The leaf, bean and flower of hopniss in July. K. Springer photo

Ken Springer
Watoga Park Foundation

The Ancient Gourmet

Our early ancestors may have dined better than we may think.

Being called a forager, or, in some circles, “wildcrafter,” was just a fact of life when I was a young man. We had no special name for how we acquired wild foods. I won’t get into my socioeconomic status as a youth, but bringing foods in from the forests, fields and streams was always welcomed.

I searched for morels starting in April and collected other species of mushrooms right up until the late fall when post-frost mushrooms such as the meadow mushroom and shaggy mane made their appearance.

Early spring brought on the ramps and creasy greens, a welcome break from cabbage and iceberg lettuce. For a few months afterward, meals would often be supplemented with chickweed, fiddlehead ferns, dandelion greens, dock and pokeweed shoots.

Throughout the year, I hunted whatever happened to be in season – grouse, pheasant, quail, rabbit, squirrel and, my favorite, duck. When I wasn’t going to school or delivering newspapers, I was running trotlines for channel catfish and noodling for snapping turtles. It was a way of life that was not unusual in southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky.

There was one wild food that I had heard others talk about but which I had never stumbled upon myself.

About 15 years ago, I was checking out a launch site on the New River for a kayaking trip I was going to lead the following weekend, a spot just below Prince, West Virginia. The soil at water’s edge was sandy and played host to hundreds of ground cherry plants.

This plant is in the Nightshade family and contains solanines, which are toxic, but the yellow fruit it produces is edible, often used for jams and preserves that are tart and tasty. I noticed a very thin vine wrapped tightly around many of the ground cherry plants. Although the leaves were long gone, it struck me that this may be the fabled plant called Hopniss, or more commonly, groundnut, Indian potato or potato bean.

Excited as a small child unwrapping a Christmas gift, I followed the vine down the stalk to where it went into the loose and sandy soil. A gentle pull brought out a string of thumb-sized tubers looking all the world like a soiled pearl necklace. I knew that the tubers, actually legumes, were a delicious staple of many Native American tribes who have cultivated the plant for eons. The first colonists to America depended upon the hopniss to get through the first several winters, thanks to the advice of the local Indian tribes.

I was not surprised when I found great numbers of Hopniss growing near the old low water bridge just downstream from Seebert on the Greenbrier River. The general area contains lots of worked flint and projectile points so it made sense that Apios americana is growing there.

Indian Tribes in Minnesota often planted hopniss near bodies of water where they gathered wild rice. Did they know intuitively that a complete complement of proteins was made available to the body when this underground legume was consumed with rice? Perhaps not as such, but rather, through years of experience the health benefits of eating a range of foods were understood empirically. 

Back in late October, I met my neighbor, Laura Evans, at the old low water bridge and her first shovel full of earth revealed a hopniss tuber. The next brought out a string of a half dozen tubers. We stopped digging as our intention was just to get photographs of the tubers, having photographed the flower and seedpod back in July.

I did cook them afterward, and I must say they were tasty, like a cross between a peanut and a potato. I realized that many of the wild foods utilized by early peoples were healthy and flavorful.

In contrast to the cartoons depicting our ancestors roasting a piece of meat on the end of a stick over a fire, archaeological evidence suggests that they, like us, enjoyed a little spice and variety in their diet. After all, they had the same 10,000 taste buds we have. Like us, they would have found great delight in the taste experiences resulting from combinations of sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.

Recipes for many American Indian dishes that have been orally passed down for millennia demonstrate the use of spices like mint and sage. One recipe for a common dish combined maple syrup or wild honey with hopniss tubers, nuts and squash, seasoned with mint.

Romans were making a version of Veal Scallopini 2,000 years ago. Romans had mastered the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, having 35 different cultivars of pears alone.

When Pompeii was destroyed in AD 70 there were 33 bakeries in the city. Roman pastry chefs were making cheesecakes out of flour, sugar, ricotta cheese, honey, eggs and poppy seeds.  

Although many people – myself included – believe Foie Gras to be a social status food and one that is only possible through the abhorrently cruel treatment of ducks and geese, it was actually invented by the ancient Egyptians 2,500 years ago. They developed the technique of “gavage,” which amounts to force-feeding, or more accurately “cramming,” food into the mouths of ducks and geese.

But it does demonstrate that the need to create new foods and new tastes goes back thousands of years, at the very least. I would venture to guess that prehistoric people mixed different raw foods together even before the advent of using fire for cooking just because it tasted better – think of eating nuts and ripe persimmons together.

Pemmican, a food known to be ancient, is a mix of animal meats, fats, nuts and wild berries. It has a lot of calories resulting in more energy, tastes good and is portable.

Once we humans started using fire to cook food, our brain started to increase in size.

The reason?

The brain uses 20 percent of our energy at rest which is derived from our caloric intake through eating.  Digesting raw food requires a good bit of available energy. Once we started cooking food, it then entered our digestive system partially digested, freeing up more energy for growth and development of the brain.

A larger brain would allow us to exploit a wider range of foodstuffs. We would also have more time on our hands because eating raw food would require more calories burned in searching for food just to maintain a base level of energy requirements. So cooking our food gave us extra time that could be used in experimenting with new and novel ways of preparing food.

Perhaps a more cerebral capability pushed us to experiment with combinations of foods, herbs and spices. With the notable exception of the British Isles, the cuisine of most cultures evolved over time. The Romans brought new foods and ways of eating to Britain, but once the colonization collapsed and the Romans went home, it appears the indigenous people went back to their former foods and methods of cooking. Veal Scallopini was quickly forgotten and bangers and mash returned to the menu.

On the other hand, consider the evolution of cuisines in Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean as an example of widely diverse and unique cuisines developing over many centuries.

Here in the west we have had a resurgence of interest in foods. There are cooking shows galore on TV. We not only respect the profession of the chef, they are often treated like rock stars. People are willing to wait for several years just to get a reservation in certain elite restaurants.

But let’s give credit where credit is due. At some point in the murky depths of prehistoric times, someone sat down on a log and thought about creating a better stew, and this started a revolution in dining that is still going on today.
Great Britain, take note!

References: Ancient Roman Diets and Apios americana. SciTechDaily, Cooking Fueled Growth of the Human Brain.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,
Ken Springer

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