The Native Americans and the Huckleberry
"Ischit Wiwnu" -- Path, Huckleberry. In the Sahaptin language spoken by Native Americans of the Warm Springs tribe, “Wiwnu” is the word for the Huckleberry -- the elusive berry that symbolizes sustenance, community and the passing of seasons.
The ancient path of the huckleberry is covered by the foot-steps of generations of Native Americans. In late summer when the huckleberries came into their peak, the indigenous people left their villages along the Columbia Plateau in North-Central Oregon in search of the “Wiwnu” on Mount Hood.
Under a towering canopy of old-growth Douglas fir that cloaks the mountain, they set out on a trail through the forest, snaking a path through thick vegetation of fern, Pacific dogwood and vine maple. The path spiraled upward, hugging the breast of the mountain, a thin layer of mist blanketing the Valley floor below.
After they had risen thousands of feet in elevation from the forest below and reached the timberline, the path of “Ischit Wiwnu,” led them to the blessed ground. They called it “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak” -- huckleberry meadows -- lush alpine carpets of native grasses bursting with a stunning palette of orange agoseris, broadleaf lupine and Henry Indian paintbrush bordered by huckleberry bushes holding a bounty of berries.
They set camp at “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak,” staying into early October picking huckleberries and filling their baskets for winter.
A Basket of Huckleberries for Prineville
Native Americans used dried huckleberries to provide nourishment throughout the winter, mixing them with meats into “pemmican” -- a combination of ground meat, fat and dried berries. Venison, elk, and salmon from the mighty Columbia River were common types of proteins used by the Warm Springs in making pemmican.
In the 19th Century, the Warm Springs people found a source for selling fresh huckleberries that would provide them with income -- and the path of the huckleberry would lead to my Grandmother’s farmhouse in Prineville.
The Slayton ranch sits just to the East of town, carved into a narrow valley bordered by the Ochoco Mountains, the homestead was born out of a land claim staked by my Great-Great Grandfather Samuel Slayton in 1868.
My Grandmother, Mildred Lura Slayton, told the story of a Native American woman who went door-to-door every autumn selling fresh huckleberries out of a hand-woven basket. The dark purple beauties had been gathered on “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak” in the huckleberry meadows on Mount Hood.
I considered Grandmother to be a very good cook. She was born in 1898 in a farmhouse with no running water and learning how to cook was a necessity. Yet she was a unique woman and cook for the times. Grandmother learned the technical skills of cookery by becoming the first woman in her family to graduate from college, bearing a degree in home economics and teaching from Oregon Agricultural College (today Oregon State University) in 1919.
As I got older, I came to appreciate Grandmother’s cookery skills even more. Her degree in home economics taught her the fine science of confectionery -- her fondant, walnut penuche and fudge were specialties. She never made fudge with marshmallow crème and refused to make a batch on a rainy day because she said that too much moisture in the air would cause the sugar to crystallize and the fudge wouldn’t be creamy.
Yet it was her huckleberry recipes that I remember the most. She put up huckleberry jam and preserves, but for my taste, her fresh huckleberry pie was the most memorable.
Grandmother’s huckleberry pie was perfect -- a buttery, flaky crust rolled into a soft blanket then gently pressed into a glass pie dish. She never used cornstarch to thicken her pie, just enough sugar and a few pats of butter to give the season’s berries respect.
The scent of Grandmother’s warm huckleberry pie pulled out of the oven was unmistakable: the aroma of exotic spices and herbs with a hint of juniper—the essence of the mountains.
Imagine the thoughts running through the mind of a young boy watching a huckleberry pie as it cools, knowing this is a slice of pie he will eat just once a year. The crust was delicate yet crisp, light as a feather. The warm juices of the huckleberries streamed onto the plate, melting into the big scoop of vanilla ice cream served with the pie. It was heavenly.
My Grandfather, Floyd Angus Ross, was an accomplished huckleberry cook in his own right.
While we were fast asleep, Grandfather would be up before dawn tending to his field of Russet potatoes, carving out irrigation channels with his shovel.
Grandfather returned to the kitchen before we arose and began breakfast, mixing a batch of fresh huckleberry pancakes that he cooked on a well-seasoned griddle on top of the old stove.
