Food at Your Feet: Wild Onions

This is about a little adventure my wife and I had during our recent trip to West Virginia. I need to set the stage for this one. Stick with me long enough, and you’ll understand the where and why of it all.

The more I write, the more I realize the punchline isn’t the important part. How you get there is just as important, and if done correctly, more memorable.

In life, how we get where we are is what makes us. Don’t ever forget your past…even the painful parts.

Growing up in West Virginia, one of my fondest memories involved staying with my dad’s parents. I loved all of my grandparents, but these two lived a simpler life than the rest of the family – no phone, no TV service, a wringer-washer, and a whole world of “country living” that I had eventually to love and embrace.

I’m going to be a little candid here. I wasn’t born in West Virginia. I was born in Detroit, MI. The Motor City. Home of Ford Motor Company. In fact, I could see the Ford Vehicle Operations plant from the top of the train tracks behind my house.

Yeah, I was born a city boy. A BIG city at that.

Don’t hate me for it. And, as the line goes in the Monty Python skit, “I got better!

When I was in third grade, my mom, brother and myself moved to West Virginia. I loved the country. Fresh air. Fishing. Wildlife. Fresh food. Hills. Valleys. Nature…. I felt like Daniel Boone, or Davy Crockett…wandering the hills from daylight til dark. Exploring. Learning. Loving every aspect of being a part of nature, just one piece in a fantastically large puzzle.

When I moved to West Virginia as a kid, I had found my true home. And to be honest, my city birth was incidental. My grandfather was born and raised in West Virginia. By bloodlines, I WAS one quarter Hillbilly.

(For those with score cards, my Hillbilly grandfather married a lovely young British girl during WWII. My biological father’s father was of Scandinavian descent and his wife was of American Indian stock – close enough to make me adoptable by a tribe, I’m told….but with no way to prove it. I was adopted around age 10 by my mother’s second husband. I call him “Pops”, and he is my father in every way but blood. It is his parents that I am talking about here.)

So whenever I’d spend time with my (adopted) grandparents, I would soak up their habits, traits, tricks, and skills. Things like cane pole fishing. trot-lining. hunting, trapping, gardening, and wild food gathering.

I feel a ramble coming on…

Notice that  all the things they did to occupied their time involved putting food on the table? A fact I never realized until much later in life. When you go through life doing things that result in food on the table, (good, wholesome, TASTY food at that), it becomes much like competing in an activity and winning a prize every day. Only the prize isn’t a plastic trophy celebrating your participation, it is food.

Well, you get a prize as long as you are good at what you are doing. Mediocrity at fishing or hunting resulting in a fishless or meatless dinner – no “participation” medals for those that just “tried their best”.

(Maybe this is how vegetarians were first started- it really IS an old Indian word for “Poor hunter”! So in essence, eating tofu is like a booby prize! LOL!)

vegetarian poor hunter
Click to enlarge

 

Sorry, another of my rambling tangents…..Back to our regularly scheduled program….

I recall almost daily walks with my grandmother, a bowl and a knife in her hands, as we’d walk around the fields and woods, looking for edibles. My grandfather, Pap, would take me on the hill to “grub” sassafras roots for tea – one of the marvels of Appalachia, in my opinion. Both grandparents would pause at randoms times and point out this edible tidbit or that, telling me about how to find it, harvest it, and prepare it….all told as a matter of fact, in an unassuming way, as though everyone knew this information…. or should.

Eggs from their buttsIt wasn’t until years later that I found most folks won’t eat anything unless they can “forage” it from a controlled environment, “harvesting” it from a plastic-wrapped container, being sure to pay at the register before leaving.

They say it is the little things that make the difference…this “little thing” of showing me that food grows wild and freely has been a major game changer for me. Fast forward more than two decades, and I find myself taking those same walks through my yard and neighborhood, harvesting things as I go, picking out the choice bits to take to the table to enjoy.

Now, having set the stage, let us return to my recent trip to West Virginia over the 2014 Thanksgiving holiday.

digging horesradish
My wife developing her shovel skills as she tries to harvest some horseradish roots. Nothing hotter! (Seeing my wife enjoying farm work, not the horseradish!!!)

 

Our very first day, we found the weather to be almost warm. Temperatures were in the high 40’s. We decided almost immediately that since the ground hadn’t frozen yet, that this was the best time to go dig some horseradish roots (more on that in a future article). We filled a bucked with what we considered to be enough horseradish for us to “get by” on, then I asked my wife to join me on a walk in the sun while it lasted.

 

 

green grass of home
How is the grass THIS green in late November in West Virginia?

