FROM BACKPACKER / MAY 1989
Material adaptations to national public TV series, "Trailside: Make Your Own Adventure," and companion Trailside's book volumes, Ed. by John Viehman (Rodale, 1993).
M O V E A B L E
F E A S T
B Y M A R K S A K R Y
FORAGING FOR SEA FOOD
In the words of Euell Gibbons, "When the tide is out the table is set "
At first the salty tang hangs lightly on the wind a mere suggestion. I
breathe deeply without realizing and scuttle on through the sedgegrass as if I know this
place. Over that hill, it has to be. Gulls have wheeled above me for miles
before this, but only here do they begin shrieking, sounding the alarm. A soft
cacophony of distant, crashing air and rock and water reaches me from too many points on
With a limitless floor of water to one side, a short still bank of sand to the other, and crumbling breakers weaving before me, I feel both stranded and released. I'm on the edge of everythingland, sea, air. This junction of elements makes things come alive, and the life that thrives here takes on unfamiliar shapes. It clings to rocks, and sinks into mud or sand. It lies on the beach, and it bends in the wind. It floats in tidal pools.
The coast feeds the soul; many people know this. But few take the time to nourish their physical being with what the coast has to offer. Depending on the time of year, you can gather wild food on nearly any seacoast in North America, from Florida to Nova Scotia, from Mexico to Alaska, even the Arctic.
But before you head down to the shore with knife and fork in hand, a few rules of the field. Always refer to dependable field guides for wild harvests of any kind. A good regional guide will not only help you identify edible plants or shellfish, but it will give information about the range and frequency of a species, and other interesting lore.
Never eat any plant or animal you cannot identify, or that you are not absolutely positive is safe to eat! (Nothing is listed here for which field texts report possible poisonous look-alikes.) If shellfishing, listen to reports broadcast daily by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on weather-band radio that give locations closed by "red tide," an infestation of micro-organisms that makes shellfish poisonous during warm months.
In all foraging, consider the impact you have on the environment. Don't disturb surrounding plant or animal life, and take only what you will use. Don't take anything if the plant, algae or animal isn't abundant, and try to pick leaves and fronds without killing the plant.
A trailing green
plant with purple flowers or one- to two-inch pods, beach peas look like
a smaller version of common garden peas. Although the peas are somewhat undersized,
and it takes some time to shuck enough from their pods to use for a meal, they taste much
like garden peas and may be used the same way.
Look for beach pea behind ridges of beach grass, or around flotsam left by storms on sand beaches from New Jersey to Labrador. It's best to pick in August when the pods ripen. For those less inclined to shucking, try frying some of the more tender pods whole in butter, then add to scalloped potatoes for a marvelous beach-side entree.
Scotch lovage, a parsley-like herbaceous plant up to two feet high with glossy, dark-green leaves, is also called sea lovage, or wild beach celery. The leaves indeed have a pungent taste not unlike parsley or celery leaves. Scotch lovage grows in gravelly and sandy coastal soils, typically among beach grasses or along the edges of salt marshes. It is found from New England to Nova Scotia, and also in Alaska, where coastal natives have used it for centuries. The stems and leaves are best picked before the plant is mantled with pinkish-white blossoms in early July, though tender leaves may be picked from fully grown plants all summer long, especially the young ones that sprout regularly (like parsley leaves) between the maturing stems.
Snipped into shreds, Scotch lovage makes an excellent companion to seafood. Heap generously over butter-fried mussels or fish as they poach. Or simply steam gently with a little water in a pan over a slow fire and eat as a cooked vegetable. Nibbled fresh, Scotch lovage offers a healthy dose of vitamins A and C.
Along the high-tide mark on sand beaches in Maine, you should notice sea blite along with orach, a vinelike herb with two-inch arrowhead-shaped leaves growing strictly in salt-rich sand. Both orach and sea blite are relatives of spinach and can be prepared similarly. They are naturallv salt-flavored and the leaves make wonderful raw greens for a salad. When boiled they become tasty vegetable greens. The best time to pick orach is in July; it is more tender before it blooms. Orach is superb with scrambled eggs. Simply fry a few chopped leaves in butter until tender before adding the eggs. Add cheese, if you like.
