Today, August 28th …
Narcissa Whitman was one of the first white women to travel the Oregon Trail and cross the Rocky Mountains. She and her new husband Marcus Whitman were missionaries wishing to spread the gospel to the Indians of the Pacific northwest. They set off the day after their wedding in February 1836, and in the journal she kept along the way she recorded all sorts of observations and reflections of life on the trail.
On this day in 1836 she wrote:
“We nooned upon Grande Ronde river … The camas grows here in abundance, and it is the principal resort of the Cayuses and many other tribes, to obtain it, as they are very fond of it. It resembles an onion in shape and color, when cooked is very sweet and tastes like a fig. Their manner of cooking them is very curious: They dig a hole in the ground, throw in a heap of stones, heat them to a red heat, cover them with green grass, upon which they put the camas, and cover the whole with earth. When taken out it is black. This is the chief food of many tribes during winter.”
The camas root (Camassia quamash), also known as indigo squill, meadow hyacinth, quamash, was a staple food of the Indians of the American northwest. What Narcissa did not mention, although she surely knew, was that the bulbs were only dug while the plant was flowering to avoid inadvertently harvesting the similar “Death Camas” (Zigadenus elegans) which has white or greenish white flowers. The two plants often grow literally side by side, so a further precaution was that the flowering stem remained attached until the root was completely uncovered.
The bulb is very versatile – it can be eaten raw, although was more usually cooked as Narcissa described; the cooked bulb can be pounded down to a starchy powder useful for thickening or adding to flour in baking; finally, it can be boiled down and a molasses-like syrup extracted and used for sweetening. A most useful plant, but not surprisingly for a Wild Food, there does not appear to be any recipes for it in early American cookbooks. Never fear, we do have a recipe (or is that two?) inspired by the story.
Recipe for the Day …
Narcissa described the taste of the roasted root as being like figs, although it is more often said to be similar to chestnuts. The starchy texture of the root would certainly be closer to that of chestnuts than figs, and perhaps allow it to be substituted for them in a recipe. It is unlikely that Narcissa took any cookbooks with her, but she would surely have enjoyed a copy of nineteenth century America’s most popular cookbook – Miss Eliza Leslie’s “Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches”, published in 1837, long after Narcissa was on her way. Perhaps the camas could have been used instead of “yams” (meaning sweet potatoes in this context) or chestnuts, in this recipe from the book?
Take one pound of roasted yam, and rub it through a cullender. Mix with it half a pound of white sugar, a pint of cream or half a pound of butter, a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, a grated nutmeg, and a wine glass of rose water, and one of wine. Set it away to get cold. Then beat six eggs very light. Stir them into the mixture. Put it into a buttered dish and bake it half an hour. Grate sugar over it when cold.
May be made in the above manner.
Tomorrow’s Story …
Authentic Chop Suey.
Quotation for the Day …
Red meat is not bad for you. Now blue-green meat, that’s bad for you! Tommy Smothers