 

 

The grass that grows in my friends yard would make a golf course manager weep with joy, were he ever able to replicate it on their greens and fairways. Lush. Soft. Vibrant. And a shade of green that borders on unbelievable… particularly in late November. Looking out the window from the house, the view almost looks Photoshopped. Nothing can be THAT green in freezing weather, can it?

Ah, but it is.

My next thought could be blamed on the crisp air. Or the joy I was feeling having made it back here. Or the fact that I love touching her, in any fashion (I love holding her hand – she IS rather cute, you know). But for whatever reason, I decided it would be a good idea to wrestle my wife, right there in the yard. In that lush, rich, soft, caressing grass. They were both just so inviting…

Everyone laughed as we tussled, the wife decidedly beating me as she pinned me down (I let her, of course – but don’t tell her). As I flipped her off, and pinned her, turning the tides… I noticed something growing nearby in the yard. A weed.

frog hair

 

 

A lovely, green, wispy weed. Some as fine as frog hair, and and all of them just as green.

Onions. Wild onions.

 

 

Instantly distracted, I wanted to show my wife the bounty surrounding us. She has always been a sucker for tasty eats, so I had her attention in a heartbeat. Within moments, our wrestling match was over, and we started wandering the yard as I explained what it was we were seeing.

My wife simply loves scallions. Little bunches of young onions, with barely a bulb showing. We buy them all the time, and grow them when the weather allows. (Sometimes from cuttings!) Onions are a cooler weather crop, and don’t do well here in our Zone 10a during summer months. I believe my wife would stir her morning coffee with little green onions if given the chance.

So when I explained to her that every tuft of green growing above the “normal” grass height was a bunch of onions, I think I lost her for a moment. The yard was full of onions.

little green onions
Click to see the onions circled. I’m sure I missed some, too.

 

Little.

Green.

Onions.

Everywhere.

 

 

She was entranced. This was an honest kid-in-a-candy-store moment for her. If they sold onion-flavored candy. And for the low, low price of FREEEEEE!

randall camp and trail and onions

 

We spent almost an hour rushing from one bunch to the next, using my Randall (Model 5 Camp and Trail) knife as a precision digging tool. (Don’t judge me for using a knife as a digging tool…even if it is a $400 knife. It worked well as such. And my Mora Companion wasn’t with me at the time.) Eventually, we settled on harvesting enough for a few test meals, as well as some of the larger specimens to be eaten like scallions.

 

 

Notes on Wild Onions

Wild onions (Allium canadense) range across most of the eastern United States, from Texas to Florida in the south and Montana to Maine in the North, and carries up into Canada as well, thus the common name of Canadian Garlic. Other names include Wild Garlic, and Meadow Garlic. The entire plant is edible, though be warned many yards have pesticides…or dogs.

Also be sure that what you are harvesting is a wild onion, there are several toxic look-alikes. The easiest way to tell the real thing is to smell it. The look-alikes do NOT smell like garlic or onions.

wild onion bulbsThey are a bunching onion, growing in clumps. The bulbs rarely as large as the scallions you can buy. They also tend to be a little more coarse in texture than commercial scallions, particularly when older. But the taste is wonderful.

 

 

Cleaned, chopped, and added to scrambled eggs, they were a hit. Until now, I’m not even sure our hosts knew they were eating “weeds” from their yard. We also saved enough to bring some back with us to Florida. They, too, were quickly, and happily, eaten.

And of course, my Florida Wild Edibles Hero, Green Deane, has an article about it. Click here to read it.

……

In the grand scheme of things, realizing that there are that onions grow freely and in vast amounts in the local yards doesn’t seem like much. But to my wife, it was a SOLID selling point for us possibly relocating there some day. Not a huge thing, but definitely in my favor.

 

 

I’ll take every little bit of help that I can get.

 

 

PS- To my wife – There are FREE green onions there just waiting for us to harvest. Every. Single. Day. Forever.

 

 

To the rest of you that have read this far, Yes, I’m shameless.

Peace,
db

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6 comments:

  1. When we boys were young our dad and grandfather would take us to Boyne Mountain to the Mushroom Festival. We camped out in the woods in a tent and Man it was cold at night. But finding those Morals was worth it. Nothing better than that fungus. The best gravy EVER.

    1. I’ve always said that I never ate so good as when we were poor…

      These days, its fast, processed, or unrecognizable food.

      I miss the steak and potato days. Steak from either a cow we raised ourselves, or from a deer we harvested…and potatoes we grew ourselves.

      The old saying “they don’t make `em like they used to” also applies to meals it seems…

  2. I love wild garlic and here in Tennessee, they are about come in full force! We like them in sausage soup which is home canned broth, sausage, pasta and wild garlic. It’s my kids favorite!

  3. Darrell, I really enjoyed this “issue”. Thanks. I am forwarding it on to children and a bunch of friends in and from West Virginia. Thanks again. Rich

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