Milkweed Pod Golumpkis

A few months ago, I watched a fellow forager make a post about milkweed on Facebook. All they intended to say was that they had picked and enjoyed some for lunch. But the post was preceded by an elaborate explanation of all the care they'd taken to harvest sustainably. I had to laugh to myself because I understood well that without doing so, there would be a least one furious comment or email about how having a single meal of milkweed would spell the end of monarch butterflies. I've gotten those comments and emails, too. I'm guessing most people who speak of eating milkweed have faced the same, no matter how careful their harvest practices.

For foraging instructors, talking about eating milkweed is a subject that must be skirted with care. It's a topic that touches one of our biggest fears - are we harming the environment in any way by foraging? We want to get others excited about eating wild foods, but at the same time always need to make certain we've got an eye toward the best and most sustainable harvest practices. Here's milkweed, a delicious and easily recognized plant that is a natural for getting aspiring foragers truly enthusiastic about eating plants. However, because milkweed appears to be the sole food for the larvae of monarch butterflies, it forces us to look carefully at our relationship with it. This makes it a bit of a hot button topic, and begs the greater question - how do we lead people to embrace wild foods while at the same time ensuring that we aren't a menace to any of the delicate puzzle piece of the ecosystem from which we harvest?

Last year, a freakishly wet spring meant that my local milkweed spots didn't grow well. The plants had a late start, looked sickly and sparse throughout the growing season, and hardly made but a few pods. As a consequence, I didn't eat any milkweed all year, not shoots, nor buds, nor pods. In contrast, the weather this year has favored milkweed booming. I've enjoyed a good harvest of it at all growing stages, and feel confident I've not harmed the milkweed population, nor any of the other critters that depend upon it. As a forager, I have a years-long relationship with this place, having been outside nearly every day of every year with my eyes on the plants. As such, I know well when a population of plants doesn't look healthy, I can tell if an area has been sprayed, and I also know when plants are abundant enough to harvest. This requires the same sort of deep listening and kinship required to maintain a healthy friendship, and reflects the same give and take needed to work in harmony. Being a mindful forager has less to do with dominance over the environment/plants/animals/fungi/forage, and more to do with a deep, trusting relationship. Primum non nocere

With the popularity of foraging on the rise over the last few years, we've seen plenty of examples of people pillaging ecosystems in pursuit of wild foods, perhaps most visibly in the case of ramps (Allium tricoccum). We need only look to the problem of ramps being over-harvested to see an example of how quickly human hands can impact wild food populations.

Not only people who have an interest in wild foods can harm plant populations. I live in the only small region where a medicinal plant called osha (Ligusticum porteri) grows. Osha's roots are used to heal lung ailments. Its popularity caught on like wildfire among herbalists a while back, and now it is possible to see places in the local mountains where entire areas of the plant have been dug up to the point where only overturned dirt remains.

These examples of greed are driven by profit. It seems that wildcrafting is most likely to edge into crimes against nature when money enters the picture. If milkweed were to catch on as a food in restaurants and becomes a product of commerce, things could potentially get ugly for the plant in a hurry.

My guess is that without any financial incentive, very few people have the time or desire to forage on a personal scale in a quantity great enough to cause large-scale or lasting destruction, though that should not keep any of us from considering our impact thoughtfully at each turn. Think of the damage one set of hands could do compared to entire fields being plowed for a monocrop and bathed in herbicide, or all roadside dishes being mowed, or wild lands disappearing in favor of McMansions and strip malls. In fact, the greatest threats to milkweed appears to be elimination through agriculture and urban sprawl.

Interestingly, while trying to find a reference for that last sentence, I came across a study, referred to in this article, which states that the the most urgent threat to monarchs is coming from loss of habitat during their fall migration, with the destruction of milkweed being a smaller part of the equation. Let's not use that as an excuse to act carelessly toward milkweed, however, as its populations are indeed declining.

Especially in a divisive political climate, it's wonderful to see great passion for saving monarchs, a subject we can all get behind. Clearly those passions are the root of angry comments foragers receive when speaking of eating milkweed, and I appreciate the intent every time. But, as Anurag Agrawal states in above article,  "Given the intense interest in monarch conservation, the blame being put on herbicide use and the national dialog about potentially listing monarchs under the endangered species act, we have to get the science right."

Over years of teaching foraging, I've observed that the people who actually eat milkweed are the ones most likely to feel strongly about the plight of monarchs. This seems to be particularly true of the kids I've taught. There is something essential about touching, picking, processing, and eating milkweed that forms meaningful ties to the plant. It forms a personal connection that solidifies the importance of the plant and its place, along with humans, in a role as real-life members of a functioning ecosystem where the vibration of each footstep is felt by every member of the community, flora and fauna alike, not just a story scrolled through on a phone. It makes an abstract concept something real, and personal.

Research actually bears this concept out. Children who are allowed to make tree forts, splash in the mud, and catch frogs are more likely than those who receive classroom education on the subject to become adults with involvement in behaviors that actively protect the environment, as is referred to in this article featured in Orion Magazine. "Wild nature play, both unstructured or structured by parents but with the element of unpredictability in hunting and fishing and riding, were the experiences that seemed to incline the individual toward adult stewardship. In other words, it looks like activities that involve taking and eating (as opposed to just looking and learning), in conjunction with parents who model thoughtful use, are precursors to environmental behavior. "

I'm proposing that if we could put milkweed pod golumpkis onto the plates of more people, eventually there would be greater protection of milkweed, not further destruction of its populations. People who become foragers develop a lasting relationship with the land around them, both because they spend a lot of time physically outside and interacting with it, and also because they want to continue to eat their favorite wild foods from year to year. Foragers have their eyes on the situation, literally. I will always champion each forager placing the greatest time and interest in plants that are weedy and abundant in their neighborhood, over foods which could be considered in any way fragile. Of course, there will be great variability in what falls into the category of weedy and abundant from place to place. I've been jokingly called the Queen of Dock. I work with dock frequently because one can hardly take a step without nudging their foot against a dock plant (Rumex crispus) where I live.