Irish moss is a frilly marine algae three to six inches high with flat, progressively forking fronds, often found in unbroken mats in shallow tidepools. Its color ranges from green to ochre to purplish brown. You have probably already eaten Irish moss, for it contains large amounts of carrageenan, a substance used in making ice cream, gelatin, even beer. In Maine, "mossers" used to harvest the plant for commercial use. The Irish have gathered and eaten the moss for more than 600 years, hence the name.
While Irish moss has a supple, leathery texture when freshly picked (easily done by wading along the low-tide mark and gently pulling the individual plants free), boiling transforms it into a gelatinous "pudding" with a delicate sea flavor. Top with a bit of vanilla, milk and sugar for a treat New Englanders have enjoyed for years. Irish moss is spiny and tough when dried, but is readily reconstituted and converted to a gelatinous state after boiling 30-40 minutes back home.
For their food value and availability up and down the Atlantic coast, shellfish can't be beat. Look for mussels clinging to rocks, ledges or on the surface of sand and gravel bars just below half-tide line. Steamer clams grow three to six inches deep in mud or gravelly bottoms. Spot their breather holes in the sand below half-tide line, and unearth them with your hands or a clam rake.
Perhaps the most
ubiquitous seaside edible, common to sand beaches and salt marshes along both coasts of
North America, but especially near dry grass upland marshes from the mid-Atlantic states
south, is glasswort or saltwort. Glasswort is a low succulent plant six to
eight inches high with branching, jointed tendrils filled with salty sap. It is
typically green, but an orange-red variety may be found in some marshes.
Because of its texture and the shape of its tendrils, glasswort is sometimes called "beach asparagus." Coastal residents commonly pickle glasswort, likening the flavor to watermelon rind. But coastal foragers may readily enjoy it either on its own or in a salad after boiling the tendrils for just a few minutes until tender. Glasswort is best picked in July before it gets tough.
Sea rocket is an abundant, easily found wild herb good for flavoring seafoods and salads. It is a low, fleshy plant with succulent branching stems that taste like mild horseradish. Rocket-shaped seed pods form shortly after a late-summer bloom of dainty lavender flowers.
You'll discover sea rocket along high-tide marks on sand beaches, sometimes following the scalloped patterns of waves where seeds have washed up and germinated on shore. Its fleshy root, when dried and ground, has been used during times of scarcity as an additive to flour in making bread. But as a forager you'll find the leaves and stems of early summer most useful. Chopped and cooked with other vegetables and seafood, or added raw to wild or domestic salads, it adds a delightful tang.
You will typically find oysters exposed at low tide on cord grass silt banks, or in nutrient-rich shallow water along the tidal marsh areas of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. No oyster tongs or diving needed. Oysters, clams and other shellfish find the rich nutrients of the marsh especially nice for breeding, and they may be had in plenty.
While some people prefer to eat oysters raw, it takes a little ingenuity to get a live one open. Insert a blunt, sharp knife into the clamped edge of the oyster and manipulate it side-to-side to cut the strong muscles holding the shell halves together. It helps to knock off a bit of the edge to expose part of the muscle to the knife. Gloves are recommended to prevent cuts from the sharp shell. Once open, simply trim out the meat and enjoy the hard-earned delicacy whole. Steaming over a few cups of boiling water or grilling over a slow fire will open oysters more readily. Cooked oysters are especially good dipped in melted butter laced with lemon juice and shredded sea rocket.
Hottentot fig is a
succulent, mat-forming plant with long, trailing stems bearing yellow daisy-like flowers
that turn pink with age. By July the flowers start forming a fleshy, fig-like brown
fruit that makes a wonderful campfire jam. The Hottentot fig festoons coastal sands
and bluffs from Mexico to southern Oregon, where it was introduced from South Africa to
stabilize dunes. The tongue-twisting genus name, mesembryanthemum ("blooming
at midday") is a useful identification clue. Chop up a handful of the plump
fruits and boil in a cup of water, then add a cup or two of sugar and stir until syrupy.
