In the Devil’s Domain: Cooking with Devil’s Club

A microscopic thorn pierces your fingertip, never to be retrieved. As the pain pulses, you carry on through the woods. Those brilliant teardrop buds must be picked now and only now, as the spikes are soft and the color is a peaceful light green. The flutter of the aspen’s penny-like leaf, crunch of downed logs, and fragrant whisper of fresh tundra tea and wild pink rose petals take you instantly from the incessant drain of computer work to the spirit of the forager.

For those of you who find grace, guidance, and good eats in the harvesting of wild foods, this is a no-brainer. And for those new to the lifestyle, or at least partially intrigued, it is time to plan your Alaskan adventures with a new perspective. Instead of summits climbed or lakes paddled, try finding your next meal sitting quietly on the side of the trail or washed in with the tide. Beyond the world of berries, fish, and game, there is another of harvesting wild plants. In this case, we enter the devil’s domain.

Devil’s Club is a plant that has the power to make most people cringe. It is a worst nightmare for off-the-beaten-path hikers who stumble upon its ability to scratch and stab exposed flesh more than any other thorny bush. With its dark emerald hue and massive rain-forest palm leaves sprawling across Southcentral lands, it might take a minute, or a bite, to change your mind. But, this monster of a plant possesses an incredibly pleasant taste of both celery and gin, all rolled up into a bundle of greens like a ball of spinach.

First introduced to the idea of cooking with this both “delicate and dangerous” food source through a mushroom walk at the Eagle River Nature Center, and by Anchorage-based Mediterranean cook and writer, Laurie Constantino, I already knew devil’s club was a special plant. Much of my time is spent learning about indigenous and natural medicine; Athabascan and Tlingit people, among many others in the Pacific Lower 48, have used different parts of the plant from the root to the bark for health ailments and energy over time.

Devil’s Club. Despite its dark name and vicious physical characteristics, I fell in love.

As with all harvesting and subsistence activities, one must be knowledgeable about what he or she is doing. It takes time, energy, and other resources to hone in on your foraging skills. A good book and skilled friend are highly suggested by me, so please don’t eat or even do things you are not sure about. Being a learned, cautious, respectful, and ethical harvester is beyond important in my book. The unique and lovely natural pleasures of life will only live on if we are careful and mindful of our actions; that is, don’t over-harvest! Limit yourself to picking only a small portion of an area, so that the plants may replenish and other people can enjoy the activity too.

Go ahead, dance (and eat) with this devil. Buds will be ready in the spring of 2013, before the unfurling of the leaves and the hardening of the spikes. Protective clothing suggested!

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Jennifer Kehoe The small organic farms of Massachusetts filled Jennifer Kehoe’s childhood with a bounty of apples, maple syrup and fresh dairy. She grew up on Hindu chanting, herbal tinctures, kale and kombucha, which fermented in the kitchen cabinets. Living in Alaska has introduced her to a whole new side of simple, natural and local living and she is dedicated to learning and teaching about the art, history and science of self-sufficiency. Jennifer believes food should be pleasurable and fun, but that it is also a vital path to social, economic and environmental sustainability.