Foraging is part of the Oregon lifestyle. It’s exhilarating to head out on a hike—rain or shine—and return home with enough fresh berries or mushrooms bagged for a special treat. I like to think I’m walking in the steps of other gatherers—who knows how long ago.
There’s a new cookbook out that’s getting a lot of awards and buzz. The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen is by Chef Sean Sherman who is resolved to revitalize indigenous foods and cuisine. Sean is a member of the Lakota Tribe, part of the Sioux Nation that was relocated in the last century from homelands in the Dakota and Minnesota territories to the fringe of the South Dakota Badlands. His people left behind powerful traditions and customs only to face misery and misfortune in a barren and foreign landscape.
Sean believes many other tribes have lost their cultural ties to native foods and customs, due to relocation. He and his team are busy creating and adapting new versions of indigenous cuisine based on natural and unprocessed foods, as well as promoting wild food usage and harvesting, land stewardship and farming, food preservation and cooking techniques. His cookbook offers resources and options for a new standard of traditional foods using modern techniques.
Here in the Pacific Northwest the Confederate Tribes of the Grande Ronde is on a similar path promoting their own indigenous food projects. This past weekend, in tandem with our local community college, we planted 2000 camas bulbs on the campus’s Youth Farm site.
The bulb of camas is greatly prized by tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest. Locally, the Kalapuya people consider camas their most important staple which they re-hydrate and grind into flour for breads and cakes. Common Camas, part of the lily family and related to asparagus, also has a spired stalk plus gorgeous star-like blue flowers.
Some compare the flavor of camas to that of a fig, but it is certainly not as ready to eat. The bulbs are known to contain inulin, a fiber which is indigestible until fully broken down through a long, slow cooking process. It traditionally takes 2 to 3 days of baking in a slow oven before the bulbs are fully blackened and edible; the inulin then turns to fructose and releases its inherent sweetness.
Fellow foragers should beware of Death Camas, which looks much like Common Camas, but displays white rather than blue flowers when in bloom. Also, when digging camas bulbs remember that an entire plant will be eliminated, and no further bulbs can be produced. Be selective about the variety and quantity gathered.
I’m with Sean. I salute his endeavors to improve the health and well-being of his fellow Native Americans. I intend to plant a few of my own bulbs very shortly. I hope to experiment with my own crop—whenever that happens. At this point I’ll stay in the research mode gathering cooking ideas and searching for samples. Admittedly, beyond the traditional process of roasting bulbs in a slow fire for three days, I’m open to treating them to a long rest in the slow cooker. Now, that’s a traditional/contemporary twist!
Sweet Camas Spread
From Sweet Camas Cookbook by Madrona Murphy
A mild sweet spread, reminiscent of chestnut jam. The chocolate addition is lighter and less sweet than chocolate nut spreads like Nutella
¼ cup camas paste (can be made from dried, powdered camas)
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 tablespoon dutched cocoa powder (use for chocolate spread)
- Re-hydrate the dried, powered camas, as needed.
- Stir the water, oil and cocoa, if using, into the camas paste until smooth. Add more water if too stiff.
- The spread is highly perishable. Store in the refrigerator and use within a few days.
- To serve, thin with more water if unspreadable. Serve with crackers, toast, or with cheese.