Spoon liberally over campfire toast, hot cereal or beach strawberry pancakes.
Yes, beach strawberry. It's a common perennial coastal herb up to eight inches high, with trifoliate toothed leaves and red berries that ripen through midsummer. It's easily found underfoot on dunes and bluffs from Alaska to South America, where its Chilean relative was used for developing hybrid domestic strains of strawberries. Look for its distinctive five-petaled white blossoms, which bloom simultaneously with the ripening fruit. Eat the berries raw, cooked in a jam or mixed with bread and pancake batters. Both the berries and the leaves, which make a respectable tea, are high in vitamin C.
Dulse is an edible seaweed cooked or dried, but not raw. It's a translucent purple-red algae, with up to one-foot-long leafy, flat lobes, found clustered on rocky shores exposed during periods of low tide. It is found along subarctic intertidal zones of both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and prefers sheltered lagoons away from surging seas. A delicate plant, it's easy to pull from the rocks by hand. Asians, as well as Alaskan natives cook dulse with soups and chowders. It is rubbery eaten raw, but takes on a pleasing texture after drying in the sun. Dulse, like many seaweeds, provides a healthy natural source of iodine.
Edible kelp should not be underestimated as a good seaside edible. You'll find kelp in the surging shallows during low tide, usually growing in thick beds anchored in rockv bottoms. It ranges from California, Washington and Oregon to Hawaii and Japan (also the Atlantic coast). Edible kelp has a characteristically long and wavy central frond about six inches wide, growing from one to 10 feet high from a short basal stem where a number of shorter fronds grow radially outward. It is olive-green or brown and is frequently found floating freely in the water, but a little wading and tugging will invariably produce lots to eat. Kelp makes a nutritious additive to chowders, soups and stews, and adds punch to any trail casserole when mixed in as a vegetable.
Butter clams are another low-tide delectable sometimes available to the western beachcomber. Clams, in general, prefer shallow-water gravel where they can burrow from predators, yet maintain a steady supply of water-borne, siphonable nutrients. At low tide, a few exposed shells usually give away a clam bed. But often it's simply a tiny jet of water shooting from the sand under a footfall that betrays their presence. Then you dig. You'll need a shovel or clam rake. Explore a wide area a few inches deep. Don't excavate an entire clam bed to exhaustion.
While more plentiful along the California coast, butter clams may also be harvested on Mexican, Washington and Oregon beaches. Unlike oysters, clams are easy to pry open with a knife. But steaming, as usual, works well for almost any shellfish. BP
Mark Sakry writes about the outdoors and food for Boundary Waters Journal, Minnesota Out-of-Doors, and The Duluth News Tribune.
RESOURCES AND GUIDEBOOKS
The Audubon Society Guide to North American Wildflowers: Eastern Region by William A. Niering and Nancy C. Olmstead, and The Audubon Society Field Guide To North American Wtldflowers: Western Region by Richard Spellenberg, Alfred A. Knopf, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022; (212) 751-2600.
The Beachcomber's Handbook and Stalking the Faraway Places, both by Euell Gibbons, David McKay Co., 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022; (212) 572-8110.
Edible Wild Plants by Oliver Perry Medsger, Macmillan, 866 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10022; (212) 751-2600.
A Field Guide to Tropical and Sub-tropical Plants by Frances Perry and Roy Hay, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 115 5th Ave., New York, NY 10003; (212) 254-3232.
Green Islands, Green Sea: A Guide to Foraging the Islands of Maine by Philip Conkling, Island Institute, 60 Ocean St., Rockland, ME 04841; (207) 594-9209.
Wanderer On My Native Shore: A Personal Guide and Tribute to the Ecology of the Atlantic Coast by George Reiger, Simon and Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; (212) 698-7000. This book provides an excellent bibliography, with more than 200 entries, on coastal foraging and ecology. A good place to look for other reliable field guide sources.
Wild, Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska by Christine A. Heller, University of Alaska Division of Statewide Services Cooperative Extension Services Publication #28-1976; (907)-474-6389.
BACKPACKER / MAY 1989
Copyright C. Mark Sakry 1988
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