TDS 57 Does That Feel Like Food To You Karen Viste-Sparkman Wildlife Biologist Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge


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Food, particularly plant-based produce, is anything cultivated for the purpose of consumption.
Or perhaps the real definition is broader.
For instance, what about foragable plants that grow randomly in nature?
Today on #thedeliciousstory, we chat with wildlife biologist Karen Viste-Sparkman about this more ancient path to food.
As a city dweller, I count on obtaining food from the grocery store and mostly think of what I eat as coming from an agrarian model. However, long before the agricultural system developed, and well before the Europeans landed on the continent, Native Americans tended to the land, grew crops, and often foraged from the earth for their sustenance. In Iowa, the land was mostly covered with tallgrass prairie.
In this interview, Karen takes us on an audio tour of the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. There, we walk through prairie and oak savannah brought back much as it was hundreds of years ago. We also explore some of the plant life available for the picking, literally, to use for a dish at the table or for a hot drink.
Karen explains how the refuge began with 300 acres and grew to the 6,000 it encompasses today. In 1990, their goal was an ambitious one: to return the land to the condition it was before the settlers came and turned it into farms and towns.
Remarkably, it all began with a change of opinion about nuclear energy, which thankfully left Iowa with one less power plant and the opportunity to enjoy an oasis instead. Located in Jasper County, near Prairie City, the park offers walking trails, an educational center, and a scenic drive through the refuge to see bison roaming the land.
This was the vision of Neal Smith, a former American politician who served as a member of the United States House of Representatives for the Democratic Party for Iowa from 1959 until 1995. Prior to his service in the House, Smith was a WWII bomber pilot, an attorney, and lifelong advocate for the environment and projects that permit Iowans to connect with nature.
Per an article in the Des Moines Register from March of 2020, Smith celebrated his 100th birthday this year and was supposed to be honored publicly for the positive legacy he has had on our state, but COVID-19 derailed the plan. Celebrations aside, we have Smith to thank for features such as the refuge that bring Iowans and visitors from outside the state to beautiful attractions.
Smith is associated with several other venues as well. In addition to the refuge, there is the Neal Smith Trail, which starts in Des Moines and winds through the Saylorville Lake and Big Creek areas. There is a federal building in downtown Des Moines with his name, too, and he and his wife are behind the Neal and Bea Smith Law Center where they both earned degrees in law decades earlier.
For anyone who hunts or fishes, the idea of eating from the wild isn’t strange at all. But somehow, at least to me, foraging for the unplanned bits of nuts, berries and other edibles seems more of a stretch. Other than morel mushrooms, I was less certain about the viability of this practice, although I’ve interviewed octogenarians through Storied Gifts who have mentioned dining on dandelion leaves for salads, and who also enjoy the sweetness of wild strawberries and rhubarb.
It turns out that foraging is a practice many embrace, but as Karen points out, you MUST know what you are doing before you start grazing from the wild. A few resources that can help you explore the subject beyond this interview include:
•Midwest Wild Edibles & Foragers Society
•Edible Wild Plants
•A Beginners Guide to Wild Edible Plants in the Grinnell Area
Karen detailed several plants that you might find worth eating, including sericea lespedeza, stinging nettles, and wild leeks. The article “Make the Most of Ramp and Morel Season,” over at the Des Moines Register offers up photos of the ramp, which is a popular leek found in the spring on the forest floors in the Midwest.
Interestingly, several of the plants Karen mentioned, such as the sericea lespedeza and garlic mustard, are not native to Iowa. In fact, they are invasive plagues that take over wherever they root. These weeds are the bane to the existence of farmers and gardeners who lament their intrusiveness and struggle for ways to eradicate them.
As much as it would be wonderful if we could help eat them away, the weeds have encroached unwanted for decades and continue to spread. If you have a hankering to forage, however, why not take out something that places like the Neal Smith Refuge are trying to keep clear of their prairies and oak savannas?
If you google garlic mustard, for instance, you’ll find a number of recipes for pesto, but I thought this one called Garlic Mustard Shoots with Ramp Butter by the Forager Chef looked particularly interesting. And yet, while foraging may be deep within our heritage and DNA, for those of us who prefer things we purchase under cellophane it is an adventure that could take some effort.
Whether you have foraging in mind or not, in these cloistered times of the pandemic, any respite that brings us in touch with nature is welcome. As Karen details the flora and fauna available at Neal Smith, you can begin to relax into the notion of beautiful vistas dotted with oak trees and stretches of land covered in tallgrasses.
So much of the time we look farther afield for ways to take a break and experience something unique, and thereby avoid those places that are nearby and available to everyone. Neal Smith is a way to not only commune with nature, but to do a bit of time travel and head into the past only 20 minutes out of Des Moines.

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