What would mealtime have been like for our hunter-gatherer ancestors? What sorts of foods would have been on the menu in Indiana 500 years ago? What if you woke up tomorrow and discovered there were no restaurants, no grocery stores and no farms? Would there be anything good left to eat?!
Luckily, the answer is a resounding yes. Wild foods, though underappreciated by most modern humans, still exist in delicious abundance across our state, country and world.
I have spent the past five years studying, gathering, processing, preserving and eating from the wild. Typically, I substitute a wild ingredient in place of a conventional ingredient in a recipe. I make cookies using acorn flour instead of wheat flour, stir wild berries into my morning yogurt and make soups and frittatas with wild greens.
These wild ingredients not only offer fun new flavors that cannot be purchased in any store, they have also been shown to be much more nutritionally potent than their domesticated, agricultural counterparts. For this reason, I have been endeavoring to include more and more wild foods in my diet each year.
This past fall, as I was gathering pounds of acorns and hickory nuts, I came to the realization I had stored enough wild food over the past growing season, and that I might actually be able to sustain myself entirely on it for a short period of time. I decided to try for nine days in early December: one workweek with a weekend before and after.
In the weeks leading up to the wild diet, I spent a lot of time processing acorns and chestnuts into flour, and processing the raw wild rice I had collected in Michigan into ready-to-cook grain. Even with modern tools, processing wild foods can take a considerable amount of time. Acorns need to be shelled, ground into flour, soaked in multiple changes of water, and then dried. Rice kernels are enclosed in a scratchy husk; the grain must be toasted in a kettle on an open fire, “danced” upon in a hide-lined pit to physically break the husk off, and then winnowed to remove the chaff. After all that, you can cook it!
As I prepared to eat wild for nine days, I took an inventory of the ingredients I had on hand, and came up with just over 20 different species. Of course, there are hundreds of edible wild plants in this area, but I’m limited by time, skill level and freezer space!
Of those 20 species, I had collected the majority myself. The only items I purchased included sea salt, a piece of fish from Michigan and a quart of maple syrup. I do produce my own maple syrup, but the syrup season is usually in February and March and the few quarts my family harvested were long since gone! I also received a few packages of venison from a co-worker.
During the nine-day diet, my carbohydrates included wild rice, and acorn and chestnut flour. For protein, I consumed venison and fish.
I also made hickory “milk” – a traditional beverage made by native peoples, which involves crushing the nut (shell and all) and simmering it in water. The lightweight nutmeats float while the heavy shell pieces sink; skim off the rich, nutty liquid and sweeten it with maple syrup.
My fruits and vegetables were limited to items frozen during the growing season. For vegetables, I enjoyed nettles and ramps (also referred to as wild leeks). As for fruits, I had black raspberries, serviceberries, wild blueberries, persimmons and a sauce made from crabapples.
A typical meal might include a venison steak topped with wild berry sauce, wild rice with chopped nettles, a cup of hickory “milk” and a piece of acorn cake for dessert. To make an all-wild acorn cake, I melted deer fat with maple syrup, then stirred in acorn flour, wild berries and chunks of nuts, and baked it in the oven. By limiting myself to only wild ingredients, I had to become much more creative in the kitchen.
When you’re eating this well, it’s not hard to stick to it for nine days! In fact, I enjoyed the challenge so much, I plan to make the wild diet an annual occurrence.
2009 Batesville High School graduate Kristen Giesting earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and environmental science from Otterbein University in 2013 and a master's degree in environment and resource studies from the University of Waterloo in 2016. She is a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil conservation technician based in Salem and Greensburg.