The Forest Feast: an excerpt

Chapter 4

At the Cornell campus in Ithaca, NY, there is a woodlot called the MacDaniels Nut Grove where students and the public come to learn about forest farming.  In the fall of 2006, a memorable culinary occasion was held there called the forest feast in conjunction with a course  called Practicum in Forest Farming. The feast consisted of an array of edible non timber forest products.  Each of the 20 or so students and their guests brought along one edible to share than  from the nut grove or any nearby forest. The main course was roast goat. This wasn’t just any goat. This goat had been raised at the Cornell’s Arnot Forest as part of a research project called 
“Goats in the Woods” (to see if goats could be used as part of a forest management plan to control undesirable (“weedy”) small diameter American beech and striped maple.  From spring to late summer the yearling goats fed on the bark of these trees (plus or minus supplemental feed), and were then sold as meat animals. This arrangement could be considered silvopasture agroforestry, or forest farming of the “crop that walks”. Back at the forest feast, one of these goats was roasted all afternoon on a spit of green ash over a bed of oak and hickory coals.”

The MacDaniels Nut Grove has an abundance of hickory, and black walnut cultivars, planted in the 1930s by Dr. MacDaniels, for whom the site is named. There are also white oak trees and some Chinese chestnuts that played a role in the feast. Nyla who had recently spent her summer internship sheparding the goats in the woods, was smashing hickory nuts, shells and all, with large wooden mortar and pestle.. These were thrown into a pot of boiling water to separate the rich oil, called hickory milk, from the nut meat/shell mash. In 1770s, the naturalist William Bartram observed much the same practice among the Creek Indians, and reported that hickory milk was “as sweet as fresh cream, an ingredient in most of their cookery, especially hominy and corncakes”. After everyone at the forest feast got a taste of the hickory milk, the rest was used to fry acorn ash cakes. First, the acorns were leached several times in water to remove the bitter tannins, and ground into a flour to make the ash cakes (“pancakes”) that were cooked on a hot stone.

Several other students were cooking a stir-fry of pickled ramps (wild leek); forest-cultivated shiitake (Lentinus edidoius) mushrooms, and wild lion’s mane (Hericium sp.) mushrooms, as well as black trumpets and porcini (Boletus edulis). Jim made a fragrant porridge from the inner bark of slippery elm. Forest fruits were in abundance. Abdoul came up with Cornus mas sauce , made from the fruit of Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas). Just a little tart, it went well with the goat. There was a soup made from nettle and lambsquarters, and apple sauce made from wild crab-apples. Beverages included tea made from hemlock and pine, dandelion wine (from someone’s lawn). For desert there were brownies made with hickory nut and walnut brownies collected from the site. Marguerite made a pawpaw mousse, and Sefra’s contributed a wild berry torte made from blackberries, raspberries, elderberries and blueberries!

Although this description of the forest feast may seem like the introduction to a forest cookbook (not a bad idea), the real point is to emphasize the considerable diversity of edible forest products that my students sourced from local temperate deciduous forests. Some of the non-timber forest products were deliberately grown (forest farmed) at the MacDaniels Nut Grove (pawpaws, shiitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, black raspberries, elderberries, hickory nuts, walnuts) and others, like the goat were from a nearby a nearby research forest site. Others were wild crafted including the blueberries, blackcaps (wild black raspberries), ramps, black trumpet and porcini mushrooms, white oak acorns, and the elm bark. Whether cultivated or wildcrafted they are all considered non timber forest products (NTFPs). Just as the feast at the MacDaniels Nut Grove combined cultivated with wild NTFPs, any managed forest farm may produce both.