A huckleberry pancake is a pancake like no other. Grandfather’s huckleberry pancakes were light and fluffy yet still had the texture of a soft “cake,” with the even, tan color of a diner pancake. The heat of the well-seasoned griddle would temper the berries just to the point that the sugars inside would burst, sending an explosion of huckleberry into every bite of pancake—the tart, yet sweet rush of fresh mountain huckleberry juice mixing with sweet-cream butter and maple syrup.
A Huckleberry Grows Wild
The huckleberry is a member of the Ericaceae family of plants—part of the Vaccinium genus. Other plants in the family include the blueberry and cranberry. There are over ten different species of huckleberry that grow wild in the Pacific Northwest, most on the Eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon, East to the Selkirk Mountains in Northern Idaho and the Bitterroot Mountains in Western Montana.
The huckleberry is a fastidious berry, preferring acidic soil commonly found in volcanic regions. It thrives in elevations above 2,500 feet with a long, cold winter and a heavy snowpack, which preserves the buds with a heavy coat of snow.
A dry spring increasing to a warm June, building into a hot August then tapering back down to a warm September lazing into October is the most favorable weather conditions for the huckleberry, delivering the perfect balance of sweet, yet tart berries. Wet, cool summers stunt the growth of the berries and blistering heat that lasts over the course of months withers the concentration of sugars in the fruit.
One of Mother Nature’s natural barometers of the annual huckleberry crop are bears. Black bears and Grizzlies share a voracious appetite for the huckleberry, feasting in the meadows until they are literally intoxicated with the delirious joy of the huckleberry feast.
The huckleberry provides a bear with important vitamins and nutrients as they store calories away before retiring to the deep-sleep of hibernation. Experienced huckleberry pickers outfit themselves with a bell, air horn and bear “spray” before stalking the path of the huckleberry. One does not really compete with a Grizzly Bear for few buckets of berries. Should a bear choose to stake a claim on your huckleberry patch, you best retreat back down the trail.
The effects of El Nino last winter were not favorable to the huckleberry crop this summer in the Pacific Northwest. After a record snowpack in the mountains in 2009, the winter of 2010 brought far less snow. The spring was especially wet with rain falling into late June. As a result, the resulting crop was far less than anticipated—the berries small and with a pronounced tartness.
In Montana, State Wildlife officials reported that due to the poor huckleberry crop this year, a number of problematic bears came down off the mountains in search of food. Unfortunately, recorded encounters with humans were higher than normal and many of the attacks were attributed to bears looking for huckleberries. In just two weeks in September, at least five Grizzly bears that were searching for food were too close to humans and had to be captured. Four of the bears were released and one had to be humanely euthanized.
Because of the unique environment in which it grows, mere mortals have never been able to successfully cultivate huckleberries on a commercial scale. Huckleberries grow on shrubs that can be little devils to reach—long sleeves are required—and the berries are small and delicate so they don’t naturally lend themselves to the commercial machines employed to harvest blueberries.
Without a doubt, the huckleberry is a highly prized commodity to those of us who crave them in our pies, tarts, cakes and candies. Owing to the consideration of its wild nature, the fact it is only picked by hand and the miles it must endure to be brought off the mountains to the marketplace, the huckleberry is incredibly expensive. This year, a gallon bag of fresh huckleberries at the farmer’s market in Spokane sold for $35.00, literally a bargain. (A good year will yield a price of $50.00 per gallon).
When I went to a food event in Las Vegas in late September, a Chef was serving small bites of smoked duck breast on dainty little toast points with a huckleberry relish. I told him what I paid for fresh, local huckleberries in Spokane. He winced. He didn’t tell me what the restaurant mark-up was for fresh huckleberries.
Mr. Beard and the Huckleberry
As we walked into the Portland Airport terminal building, a towering bald figure enrobed in a flowing black cape rushed past. Mother leaned down and asked, "Do you know who that was?" I was no more than 9 at the time and had no clue who he was. In a matter-of-fact tone that told me this must be a movie star, Mother simply said “that was James Beard.”
In “Delights and Prejudices,” (1964, Gollancz), Beard wrote this about the huckleberry-
“Blue huckleberries were the most elusive of the wild berries. They usually grew in places difficult to reach, in the midst of a mountain wilderness. But once you found a patch, you were in luck.”
As I grew older and started to develop my own sensibilities for cooking and writing about food, I came to know James Beard. I never personally met Mr. Beard nor did I ever shake his hand, yet I know him.
