Sunday, October 18, 2015

Digging Our Roots: The Great Wapato Hunt

Indigenous people didn't have any problem finding sources of protein here in the moderate climate of the Northwest. After all, there were plenty of deer and fish, rabbits and crabs to be caught or hunted. And foraging for edible greens like fiddlehead ferns, sorrel and nettles, particularly in the moist river valleys and rainforests of the Coast Range, contributed to the diet of the region's earliest residents.


Starches, though, were a real problem, which my friend Hank Shaw pointed out as we were standing knee-deep in the mucky verges of the shallow lake at Ayers Creek Farm. Luckily there were starchy tubers to be found, like the ones we were looking for in the clay and mud beneath our feet. Lewis and Clark wrote that they stopped "to examine a root of which the natives had been digging great quantities in the bottoms" along the Deschutes River, and likened their appearance "to a small Irish potato."

Hank in his element.

A couple of years ago Hank had mentioned that he was pining to forage for wapato, also known as arrowhead or the duck potato (the Latin is Sagittaria latifolia), which is best found in October here in the Northwest. I remembered that Anthony Boutard had mentioned he'd seen arrowhead plants in the lake on the farm, and tucked the factoid away for future reference. When Hank announced he was coming up from Sacramento for a weekend event earlier this month, I immediately e-mailed Anthony and arranged a trip out to the farm. I also borrowing two pairs of waders, being as we didn't have the fortitude of those earlier foragers who would dig the tubers in their bare feet, wrangling them from the muck with their toes and collecting the rounded bulbs when they floated to the surface.

The harvest.

Anthony had flagged what he felt were promising spots, and though he didn't follow through with the threat of erecting a reviewing stand, the better to watch the impending man-vs.-muck competition, we waded out into the marshy shallows. Hank said that on previous expeditions he'd found the wapato with its green, arrow-shaped leaves standing alone, but here it was woven into a thick mat with other marsh grasses. The green leaves had turned brown and shriveled, leaving only the celery-like stalks standing. Fortunately they were easy to distinguish from the browned grasses around them, and it was fairly easy to reach down under the stalks and find the round, potato-y bulbs anchored in the mud.

Peeled wapato.

Ranging from the size of olives to that of tennis balls—it was thrilling to pull out one of those, let me tell you—the two of us managed to harvest almost five pounds in just 90 minutes of work, and that was in one patch about 12 feet in diameter. Which left plenty of bulbs to mature into future plants, not only in that spot but all around the perimeter of the lake.

Crispy, fried in duck fat.

Taking them back to the Boutards' house, we washed off the mud and peeled the bulbs with a paring knife, then Hank sliced them and fried them in duck fat from some breasts that we were having for lunch. The first bite? A crunchy, light French fry was my first thought, much less dense than a potato but with the same sweet, starchy flavor as its fellow tuber.

Most of them would be going home with Hank to be used in developing recipes for his blog, and he did offer to leave some of them for us, but I know where to find more—not just out in Gaston, but maybe someplace a little closer to home. After all, our own Sauvie Island was originally named by the Lewis and Clark expedition, which christened it "Wappetoe Island."

Photos of foraging in the field by Linda Colwell.


Anonymous said...

Couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but when I was describing the flavor to Carol and Sylvia, plantain came to mind. Same sweet starchiness. When we lived in Somerville, we had it frequently. Lots of West Indians lived in the Boston area, so good quality plantain was readily available.

- Anthony Boutard

Kathleen Bauer said...

Thanks, Anthony! Wish we could get more plantain out here. It's a great starch.