Notes from the Idaho Environmental Summit at the DoubleTree Riverside, which continues through Thursday.
One of the most interesting sessions was about building and sustaining a local foods culture. Eating local has finally got its due as an effective way to reduce our footprint on the world.
One of Idaho’s oldest local food cultures is that of the Nez Perce. Gwen Carter of Lapwai shared a taste of camas root with the forum and I.
The thimble-sized bulb was once a staple of the Nez Perce diet but today is saved for special occasions like powwows, weddings, funerals and community events. The roots are cooked for three days in a pit.
Nez Perce families had traditional digging grounds where they collected the roots. Their digging cultivated the remaining plants to grow larger bulbs.
The problem is now that many of the old digging grounds where the bulbs were found have been replaced by roads, farms and civilization. It’s harder to find the wetlands where the blue flowers bloom in the late spring.
She had bulbs in a jar and also crushed, dry camas root to sample. The bulbs had a fresh, earthy pungent odor and the texture of artichoke hearts with a rich, sweet taste similar to figs. The dried camas was more like Grape Nuts cereal.
“It’s an acquired taste,” Carter said.
Carter’s family has used the same pit in Kamiah for at least since 1890, she said. They were able to keep it when the government divided the reservation into allotments in the late 1800s.
She remembers watching relatives cook there as a child. Richard Louv, the author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” talked about his own outdoor experiences as a kid running around the fields, rivers and woods of suburban Kansas.
The places he played are as fresh in his mind today as they were in the 1950s when he pulled the stakes developers had left as they prepared to replace the playground for which he had developed a sense of ownership. But he urged the crowd of more than 200 people, including many students, not to simply long for a return to the good old days. Environmentalists need to move beyond the idea that everything is getting worse.
“How can we make things better than they ever were? Louv said.
I thought about Louv and Carter and how their message meshed. Preserving her family recipe for camas gives her children and others a taste from the past that would have all but died out without her and other Nez Perce efforts. It also connects them to the land and nature.
She talked about how when U.S. 95 was widened through some camas prairie, the Nez Perce organized an effort to collect the plants for a camas bulb bank. Maybe the wild food can be cultivated so that camas can once again be a staple for the Nez Perce along with salmon and other native foods.
Maybe they can share their bounty with us just as they did with Lewis and Clark and Gwen Carter did with me.