First published in The Cordova Times, 8/31/2012
A couple of weeks ago, I took the kids on our our first pilgrimage “down south” since 2010 to my family’s tiny cottage in Northern Wisconsin. People from my dad’s side of the family have been spending the summer in those woods on Lac Courte Oreilles for a century. I didn’t grow up in Wisconsin, but I grew up riding in the back seat of one tiny car or another from Upstate New York, through the homes of various friends and relatives, to our cottage, where we’d spend a couple of weeks each summer. The cottage is one of those places that feels like home: the smell of the pine, the stark white of birch trees against the green of the rest of the forest, the buzz of dragonflies and mosquitos, the way the grass feels dry and prickly underfoot in the August heat. So it was a surprise to me this summer when I realized there are many ways I don’t know the place at all.
I know a tiny August sliver of these woods, but I know them the way a child would. I know not to touch poison ivy, to chew but not swallow wintergreen leaves for a treat that tastes like Life Savers, to canoe in the morning or at sunset when the lake is calm. I know that the land where we have our cottage is in traditional Ojibwa territory. I don’t know The North Woods the way I was beginning to learn my way around Cordova-the way, after three trips through the seasons, I was beginning to absorb the rhythm of the foraging year, from fern fronds and fireweed stalks to devils club buds and spruce tips, berries and mushrooms.
This year, we were at the lake a little later in August than usual, and I noticed that under those tasty wintergreen leaves there were bright red berries. Are those edible? (They are, and they taste minty like the leaves). I’m not the only one wondering. There was a book lying on the table in our cottage titled, “Jiibaakweyang,” which means, “We are Cooking Together,” in Anishinaabe, the language of the Ojibwa. The library at the local Ojibwa Community College collected the recipes and published the booklet. The members of the Ojibwa Community are actively working to learn and preserve their language and record and revitalize the traditional knowledge of the place where they live. Here’s an excerpt from a traditional recipe for Wintergreen tea:
“One woman’s handful of wintergreen leaves, 1 quart of red maple sap. Rinse the leaves if you have doubts about which beings have walked over them. Strain the fresh sap thru a cloth to remove bits of bark that would flavor the sap in ways you don’t want. Put the leaves in the sap and cook themâ€¦until almost boiling-not quite.”
I’ve never been at the cottage in sugaring season, so I’ve never tasted maple sap fresh from the tree, but it sounds delicious.
I subscribe to a food magazine called Lucky Peach. The magazine is usually filled with chefs like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain writing about eating too much in exotic places like Kyoto or Copenhagen. This quarter they produced an American Food issue, and in the middle of loud pieces on Kansas City pork barbecue and San Francisco seafood a more reflective essay caught my attention: “No reservations-The Hard-won Nourishment of the Ojibwe Tribe,” by David Treuer. Following his people through their history as a coastal tribe living in around the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway, through their migration to lake regions around the upper midwest, he searches for the culinary traditions of his people disrupted by war, westward expansion, and resettlement in reservations. He shares his family’s love for maple syrup, wild rice and fresh fish.
It’s unlikely that I’ll ever know more than that late summer piece of what life in The North Woods is like, but I’m paying more attention. And I’m enjoying the bounty of a hot summer that can be elusive for us as Alaskans: fresh corn on the cob, vine-ripened organic tomatoes, and enough watermelon to make a small boy’s belly burst. Here’s a recipe for my family’s take on German Potato Salad. It’s something we can make year-round and anywhere in the country to remind us of summer meals on the screened-in porch-grilled bratwurst, Wisconsin beer, and a table overflowing with food grown nearby.
Cookie Buschmann’s German-ish Potato Salad
2 pounds small red potatoes
1 cup diced dill pickles
1 cup diced sweet onions
2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and diced
1/3 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
3 T sugar
1 T stone ground mustard
1 t sea salt
1/2 t cracked pepper
Chopped fresh chives and parsley if you have them
Wash the potatoes and trim off any bad spots. Do not peel. Boil the potatoes until they are fork-tender. Drain, and allow to cool slightly-they can be warm. When they are cool enough to touch, Dice the potatoes in 1/2 inch pieces. Mix in pickles and onions. In a small bowl, whisk together, oil, mustard and vinegar, add sugar, salt and pepper. Stir in herbs. Pour the dressing over the potato mixture, then stir in the chopped egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper.