A Wild Hunger

Notes on eating, foraging and the power of looking closer


CAPTION: One of late summer’s sweetest fruits, elderberries demand little preparation. A note of caution: elderberry seeds occasionally contain trace amounts of a certain cyanide-producing chemical; fresh, uncooked fruit should be enjoyed in moderation. PATRICK MAINELLI


These were definitely the wrong shoes to wear today,” Christina said as we moved—her in front, me behind—along a narrow ridge of burnished mud. It was a bit sketchy, actually, trying to grip the skin of this washed-out bluff a few hundred feet above North River Drive. The place we walked is known locally as Satan’s Slide, and is maybe the highest point in Hummel Park out on the northern edge of Omaha. The park—all scrubby forest and shaded valley—has long been a repository for some of the city’s darkest urban legends.

Satan’s Slide, for one, is not only an ideal spot for minors to avoid curfew and surreptitiously drink the dozens of Budweisers and Colt 45s that pile at the bottom of every crevice here, but is also the place where some poor guy once ended his life by driving a car clean off the side of it. There’s also the persistent talk of satanic rites played out in the little stone pavilion near the park’s center (the pentagram spray-painted there on the floor isn’t helping put that particular rumor to rest). There are the Civil War elms whose branches bow with a sullen tilt toward the ground, pulled, supposedly, by the haunted weight of the men lynched here generations ago. There was the colony of albinos exiled out of town and into these woods, known for nabbing the occasional unguarded child for supper. And then, of course, ten years ago, there was the very real child, a twelve-year-old girl for whom a three-foot grave had been made, after her kidnapping and murder, along the winding and shadowed road Christina and I had just driven to get in here.

And for what?

The sumac, mainly, which was one of the few plants growing up there in the baked and trampled soil of the bluff. Christina (the girl with the wrong shoes) needed the fruit of the plant (and fruit really is a loose term here—the sumac seed being covered only by a thin and hairy red skin, no fleshy meat like a cherry or pear). She’d been making muslin bags that she hoped to dye a particular sumac shade of red. After steeping the fruit in hot water for a few hours she’d simply swap out the berries for the fabric and let the natural color soak in. I’d read that by following nearly the same method I could make a vitamin C-rich tea, or a sweetened chilled drink similar to lemonade (pink lemonade in this case). Plus, my friend Frank had suggested making an infusion of sumac in alcohol to contribute to a saison beer he planned to brew at summer’s end.

Christina skirted, half sliding half crawling, between the plants, pulling her knife across stalks as thick as her thumb, just below the fruit’s bulbous drupe—a torch of burnt red sprouting by the dozen from each spare green shrub. Though she cited only her own random desire as inspiration for coming out here on a day off to collect the most out-of-the-way plant in the city, Christina is not alone in her pastime. Increasingly, many otherwise regular people have been drawn into the shaggy, untoward acres around their homes and cities in hopes of digging and plucking and collecting their way back to a more intimate relationship with the earth and its constituents.


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