Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop

Thank you, Jessica Knauss, for inviting me to join this blog hop about fiction and food.  I’ve asked Carol Anita Ryan, author of Right Now Is Perfect, <rightnowisperfect.com> to join the hop too.

When I started writing a series of prehistoric adventure novels, I didn’t know I’d end up learning about many subjects, including wild foods.  A local foraging guru showed me a fabulous world of wild edible and medicinal plants out there.  I’ve found I love the adventure of finding, preparing, and eating wild foods.

We’re surprisingly ignorant about the plants that surround us, but ancient people knew all about the wild foods available each season; they had to.  Elders warned young people not to eat the fruits or one plant, to peel those of another, to cook and mash another.  Their accumulated knowledge allowed the tribe to survive.

This is the world I write about in Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa and Past the Last Island, the second book in the Misfits and Heroes series, both set 14,000 years ago.  The first book follows a group of travelers from the coast of West Africa across the Atlantic.  The second follows explorers island-hopping eastward across the South Pacific until they decide to pass the last island and head out into the open sea.

Now, for the questions:

Do you snack as you write?  Sadly, yes.  Sweet or salty?  Both.  The current vice is blue corn chips, but chocolate cookies are never very far away.

Outline or seat of the pants?  Both.  I have a general outline and section guidelines, but once I’m writing a scene, I tend to just go with it, or “pants it,” as one writer put it.

Do you stick to a recipe or wing it?  I always begin thinking I’ll stick to the recipe then find I’m missing some ingredient but I have something sort of like it that might work if I just adjust those other ingredients, and so on.  Sometimes it works out very nicely, but then I can’t remember exactly what I did to make it work.  With wine, I find I have to take careful notes.  Otherwise, I just repeat the same mistakes on the next batch.

What’s next?  My WIP is the third book in the series, where both groups meet in what is now known as southern Mexico.  Beyond that, a fourth is lurking in the wings.

How hot is it?  Like Ginger Myrick, I tend to suggest sex rather than describe it.  Some sections are romantic, but the book’s accent is on adventure rather than romance, though romance is certainly part of the adventure.  I guess it’s a 3.  Maybe.  I’d love to hear from a reader on that score.

Now, for the recipes:

Wild foods can be very simple to prepare or incredibly complicated.  I tend to go with the easy stuff.  Here are two very easy possibilities:

dandelionDandelion fritters

Pick fresh dandelion flowers from an area you think is safe from chemicals and pets.  Rinse off any visiting bugs, shake the flowers out and let them dry on a towel.

Heat oil in a heavy pan.

Mix up one cup of flour, one egg, and one cup of milk.

Swirl dandelion flowers in the batter and fry them until golden brown, then flip them over until the other side is brown.  Then remove and set on paper towel.   While they’re still hot, dust them with kosher salt.  Enjoy!  Even people who have never eaten wild foods will (probably) love them.  They have a very mild flavor, not bitter like dandelion leaves, though they’re great too.

Orange daylily

Daylily salad

When daylilies (aka ditch lilies) are in season, pick a couple of handfuls of buds and four open flowers from an area away from car exhaust and lawn chemicals.  Remove the stamens and pistils from the flowers.  Cut the stem ends off the buds rinse them off and let them dry.  Include the buds with the tossed salad fixings you like best.  The buds have a very mild flavor, a little like asparagus, and go with almost anything.  Fill the cup of the flowers with herbed cheese and put them on top of the salad as an edible garnish.  Their very mild flavor goes well with something stronger, like garlic or pungent herbs.

Then I hope you go crazy with more wild foods.  So delicious – and free!

Be sure to check out the other blogs in the hop!

Feeding the Tribe Means Working Together

Although the backyard gardens our grandparents knew so well are returning to popularity, most of us still think of food as something that appears rather magically in the supermarket.  You need money to buy it.  It comes in tidy packages with attractive packaging and uniform labels.  Fruits are not connected to trees.  Vegetables are not growing in the dirt.  And meat is certainly never on the hoof.  A boy visiting an urban farm with a school trip refused to believe that eggs came from chickens.  Everybody knows, he argued, that eggs come from the grocery store.

The people 14,000 years ago had a very different world.  For one thing, their grocery store and their hardware store were always open and everything was free.  Of course, there were a few problems: wild animals that saw humans as products in the meat aisle, poisonous plants, dangerous terrain, wildfires, floods, rock slides, and so on.

These concerns meant cooperation was absolutely necessary.  In order to eat, you needed to know where to collect, what to collect, and how to prepare it.  Someone had to tell you that roasted cashews were wonderful and raw ones would make you sick.  Same for cassava and rhubarb.  Some mushrooms were delicious; some were fatal.  And you had to listen.  A child who didn’t listen to the elders wouldn’t survive.  In return for this information, you might share grubs you’d caught or information like a honey tree you’d seen.  Food was a communal business.

While we often picture ancient people hunting big game, for many societies, big game meat was an occasional treat.  The bulk of their diet was fruits, leaves, grains, roots, and nuts, as well as grubs, crickets, frogs, ants, snakes, mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and turtles.   They ate what was available, and in the warmer areas, lots of food was available; it only needed to be collected.  Children learned early on what they could eat raw and what needed coooking.  In the modern-day photos, the boy is eating a grub; the girl is enjoying cooked rat.  It’s all what you’re used to.

In modern hunting and gathering societies, the women do most of the gathering and preparation of food, so I assume the division of labor was similar in ancient times.

The men, typically, were the hunters of larger animals.  Women might trap rabbits or catch lizards, but the men did the organized hunting of big game.  It was difficult and dangerous, with great potential for injury, even death, but also great glory.   A kill was a cause for celebration in the village, one that required almost all other work to stop because everyone needed to work together to butcher the animal and process the meat, bones, skin, fat, and organs, all of which were useful.  The heart and liver were most desirable since they carried part of the essence of the animal, especially its grace and speed.  Kidneys, brains, tongue, head, neck, tail, feet, blood and bone marrow were all prized.  The cracking of bones for bone marrow is evident in many of the earliest homonid sites that archaeologists have studied.  Even parts like the stomach, bladder, and intestines were used, sometimes as containers for cooking other parts.

All this sounds very foreign, but our sausage comes from the practice of stuffing a meat, blood, and seasoning mixture into a length of intestines.  “Natural casing” sausage still uses washed small intestines, and as we hear in the news periodically, some of our “hot dogs” include pig lips, tongue, ears, eyelids, and snouts.

That traditional barbecue you enjoy on your friend’s patio is an echo of a very old tradition involving the celebration of roasted meat from the hunt.  And, of course, the women still do the gathering.