Tasty little devil

Amid thorns, devil's club shoots

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hikers who have suffered the wrath of thorny devil's club may find a poetic pleasure in fighting back with a frying pan and spatula. The shoots are ready to eat.

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Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

"They're a little weird when you first eat them," said Donald Gregory, an administrative assistant at the Sealaska Heritage Institute whose colleague brought some in one day. "It has a little medicinal something in it. But oh my god it's delicious."

The thrill of foraging one's own food is sometimes the best part. Plenty of edible plants taste generically green or like not much at all. Dandelions and nettles have their charms, but it's easy to see why people who lived on them might switch to something else at the first opportunity.

Devil's club, however: "I think it's the best of the wild edibles," said Laurie Helen Constantino, a wild-edibles eater in Anchorage and cookbook author who has blogged about devil's club.

Constantino gathers it in huge quantities in the narrow window during which it's available. Where she lives it comes up in early spring, before almost all the other edible plants during a time when she's just starting to get itchy for wild things.

Note the "horrid" in the plant's Latin name Oplopanax horridus: This is the scourge of unwitting hikers in the Pacific Northwest, plus Ontario and Michigan. It has both formidable nasty spikes like daggers, and little insidious nasty spikes that become hard-to-remove splinters.

But the shoots, once cooked, are tasty. They have a resiny, spruce-like flavor, a firm bite and a texture like asparagus tips with peach fuzz on them. I say tasty not only as the Empire's resident experimental-foods reporters (see, for example, last year's forays with chocolate lilies and sea cucumbers - but as the witness of 10 Empire tasters who smacked their lips, and only one who reported a strange feeling in his belly, as though he had had one too many cups of coffee on an empty stomach. He had in fact already had two cups of coffee.

"I don't think it portends bad news," said reporter Jeremy Hsieh. "It just feels active."

Another taster said it might have settled his stomach.

Note that local indigenous people have been using devil's club for ages as a medicine. Sitka herbalist and Tlingit cookbook author Pauline Duncan makes skin ointments out of devil's club. The Tlingits steeped the pith in water to make a medicinal tea, too. But Duncan does not eat the shoots, and - as a serious caveat for culinary experimenters - is cautious about recommending the tea, not knowing how it might affect people chemically.

Constantino has been serving the shoots for years, whether as potato salad, gnocchi, pesto spread on grilled-cheese sandwiches, or simply sautéed with garlic. She has not noticed adverse effects.

"I think it makes you feel healthy, if a food can do that," she said.

It is not popular. Constantino researched recipes before she blogged about it and couldn't find any.

"I don't know why people don't use them," she said. "I think people are afraid to gather them. You do have to get right in the heart of devil's club patches. You have to have a certain amount of fearlessness."

In just the sort of thickets that most people would normally avoid, especially on north-facing hillsides and at higher elevations, the shoots are popping out of the woody, thorny stalks. Choose a firm tip that hasn't unfurled at all, and bend it down until it snaps off. Beware, of course, the thorns.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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