Paleo foods in Evanston landscapes

The Paleo diet has become fashionable in some circles, though most adopters don't realize that with few exceptions Paleos ate more plants and fish than red meat.  Archaeological and archival research shows that Indians of our northeastern temperate deciduous forest and coasts have used such foods ever since.

I began looking at evidence of indigenous food patterns for a writing project on the peopling of the Americas.  The first people to come over to our hemisphere from Asia were what archaeologists call Paleos and Archaics.  Living American Indians are their descendants.  My first real job as a curator at the Museum of the American Indian had given me some background, but my focus there was South America so I needed to bone up on North American Indians. I needed to become familiar with their foraged food plants: what they looked like, how they grew, what they tasted like, their nutrient content, and how to prepare them.  I read books by Indians, botanists, archaeologists, ethnographers, and a group of enthusiasts, the amateur foragers (e.g., Euell Gibbon's Handbook of Edible Wild Plants, Gordon C. Tucker, Virginia Beach: Donning, 1979.)

As I looked around Evanston and Chicago for examples of plants eaten by Paleos and their descendants, I was astonished to find many.  In my own yard, rather messy and overgrown - I like to think of it as luxuriant -, and in neighbors' yards I found more than 25 species of the ancient plant foods: choke cherries, choke berries, elderberry flowers and fruits, viburnum fruits, hawthorn apples, concord grapes, pokeweed leaves, acorns, Kentucky coffee beans, elm inner bark, maple and other species' sap, hornbeam leaf-shoots, native barley, chenopods, amaranth, milkweed, Camassia lily bulbs, ramps, ostrich fern fiddleheads, blackberries and raspberries, Tradescantia leaves, sunflower seeds, sunchoke tubers, and pine nuts. 

More species of the plant foods turned up on my walks and jogs in southeast Evanston along the yards and lakeshores, including hackberries, sugarberries, hickory nuts, honey locust pods, and plums.

I sampled many of the traditional plant foods and found many good to eat, following my sources on preparation and cooking.  The cherries, hawthorn apples, plums, grapes and raspberries were sweet and juicy, but viburnum fruits and blackberries were pretty sour.  The simmered pokeweed was spinach-like, to me; sauteed fiddleheads were tender and tasted like a cross between asparagus and green beans; raw Tradescantia was crisp and lemony.  I found White Oak acorns sweet and nutty; the ramps, too pungent; and sunchokes, crisp and nutty.  Hickory nuts I found rather bitter and astringent, and hackberries tasted like dried apricots but had a gritty texture.  The pod filling of legume pods was sweet and sticky, a bit too much like green gel toothpaste for my taste.

Many of the ancient food species thrive in the messy volunteer copses that some suburbanites and city councils like to replace with foreign ornamentals.  But fostering native re-growth is one of Tree City USA program priorities, and Evanston is one of its members.  Too, many of the natives are themselves valuable landscape plants (Guy Sternberg and James W. Wilson, Native Trees for North American Landscapes: From the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber Press, 2004).  If we follow their lead, the memory of ancient Paleos can live on in our communities in the survival of their food plants.

Posted on October 9, 2016 and filed under Local Notes.