The Local-Carb Diet
February 12, 2019 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Dedicated Pacific Northwest plant lovers nurture an indigenous food with ancient roots.

What does it mean to harvest and eat a so-called local food? I thought I’d done it the time I picked and ate several tubs of blueberries from a farm about 15 kilometers from my house in Seattle, Washington, and again when I dug potatoes from my backyard and roasted them in my oven—a simple and somehow comforting act of nourishment.

But Madrona Murphy has other ideas about what I could be eating. She has invited me to her mother’s house on the south side of Lopez Island, Washington, for an unusual cooking lesson: how to prepare the plant that once fed much of western North America—the camas lily. With a head of dainty blue or white flowers and a fleshy, edible bulb, camas grows profusely and wildly across this region, in rocky and damp meadows, in gardens, and along roadsides. But few people know how to cook and eat it. Until I met Murphy, I wouldn’t have recognized this plant as food. But in other moments and cultures, this vegetable was as familiar as the potato is now.

posted by poffin boffin (13 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Wow this is super relevant to my interests -- I have friends in BC and we've been trying to chart what a 25km, 50km, and 100km regional diet might look like, mostly using native people's diets as an example. I came across a mention of camas but didn't find a lot of info on how to prepare it.

I wonder if it could be fermented, grated, and toasted like Peruvian yucca farina to make a flour one could use for bread. Sounds like it might need to be combined with another grain or two to really make that work, but I'm definitely going to look into acquiring some bulbs to see how it does in the area!
posted by ananci at 9:07 AM on February 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

Here's where the Camas Lily is native to. Groundnuts filled a similar role in the Eastern US, as did wild rice in the lake country.

Maybe try growing one of them if you're in any of those regions!
posted by ragtag at 9:08 AM on February 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Great post. Here in Victoria (where traditional Garry Oak meadows still exist), Lesser Camas blooms throughout April. By the end of the month the blooms are so dense on the ground that, from a certain perspective, it can look like a purple lake. I live about a block from a large municipal park that features a Garry Oak ecosystem and some meadows that used to provide people who lived here (they still live here, just have been pushed to a reservation on the other side of town) with a source of food.

In May, Great Camas (can't find a photo) also blooms.
posted by JamesBay at 9:50 AM on February 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you! I have a few in the hill behind my backyard fence. (Technically it's the property of the person whose house is on top of the hill, but it's too steep for them to ever do anything like clear the fire-hazardous brush or anything, so I've been quietly wandering around back there, pulling up broom, without repercussions.)

I'd read up on camas but hadn't found much except that indigenous people used it for soap. A few months ago it finally occurred to me to look on Facebook for local indigenous people, and I'm now following a local group, so I'll go to one of their events one of these days to learn how I can support what they're doing. With any luck, I won't have accidentally poisoned myself by accidentally undercooking camas, hah, wish me luck y'all!
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:11 AM on February 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ooh this is nice to see. I first learned of these last May from lots of roadside historical markers while cycling ACA's Lewis & Clark route. I'd meant to look up more on the subject, but it slipped my mind during the rest of my trip, so thanks for the reminder.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 10:36 AM on February 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

This is super fascinating to me and I would love to learn more. Or to buy the dried camas or take a class on how to ID and cook them.

Somewhat related, but for those of you interested in the modern indigenous cuisine of the Dakota and Minnesota territories, check out The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman. It's been on my reading list for a while. Also a friend just recommended Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons, who apparently talks about camas in the book.
posted by lucy.jakobs at 10:48 AM on February 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

"Madrona Murphy."  That makes me smile. I'd bet money her hippy parents named her that because of her red hair.

Pacific Northwest madrona grow a lot bigger than what commonly get called that elsewhere, and are known for the striking red the bark turns after it peels each summer.  They also have fairly important cultural and medicinal rôles in native American history.  It's a lovely regional botanical name for a child.
posted by los pantalones del muerte at 11:12 AM on February 12, 2019

This is super cool.
posted by bq at 11:18 AM on February 12, 2019

I grow both great and common camas in my yard, in a patch that is very shady and soggy in the winter, and bright and dry in the summer. When I planted it four years ago, I was vaguely aware that it could be eaten, and a couple of years ago I looked into how to harvest/prepare and read a lot of the materials cited in the article. It's quite the involved process, and you have to have a ton of it to make it "worth" it, in my estimation. I'm not going to leave my slow cooker on for 24 hours for a couple of bulbs! But it's on my list for the future. It's really a great plant.
posted by stowaway at 11:42 AM on February 12, 2019

Ah! I saw this on the main page and wondered if it was camas. I didn't know it was grown that far north and west. I knew my friend who grew up in northern Idaho was familiar with camas, and down here (willamette valley area) yes. Our temple planted camas on our grounds. I have never cooked it but I might try to now.

Also gawd I love Hakai magazine
posted by nixon's meatloaf at 12:07 PM on February 12, 2019

I'm very surprised that the article doesn't seem to warn about death camas! The safe and the deadly kinds of camas can only be told apart when they are blooming. The tubers are indistinguishable.
posted by monotreme at 12:20 PM on February 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

about halfway through is this:

And in 2005, the Northwest Indian College began leading field trips to dig wild camas bulbs in the spring (when the plant is in bloom and a casual observer can easily differentiate it from death-camas, a poisonous look-alike).
posted by poffin boffin at 12:30 PM on February 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I feel like I have eaten bulb-type foods in Chinese cuisine. Maybe the camas bulb could find options there?
posted by batter_my_heart at 5:16 PM on February 12, 2019

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