As foragers, it is non-negotiable that we should have these sensitivities toward all the things we choose to pick, and always practice sustainable harvesting. We must take a deep examination of our impact upon our favorite wild foods and the greater environment. We need to be considerate and make good decisions, knowing they will have consequences. Equally important, as responsible foragers, it is essential that we do our research. We need to check multiple sources. We need to keep up with the science. We must ask questions and push boundaries. Harvesting and eating milkweed gives us the opportunity as foragers to put into practice the values we hold most sacred. It's a complicated subject which cannot be reduced to a meme.

Now, on to the food.

Milkweed pods are special among wild foods because they offer the rare combination of a something that is both a solid bite of food and contains a pocket that is begging to be stuffed. For anyone who thinks wild foods are only "twigs and berries," milkweed pods can be a revelation.

My local species is Ascelpias speciosa, or showy milkweed, and is eaten in a similar manner to the other frequently eaten species, common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The pods seem to grow fairly quickly after the starburst of flowers fade in mid-summer. Young pods, as small as 1-2" can be harvested and eaten whole, or cut up and sliced like okra. For stuffing milkweed pods, you need to strike a perfect balance between maximum growth of the pod, and when it starts to mature and get too tough to eat. I tend to aim for pods that are about 3" in length. When given a brief squeeze, they feel more softer than mature pods. Learning how to distinguish by eye which milkweed pods will be tender comes with experience. I usually only take one pod from each plant. Still, in a good stand of milkweed, it's easy to get a harvest large enough to pull off this golumpki recipe.

Because milkweed contains some toxins, all parts of milkweed should be boiled until tender and the water discarded before you consume it. For the golumpkis, whole pods are boiled briefly. Then, they are split along an existing seam and their silk and seeds, or "guts" as I call them, are removed. If they are still young and tender, the guts can be eaten as a separate dish.

I particularly enjoy milkweed pods served (cooked and) cold, stuffed with an herbed soft cheese. I also like putting some cheese and a jalapeno inside to make milkweed pod "jalapeno poppers." I've stuffed milkweed pods with sausage before, but it was only this summer that it occurred to me that they might make a fun wild translation of traditional Polish cabbage rolls. The recipe came out perfectly the very first time.

Milkweed pod golumpkis are irresistibly homey and satisfying, the kind of dish you want to come home to after a long day, like a good meatloaf. This recipe is taken from one written by a friend's mom in one of my notebooks years ago. She died a few years back, and the sight of her handwriting makes a smile catch on my lips. The only change I've made is to include a panade - a starchy goo made from bread and milk that helps long-cooked meats to remain juice. Of course, stuffing the meat mixture into milkweed pods rather than forming packages with leaves of cabbage is a departure from the original. I've found that slightly older pods can be used here because of the long cook time.

Milkweed Pods Golumpkis

50-60 milkweed pods
1 slice bread, crusts removed
2-4 Tbsp. milk
1 lb. ground meat, any kind (I used lamb)
1 cup cooked white rice
1/4 c. chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 egg
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper

2 pints tomato sauce
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. worcestershire sauce

1. Begin by par-boiling the whole milkweed pods. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. In 3-4 batches, add milkweed pods to the boiling water and let them cook for 4-5 minutes before fishing them out to drain. Be aware that as the air escapes the pods, they can sputter and pop. I don't think safety goggles are necessary here, but mind yourself.

2. Let the cooked milkweed pods cool to the touch, then open them along their natural seam, and take out the seeds. If it isn't obvious where the seam is, inspect the stem end of the pod, which will curve slightly. The seam is on the convex side of this curve. While you are taking out the seeds, you be able to feel whether or not the pod is too old to eat. Old seed pods will have seeds that are rigid and crumble away easily. Also, the coating inside of old pods starts to take on stiff plastic-y feeling. Discard the old seeds and pods.

3. In a large mixing bowl, tear up the piece of bread and add the milk, one tablespoon at a time, mashing them with a fork until they take on the texture of thick goo.

4. Add the meat, rice, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and egg. Use your hands to evenly combine all the ingredients.

5. Use the meat and rice mixture to stuff the milkweed pods. The stuffing goes a long way, so try to fill each pods well.

6. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine the tomato sauce, brown sugar, worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and another teaspoon of salt, as well as some cracked black pepper. Stir the ingredients together.

7. Arrange the stuffed milkweed pods in a large pot. I don't see any reason why you couldn't also cook these for several hours on low heat inside a slow cooker, but I've only done it stovetop. Pour the sauce over top the stuffed milkweed. Bring the pot up to medium heat, until the sauce starts to bubble.

8. Turn the heat down to medium-low, and let the milkweed pod golumpkis cook with a cover on for 20 minutes. Remove the cover, and let them continue to cook for an additional 20-25 minutes.

9. Serve each golumpki with a drizzle of the sweet and sour sauce. This recipe makes enough for a crowd. If you aren't feeding a football team, it's good to know that these freeze quite well.

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