Diner: Elemental Eating

Jill and David Fankhauser find culinary solace in earthy pleasures

Darin Overholser

Tall and lanky, David Fankhauser strides absent-mindedly across his Pierce Township pasture, checking off edible plants as he goes.

"Do you know this one?" he asks, pointing to a thick carpet of dark green leaves. "This is chickweed, good just as a salad green or cooked down. It's a fairly mild-flavored wild green."

He points to an unruly sprout of leaves growing a few feet away. "That's curly dock, and it's edible, too," he says, picking a leaf and handing it to me. "Taste it. It has a tartness to it."

He walks toward a bank of dark green leaves. "Stinging nettles," he says. "Anything you use spinach for, you can use these for, but you must steam them."

He pulls on a glove and picks a handful of nettles. "I stuffed ravioli with them one time, with ricotta and egg," he says with a grimace, "but I used my bare hands to mix it together. They had been steamed, but not long enough."

It's Easter Sunday, and I'm standing with Fankhauser and his wife Jill in their sprawling back yard, searching for mushrooms and edible wild greens. It has rained all night, and we're standing in the damp grass.

"OK," says Fankhauser, professor of biology and chemistry at the University of Cincinnati's Clermont College, "garlic mustard. Eat as much as you can. It's an alien and it's crowding out the native wildflowers."

We bend closer to the garlic mustard, and the cluster of white flowers at its top. "You see the petals?" Fankhauser asks. "This is a good one for Easter morning — it's in a cross. If you ever see four flowers in a cross, it's almost certainly a Cruciferae, and many of those are edible."

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David and Jill Fankhauser are connected to their land in a way that few of us are connected to a physical place.

"We moved here April Fool's Day, 1971," David says. "And we got the car stuck in the mud," says his wife.

They came here, young and jobless, with plans to live off the land. Today, they are both educators at Clermont College. They keep chickens and a goat. They make their own cheese.

After more than 35 years here, they feel the rhythms of the land. They know every slope of the fields, each turn of the creek and its crumbling banks. This place seems to keep them kind. When two geese fly over the creek, Jill and David stop talking mid-sentence and look up through the budding treetops at the black shapes moving across the sky.

"My babies," says Jill.

The moment does not last long. David points out a wildflower that carpets the ground.

"Wild blue phlox," he says. Bending to pick a handful, he folds it carefully into his mouth and chews. "It's more of a garnish," he admits, through a mouthful of blue petals, before striding across a well-worn deer path toward the woods.

We are between the house and a slow bend in the creek. Wildflowers are everywhere. David names each one: Latin names, common names, Appalachian and Native-American Indian names.

"One flower is a study in geometry," he says thoughtfully. He looks across the fields, toward the goat pen and the indignant billy goat. "It's just coming on," he says, framing his 20 acres with a sweep of his hand. "You just see this mist of purple."

David kneels in the damp grass, picks a violet and eats its petals. "The flowers are sweet," he says. "They have these heart-shaped leaves. When you crunch into the base of the flower it releases a little bit of nectar."

"I've taken violet flowers and crystallized them and put them on poached pears," Jill says, "but I don't work that hard anymore."

We enter woodland, moving slowly toward the creek. David points out more edible species: fiddleferns, wild ginger and sweet cicely — its stalk tastes of licorice. "There she is!" he exclaims, pointing to a wildflower with a crown of trumpet-shaped flowers. "Blue-eyed Mary," he says. "She's so pretty, and you can eat her, too."

And he does.

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One of the best places to find mushrooms, Fankhauser says, is underneath dead or dying trees, but he recommends caution at all times. "There's a saying that there's old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters."

We stop at a fallen tree and Fankhauser points out the kidney-shaped cap of a large mushroom. It is about the size of his hand and, he says, it is an edible species.

"If you see the scales on the top, that gives it its scientific name, squamosus, and then underneath," he says, turning the cap over in his hand, "see all the pores? Polyporus. This is Polyporus squamosus."

He detaches the mushroom from the trunk and runs his fingertip along the edge of its fleshy cap. "The outside is tender," he says, placing the mushroom in a bag. Farther along the path, Fankhauser sees another cluster of edible mushrooms, a patch of neat little caps growing on thin white stalks at the base of a tree. Coprinus micaceus, says Fankhauser, or inky caps. "At maturity they melt and turn black." He picks one and squeezes the cap between his thumb and forefinger and it breaks apart, staining his fingertips.

"There's one that's in good shape," Fankhauser says, disappearing almost completely into the undergrowth, "and there's some more over there." His voice continues, muffled now, from somewhere within the tangle of branches.

"Be sure, when you pick a mess of them," he shouts, "that they're all of the same species." He returns with a handful of inky caps cupped in his palm. "I'll make a soup out of it, but it's a sort of purple-gray."

"I don't think they're very lovely," says Jill Fankhauser with restraint.

Back in his kitchen, surrounded by a reassuring clutter of Greenpeace mailings and sleeping cats, Fankhauser holds aloft a well-thumbed copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms. "This is one of the better of the mushroom books," he says. "You need to be sure of what you've got."

The guide describes more than 700 species of mushroom, including several that are deadly if eaten. Even when you're sure of what you've found, Fankhauser says, it's a good idea to sample some mushroom first and then wait to see what happens.

He trims the edge of the Polyporus squamosus from the rest of the cap and sautés it in olive oil and salt and pepper. It has a delicious earthy flavor to it. There is something so elemental about eating a mushroom that was growing on a tree trunk a half-hour earlier, and crunching on occasional pieces of grit as we chew on its woody flesh.

The inky caps are more fragile and they break apart in the oil, disintegrating in the heat of the pan. They are milder and less substantial than the Polyporus, but they still taste unmistakably of the damp earth outside.

We finish our mushrooms, and it's time for me to leave. I walk to my car, laden with bags of stinging nettles and chickweed, wild ginger and catnip, the remains of the Polyporus squamosus, a dozen fresh eggs and some generous wedges of homemade cheese.

On the way home, the rains come again. Driving alongside the river, I can't help looking at the hedges that line the road and wondering what grows there, hidden in their tangled shadows.