decadence by hand

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Maclura pomifera (Osage orange) might be edible and may be delicious..

foraging, wild foodsdecadencebyhand2 Comments

In 2005, I watched a documentary on Pacific Islanders. In the documentary, a fruit called breadfruit was discussed as being a significant food source for the people of those islands. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse, he writes about pits of fermenting breadfruit after storms destroyed everything on the island. The people in the book would live off of the fermented paste until they could get things growing again, because the buried fermented paste was edible for well over a decade.

While driving past a park in the fall in Indianapolis later that same year, I spotted hundreds of fruits laying on the ground by a creek. “These look sooooo much like breadfruit,” I thought.  I quickly pulled over, and ran to the tree. I knew that they were Osage orange but there was remarkable similarity to my limited knowledge of breadfruit, that I simply hadn’t associated before this point. This was/is the largest Osage orange tree I’ve ever seen, adding to the surreal-ness of it all. In my excitement, I talked to some people in town who had done some foraging. In a somewhat belittling attitude (maybe shaming me with their own previous excitement and then failures), they told me it was a waste of time because the fruit was too waxy, too full of latex that gums up everything that it touches. Usually, I perservere in trying things that could maybe fail, but the reprimand sunk my Osage ship.

A couple years later at a Christmas gathering in 2011, my uncle told me a story from his work as a field biologist for the DNR. According to him, there where some students from Nepal attending Eastern Illinois University working on a project with him. While driving down a two-track, they got excited when seeing a tree fruit. “Cutter fruit, cutter fruit!” they yelled. My uncle asked them if they were referring to the green fruits that they had just passed, and they assented, so he pulled over for the students. When the group got out to survey the fruits, the students agreed it looked like cutter fruit. My uncle told them about the latex inside, and they agreed that cutterfruit has a latex inside. They said that when it is processed they cover their hands, knives, and cutting board with oil to keep every thing from getting gummy.

I am unsure if the fruit they were referring to was breadfruit, since breadfruit is a tropical fruit. I think maybe it was another similar fruit of the same family, but its another reason to look into osage orange. Polynesians gave up rice production when expanding out of southeast Asia in order to grow breadfruit which was better suited to the islands they would inhabit. Osage orange, breadfruit, and some fruits from Nepal are all in the Moraceae family. This is the family of figs and mulberries. In fact, I usually spot Osage as having a very similar growth habit as mulberry but with more golden colored bark. There are some thousand species of trees and shrubs in that family.There are a lot of edible species for both humans and other animals. The leaves and shoots of many members of this family are used for tree hay for livestock. There are few poisonous species, a notable one that is used for poison darts in the South American rainforest.

Many members of the same genus as breadfruit are described as milky and chestnut flavored. A lot of the genus has oil rich seeds. Squirrels go through the hassle of ripping open osage for the seeds, which suggests a high caloric value of the seed.

Cooking methods for breadfruit and relatives commonly involve fat in some way. There are many recipes for quick cooking in high temperature fat, as well as many with the fruit being slow cooked in fat such as in a pit roast. There might be some people reading this thinking that if Osage orange had edible uses, then Native Americans would have used it. Looking at foods utilized by different cultures can be very interesting. There are mushrooms revered in France that are rarely consumed in China and vice versa, due to the preferable cooking method for the mushroom and the commonality of the method in that area. So I would suggest that Native Americans may not have valued or utilized Osage, like other cultures have.

Breadfruit like many fruits seems to be available fresh for a short time of the year, and at least in Polynesia when used as a staple, the fruits were fermented. Some things I’ve read suggest that they are harvested somewhat under ripe. If trying out Osage, I’d suggest trying to harvest them under ripe, preferably before they begin to fall.

I have interest in the edibility of Osage, yet I don’t eat many carbohydrates which leads to me missing the optimal time for harvest. Not eating many carbs reduces my investment in osage, but intrigue and curiosity still drives pursuit. I was only able to harvest mature fruits this year. hunting season and simultaneously settling into a new home caused me to miss them at their under-ripe stage.

This year, my experience with Osage consisted of the following: with the fruit cut open, you can see the milky latex. It smelled of citrus and was faintly sweet. The inside has two parts. One part is the core and is starchy, akin to a baking potato. The other was a starch/citrus hybrid (citrus isn’t actually in the same family). I cooked a little of both, but cooked more of the starchy core. I fried them in some pasture raised pork lard. The flavor was like a mix of slightly undercooked potato with eggplant. Most of the citrus-y notes were gone. I would like to try making the fermented paste next year.