A Very City Paper Thanksgiving: Foraging for a Thanksgiving side dish

A Very City Paper Thanksgiving: Foraging for a Thanksgiving side dish
Winter garlic mustard, ready to be gathered for Thanksgiving glory. (Michelle Gienow)

The first Thanksgiving was far from the holiday of golden-lit HGTV perfection we strive for nowadays. (Ok, maybe not you, but me, and Martha Stewart, and—or at least I like to think so I don't feel so pathetic when staying up past midnight folding all those origami turkey place cards just so—plenty of other people). The Pilgrims had been through some serious shit—sickness, crop failure, deaths of a serious percentage of their group—and the thanks they were gathering to say was mainly, "Thank God we are still above the dirt." The groaning board of turkey, stuffing, and green bean casserole we serve as a "traditional" Thanksgiving meal bears marginal resemblance to what historians and scholars say was served in 1621 when the Plymouth Colony first sat down with the Wampanoag to celebrate surviving.

There may have been turkey, yes, but the "wilde fowles" served almost certainly included geese, ducks, and swans (yes, people used to eat those). There were also venison—the Wampanoag contributed five deer—as well as, reportedly, items such as clams and fish, pumpkins and squash, corn and wild berries. Some of those foods we've forgotten (clams whuuuut?) although others represent in transmogrified form—pumpkin pie, corn bread, quivering high-fructose cranberry sauce still shaped like the can. 

A good percentage of that first Thanksgiving menu had to be wild foods, simply because the Pilgrims hadn't had a whole lotta agricultural wins by that point and industrial food shaped like the can it was purchased in had not yet been invented. History holds that the old-world foodways the settlers had brought to their new home were heavily augmented with indigenous foods the local native tribes taught them to identify and gather. A generous "teach a man to fish" gesture that allowed the colonists to survive, and one the natives likely came to eventually regret.

The Pilgrims would have gathered and preserved these wild foods during each species' brief season of ripeness, though. Anyone setting out in late November to forage up a quick Thanksgiving meal would be hard-pressed to find ready-to-eat wild edibles, whether in 1621 Massachusetts or 2014 Maryland. It is still possible to put together a wild side dish for Thanksgiving, however, thanks to long-ago European immigrants who brought garlic mustard with them to the New World. It's easy to understand why they brought it: garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) is an eminently useful potherb that grows year-round. It is naturally freeze resistant, meaning that colonists could even dig under the snow to harvest a fresh green living vegetable. Which was huge, back in the days before 24-hour grocery stores selling fruits and vegetables air-lifted in from other continents.

Now that we can buy fresh produce regardless of season, garlic mustard escaped from long-ago gardens continues to grow, abundantly and anonymously, just about everywhere in our region. It is in fact now a troublesome invasive species, crowding out native plants with its aggressive growth habits. None of our native animals (I'm looking at you, white-tail deer) eat it, so it grows unchecked.

Garlic mustard is in the brassica family, along with more familiar veggies such as kale, broccoli and cabbage. This time of year you harvest the low-growing scalloped leaves, whose spicy bitterness has been tempered by frost to a more mellow bite very much like, well, the mustard greens to which it is also related. As a side bonus, if you have a recipe requiring horseradish, you can dig up the entire plant and use its taproot as as substitute. (In fact, garlic mustard is such a terrible non-native nuisance plant in Maryland's deciduous forests that you should indeed pull up each and every plant you're harvesting from, even if you only take its leaves and toss the rest.) It grows under trees and along field edges just about everywhere—I've spotted it in vacant lots, every city park I've ever set foot in, and festooning pathways at the zoo.

By itself, garlic mustard's flavor is so sturdy that I typically mix it with less pungent greens, or make it into a pesto. For a more festive occasion like Thanksgiving, I like to use it in a pilaf with wild rice and wild mushrooms. Wild rice, which is technically a grass, does grow around the Chesapeake Bay, and wild mushrooms are everywhere—though please leave the gathering to the experts. You can get real-deal wild rice in many grocery stores (the best wild rice comes from Minnesota or Canada; look for "wild harvested" on the package), and also dried wild mushrooms like chanterelles, maitake (hen of the woods), or morels.

You're going to have to gather the garlic mustard yourself, though. It's likely as close as your own back yard, or the nearest city park, perky and green and waiting to join your Thanksgiving feast.

Check out Green Dean's terrific wild edible plants website for help finding it.

Wild Pilaf
1 ounce dried wild mushrooms, any kind
1 cup wild rice
1 ½ cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
A plastic grocery sack half full of garlic mustard leaves, rinsed

Use a largeish saucepan with tight-fitting lid (you'll be using it throughout the recipe) to bring stock to boil. Remove from heat; add dried wild mushrooms and let stand until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving liquid.


Finely chop the mushrooms.

Bring 3 cups of water to boil in a medium saucepan. Add wild rice and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until rice is almost tender, about 45 minutes. Drain.

Melt butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, garlic, marjoram, and thyme and saute 5 minutes. Add garlic mustard leaves and sauté until wilted. Add wild rice and reserved mushroom stock/soaking liquid, discarding any crud on the bottom.

Simmer until almost all the liquid absorbed but rice is still moist, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.