It's mid-morning on a crisp fall Saturday in Pasadena, and a number of us are paying a visit to the supermarket of the swamps. It does not look much like a supermarket, but rather like a thicket of cattails.
We are reassured, however, and then convinced that we are indeed in a supermarket by our guide and commentator Christopher Nyerges, who knows about such things. He tells us that both the cattail rhizome and the yellow pollen on young, green spikes can be pounded into nutritious flours. The plant's young shoots, when peeled to a white, fleshy core, are an eminently edible vegetable called "cossack's asparagus," and the young spike, steamed and buttered, tastes like corn on the cob.
The fluff on the cattail itself is great for insulation and as a fire starter. And naturally the reeds can be woven into mats and baskets. All in all, the plant provides warmth, covering, and a variety of tasty food.
If we'd still like to shop elsewhere for lunch, Nyerges tells us, perhaps we should look a few yards away, to a shallow pool that the cattails haven't over-run. That bright green algae swirling around the edges? Well, it tastes like pumpkin and is a little crunchy. We could saute it with an onion, or make it into a soup.
"Scum soup," Nyerges says. "It will keep you alive."
Nyerges conducts wild food and survival skills outings many Saturday mornings out of the year. This one, which focuses on the swamp environment, meets where the local Indians of Pasadena used to live, that is to say, right under the Colorado Street Bridge and the 134 Freeway. The stream here has been restrained with concrete banks and man-made water slides, yet prehistoric riverine vegetation grows virulently, along with some of the compatible European plants that came over in the 18th century and later. As we tramp along cars and trucks rumble far overhead.
A lean, fit fellow in his mid-30s, Nyerges spent most of his Pasadena boyhood hiking in the San Gabriels. An interest in Native American crafts and skills, he says, was a natural extension of so much time spent out of doors. "I was intrigued that people lived here for thousands of years without stores. Yet they somehow made it, and I wanted to know how." Much of what he knows about the uses of wild food comes directly from Native American tradition. "Knowledge of wild plants is one part of the larger picture," he says.
He started out thinking of wild food as a commodity, something to be used, but as he learned more about aboriginal ways of thinking, he saw that using up the earth's resources was exactly one of the attitudes which was bringing the planet to the brink of destruction. Aboriginal peoples, he says, regard plants as living things, and thus treat them with regard and restraint and reverence.
The first plant he identifies as edible is growing along the curb of the parking lot. It's a small tumbleweed. Nyerges pinches off the tender tops and tells us that we can chop them up fine, steam them and serve them with butter. They're like spinach or chard, only they don't lose bulk. In the desert, they can be a lifesaver. These, right here, however, might not be so good to eat. As a rule, he says, it's best not to eat plants that have grown too close to the road since they might be toxic from car exhaust.
We meet the common plantain, also called goose tongue, a squat weed with edible, but tough and bitter leaves and seeds that function, like psyllium, as an intestinal cleanser. Then there's the lemonade berry on an oak-like shrub: Soak the berries in water for a lemonade-like drink; as such, it was one of the few sources of sugar available to Native Americans.
We stop to admire the hundreds of acorns underfoot and learn that, under the cap and beneath the rind, there's a white meat so full of tannic acid, it's inedibly bitter. This acid can be leached out with repeated long boiling, after which the meats can be dried and ground into a passable flour for cakes and breads and pancakes. They have a flavor, Nyerges says, like graham crackers.
An hour into the outing, the world appears to be very different: Everywhere we look, there is food. Food on trees, food in the water, food on the ground. How have we come to be so far from our earthly ties that we can't recognize food except when it's packaged and labeled and priced in a supermarket?
Amazed, we shake seeds from common grasses and learn that any grass seed that's mature and not moldy can be safely eaten. We sniff laurel sumac, which is a natural bug repellent, and sample epazote, an unprepossessing weed with a beguiling, pungent clout similar to that of cilantro. When added to soup or beans, epazote imparts a distinctive spiciness and effectively prevents flatulence. Then there's the bitter mint called horehound, popular for teas and candy, and curly dock with its sour, vinegary greens.