were eager to put it behind them and rely more on commercially produced food, so wild food went out of favor.

“Since 1969, that attitude has changed. We now call ‘make do food’ ‘wild food’ and sometimes ‘gourmet wild food.’ We’ve helped make West Virginians proud because of their ability to survive in hard times.”

The most commonly used wild foods in Appalachia are ramps and elderberries, Wood says. Ramps, a pungent, onion like plant, are abundant in the spring, but elderberries are best in the fall.

“That’s when elderberries are drying up on the vines,” she explains. “They are very versatile and can be used for juice, jelly, pies, cookies and cakes. But be careful that you don’t use berries that are too juicy. If you mix the blue berry juice with yellow cake mix, it turns the cake green!”

Other “gourmet” wild foods Wood recommends are cattails, which grow along rivers and streams and can be cooked in a variety of ways throughout the year; orange day lilies, which grow along road banks and can be used to flavor pancakes; wild strawberries, which make a tasty dessert; and hemlock (not the poison kind) which can be made into a delicious tea-like hot drink.

In the fall, the easiest and most popular wild foods, especially for beginners, are various nuts that can be found just about anywhere in West Virginia.

“Hickory nuts and walnuts are well known, but the butternut is becoming scarce. Few people know the value of acorns. White acorns are the best. When I was a girl I gathered a tremendous amount of them, ground them up and spread them on a table. You have to leach tannic acid out of them in order to use them. My mother came home and saw what I was doing. They were wet and spread out. She asked me what I was doing and I said I was preparing to grind them for coffee and flour. She said to freeze them while they were still wet and they could be used later.”

Another wild food that has fallen out of favor but can be turned into something delicious is the fruit of the paw paw tree. “Paw paw trees are producing in the fall,” she explains. “I can peel the fruit and put it through a sieve and make paw paw pulp. I freeze it and use it in ice cream, pies and cookies. Last year I found a way to make it into marmalade.”

Other common edible plants include dandelion and poke leaves, which can be eaten in salads; and pennyroyal, a small, aromatic mint plant that has a reputation as a medicinal tea.

Wood hopes that events like Nature Wonder Wild Food Weekend will continue to encourage people to explore their culinary options. “We’ve taken something that had been hidden and brought it gradually out into the open, and now we draw people from all 50 states. Most people are reluctant to get involved in wild food foraging and cooking. When they say ‘No thank you, I buy my food at the grocery store,’ they are cutting off a world of excitement.”

Hoy Murphy has lived in West Virginia all his life, currently in Kanawha County. He enjoys camping with his family, especially at Audra and North Bend state parks. Contact:
hoy.r.murphy@wv.gov