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Growing in unexpected places

While my parents aren’t exactly back-to-the-earth types, they raised me to appreciate edible wild foods. When I was a kid, it was common to see them reading Stalking the Wild Asparagus or Mother Earth News while experimenting with staghorn sumac “lemonade” (delicious) and roasted cattail tubers (repulsive). I never thought it strange that I always knew the best places to find morel mushrooms and ramps or that I gobbled gooseberries and wild strawberries by the handful while other kids eyed these plants (and likely me) with suspicion.

One of my favorite childhood memories is of our family sitting by a glowing cast iron stove, shelling foraged hickory nuts while watching The Love Boat and Fantasy Island (arguably the best two hours of television ever invented). Even though removing the nut from its dense shell probably burns the same amount of calories as the nut provides, the sweet meat is worth it.

Hickory nuts are still my favorite. So, when I heard about an outfit on Green Lake near Princeton that is making hickory syrup, I thought it could be a good subject for the spring issue. To my surprise, I learned that you don’t actually tap a hickory tree for springtime sap to make the syrup. Instead, you toast the bark, simmer it to create a sort of “tea,” and then add sugar to make the smoky, earthy syrup.

In the process of developing the article, I met Mike Starshak, who is, in addition to making some award-winning hickory syrup, striving to kickstart a hickory-products industry in Wisconsin. Even though it can take up to forty years for a mature hickory tree to produce nuts, Starshak is pursuing a crop feasibility study to see if a concerted effort to grow these trees might help diversify a state agricultural portfolio that largely revolves around high-yield, land-intensive crops such as corn and soybeans.

I like the thought of planting something—a tree, an idea—that will bear fruit only for our children, our children’s children. And so I’m off this weekend with my kids to search for wild asparagus along country roads, morels near the damp edges of oak savanna. We’ll need to keep our eyes open. Like a passion for foraging, these wild foods can grow in unexpected places.

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Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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