Herbalist Alicia Funk will show how to turn native plants into gourmet desserts
Have you ever eaten an acorn? Alicia Funk has. The herbalist, wild-food advocate and author of the newly updated book Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of the Sierra Nevada, has made it her business to eat wild plants—and to update them for modern tastebuds, in hopes of inspiring people to incorporate wild foods back into their daily diet.
“It needs to be simple, it needs to be gourmet and delicious, for people to be motivated to really start to use our native plants for food,” said Funk in a recent interview, by phone from her off-the-grid Nevada City home.
Vegan Yerba Santa Ice Cream and Oak Nut Bliss Bars are two of the desserts she has created, which she will share with Chicoans at Chico State on Feb. 9, during a three-hour workshop called The Wild Dessert: Preparing Food from Native Plants, sponsored by Friends of the Chico State Herbarium. In addition to tasting the oak-nut bars and the yerba santa ice cream, workshop attendees will also learn how to prepare manzanita sugar and oak-nut flour.
Yerba santa is a common sticky-leafed evergreen shrub in many parts of California, including the foothills above Chico; its name means “holy herb” in Spanish. The leaves were used as a tea, smoked, chewed, and used topically by Native Americans for a variety of ailments. The Oak Nut Bliss Bar—featuring acorn flour mixed with butter, sugar and chocolate—is a modern rebranding of the acorn. “I refer to acorns as ‘oak nuts,’” she said. “When you say ‘acorns,’ people often think ‘squirrels.’ If you call it the nut of the oak tree, which is what it is, then it’s easier for people to imagine eating that for dinner.
“It’s all focused on connecting people to the local landscape,” Funk explained. “When you start to realize you can use these plants for food and for health, people begin to develop a relationship with the place they live. And that’s my primary goal.”
Funk has decided to eat her own words, by setting a goal to eat something wild every day of 2013. “My goal is to really take it to the next level and just integrate it into my daily life both as food and as medicine,” she said. “And my family’s coming with me! I have to experiment on my 5-year-old and my 13-year-old, and I always figure if I can get them to like a certain recipe, pretty much everyone else will enjoy it, too.”
On her Living Wild Project’s website, which is dedicated to creating community among wild-food advocates by sharing wild-food recipes and tips for each season, Funk is chronicling her journey. For instance, a recent entry reads: “January 14: Wild Lilac Wake-up Tea: High in antioxidant catechins, with a similar taste and alertness effect as green tea, our locally abundant ceanothus (also called wild lilac and deer brush) makes for a delicious way to start the day.”
The newly expanded edition of Funk’s book features more than 100 local plants, and more than 100 recipes for how to use them, season by season, including plants’ names and traditional uses in the three dialects of Maidu—the Nisenan, the Konkow, and the Mountain Maidu. The forgotten skill of transforming the bitter acorn into a palatable food is also covered, and will be the focal point of the Feb. 9 workshop.
Participants will make acorn flour from black-oak acorns that Funk collected last fall. The process includes cracking the shells, pounding or blending (in a blender) the acorn into flour, and leaching out the bitter tannins. Each person will go home with a jar of flour, ready to use in any of Funk’s recipes, like oak-nut gingerbread and oak-chocolate marzipan, among others, which are on the Living Wild Project website and in her book.
“We’re going to focus on learning how to turn acorn flour into a staple that can be used and integrated into daily life,” Funk said.
The workshop will detail a number of other native plants throughout the seasons. “A good way to get started is just to pick something that’s easily accessible to you in your back yard—one new plant each season—and really dive into discovering how to use that on a regular basis,” suggested Funk.
She will also lead a nature hike during the workshop, around Chico State’s campus, to identify some of the more common edible plants, like toyon, bay and manzanita. “We’ll get to see them growing around the campus,” Funk said. “It is wonderful to work with the plants and learn their uses, learn how to use them seasonally, and to taste them, and it’s also really enjoyable to step outside and see them growing in the wild.”
Funk sees a benefit in introducing wild plants through modern desserts: “Everyone loves dessert. I think it’s a fun way to become curious about using what’s growing in their back yard.
“For example, manzanita berries are another wild ingredient that we’ll focus on in the class. Just like acorns, they are in abundance. [Manzanita berries are] very easily accessible to people, simple to process and to use in desserts and as a sweetener. … And manzanita berries are three times higher in antioxidants than blueberries and pomegranates, so there are some key nutritional reasons to use them as well.”
Funk hopes that Chicoans can find inspiration in her book; 100 percent of the profits from sales of the book go to California Native Plant Society conservation projects. She encourages any local wild-food enthusiasts to post recipes and tips on the Living Wild Project website. Recent winter posts by users include a manzanita-blossom muffin recipe and a formula for spruce-tip syrup (which someone recommended mixing with gin and sparkling water!).
Funk says her website is a place for people who have “a desire for health, and also a desire and interest in living sustainably” to come together through the use of wild and native foods. “I developed the Living Wild Project as a way for our community to work together to remember how to use the plants that are right around us,” she said.