LIANE HANSEN, host:
As you scour the cookbooks for Thanksgiving recipes, you'll find the traditional stuffing, pumpkin pie. But WEEKEND EDITION food commentator Bonny Wolf wanted to know what Colonial-era Native Americans ate at harvest time. She foraged in the woods and for answers and sent this audio postcard.
BONNY WOLF: It's a brisk, clear morning at Adkins Arboretum, a peaceful 400-acre preserve on Maryland's Eastern Shore. I meet Bill Schindler, an anthropology professor at nearby Washington College, and Bill Trakat, a mycologist - that's a mushroom guy - to wander along streams and through meadows looking for something to eat. Right away, Bill Schindler finds some tasty looking weeds.
Professor BILL SCHINDLER (Anthropologist, Washington College): One of the earliest wild plants that we think Native Americans began domesticating around here is Chenopodium berlandieri, which is a lambs quarters. They grow all over. The greens are fabulous. But the seeds are also very healthy and full of all kinds of wonderful proteins and oils.
WOLF: Next, we check out the marsh.
Prof. SCHINDLER: There are some great plants that grow in the marsh. They are one of the first plants to come out in the early spring when, you know, people especially in the past, it was over winter and haven't had much to eat. In some of the accounts, you know, John Smith is talking about these things being pulled out of the water. You know, Native Americans saying they're about as big as a man's thigh. And they have tons of accounts of Native Americans eating these things.
WOLF: We haven't seen many mushrooms when Bill Trakat finds a little rusty-red one.
Dr. BILL TRAKAT (Mycologist): Oh, what do we have?
WOLF: Ooh, look at those little red...
Dr. TRAKAT: Oh yeah, look at them. Ah, look at it. That's a cortenarious.
Dr. TRAKAT: It's a brown cortenarious. I mean, it's edible but not edible. In other words, it doesn't...
Prof. SCHINDLER: Not palatable? Edible but not tasty?
Dr. TRAKAT: Yeah.
WOLF: Both Bills caution about eating anything you're not sure of. Some mushrooms are poisonous and other wild plants need toxins processed out. But not the wild grapes that Bill Schindler spots.
Prof. SCHINDLER: Mmm, the juicier ones are still pretty good. You can always tell the grape are the only ones that have these curlicue-looking-things coming off the vines. Mmm. Mm-hmm. Mmm.
WOLF: Mmm. We walk through a patch of what looks like more little green weeds.
Prof. SCHINDLER: This is sheep sorrel. It's supposed to somehow look like a sheep's head.
Dr. TRAKAT: Oh, yeah.
WOLF: Oh, wow.
Dr. TRAKAT: Hey, that's cool. Does it taste like regular sorrel?
Prof. SCHINDLER: It does. It does slightly. Let me get a few more. It's a little lemony. They're great in salads. They will get a seed head on them that - those are fabulous, too.
WOLF: Naturally, Bill Schindler has a trowel in his pocket. So he digs up an evening primrose root, cleans it off and passes it around.
Tastes like a radish.
Prof. SCHINDLER: If you come at this kind of wild plants thing from, you know, our modern perspective on food, you're not going to enjoy a whole lot of it. And you're not going to have a huge variety of things that you're going to want to try. I mean, you know, a lot of the plants that we eat have been domesticated down to the point where they've lost a lot of their flavor.
WOLF: But keep an open mind. The woods are an open-air food court. A lot of what you see or step on is edible. So as an alternative to the green bean casserole, why not try lambs quarters cooked with a little hickory nut butter and wild onion this holiday?
HANSEN: Bonny Wolf is working on a book about the foods of Maryland's Eastern Shore. To see recipes made with wild plants, go to our website, NPR.org.