I share a common bond with James Beard, one that ties us to a special place. We are Native Oregonians. When I read his delicious writings, the voice of Beard takes me home as he relishes in the beauty of a crisp Bartlett Pear from the orchards of Hood River. I hear his footsteps as he walks on the wet sands of Gleneden Beach caressed by foam from the tides of the Pacific. And I know I’ve walked together with James Beard along this wondrous path of the huckleberry.
“No matter how they were prepared—in a deep-dish pie, which we had often, or in a strange English version of the clafouti, with a batter poured over the berries and baked, or in little dumplings which were dropped into cooked huckleberries, or in the famous Hamblet huckleberry cake—they were fantastically good.”
The Huckleberry Kitchen, the Old and New
When one ponders the question of cooking with huckleberries, the natural inclination is to think of the same kinds of sweet dishes that Grandmother Ross kept in her wooden recipe box on hand-written index cards; jams, jellies and pies. Certainly those cherished family recipes have withstood the test of time, yet we should also consider new methods for pairing the huckleberry with ingredients and techniques that Grandmother Ross would not have had at her disposal in the kitchen at Prineville in 1929.
A perfect example of adapting the huckleberry for today’s tastes is in a turnover: a pillow of flaky puff pastry enveloping a layer of cream-cheese resting under a dollop of silky huckleberry filling.
When I competed in the Grande Finale of the MasterChef USA series on PBS, (the first “reality” cooking competition on American television), I crafted a purely Pacific Northwest menu—a starter of “Dungeness Crab Mosaic,” (crab, tomato, cucumber and pear cut into the shapes of a mosaic of tiles), with Marjoram Mayonnaise and Pear Chips -- fresh crab dip and chips if you will. The main course was “Cedar Plank Halibut, Mashed Potato, Garlic Broth and Frizzled Onions.”
The dessert course had to be a stunner -- the dish that would define my path during the 13-week competition -- a dessert that would pay homage to the Northwest.
I settled on a simple, humble sounding dessert: “Toasted Hazelnut Ice Cream with Huckleberry Compote.” The hazelnut, (we still prefer to call them “filberts” in our family), is a natural partner to the huckleberry since they both grow in the Northwest -- huckleberries on high mountain meadows and the hazelnut in orchards throughout the Valleys. However, the consideration of pairing huckleberries with nuts is more than one of geography. It’s a matter of the contrast and balance between flavors and textures.
The huckleberry brings notes of sweet, tart fruit and the fragrance of perfume to a compote, while toasted hazelnuts lend an herbal, woodsy accent to cool vanilla ice cream. .
My “Huckleberry Sundae” was the quintessential personality of the Northwest and it opened a new chapter in my journey along the path of the huckleberry.
The huckleberry is equally adept in savory recipes like sauces fortified with stock, demi-glace or the spicy, black cherry notes of Pinot Noir.
Wild game is a natural partner to the huckleberry. A rich venison stew with buttermilk biscuits slathered in salted butter and huckleberry jam is a rousing success at hunting camp.
I personally favor thick slices of tender elk loin, quickly sautéed in butter and olive oil with just a bit of garlic, and then served with a few pebbles of fresh huckleberries tossed into the pan with a swirl of blackcurrant jelly and a swale of Calvados.
The nutty, rich meats of game birds like quail, duck and goose also take well to the piquant flavor boost provided by the huckleberry.
Squab wrapped in rashers of apple wood-smoked bacon and roasted no more than 12 minutes to tender the dark meat a hint beyond rare is unforgettable when served with a savory version of huckleberry compote.
My favorite pairing combines huckleberries with foie gras. It was autumn a year ago and I had just prepared a batch of huckleberry compote to serve with a brace of Wild Scottish Red Leg Partridge when I came upon the inspiration that would lead to a new discovery.
The thought was to stuff the little devils with a mixture of foie gras mousse studded with black truffles and breadcrumbs and then serve the birds with warm huckleberry compote.
The day after the Scottish game feast, I was left with half a loaf of brioche, a small log of foie gras mousse and enough huckleberry compote to last through the Holidays. Yes! We‘ll make a sandwich!
I began the making of the “sandwich” by slicing thin rounds of brioche no bigger than a few inches in diameter, then toasting them in a sauté pan swimming in butter. The “jelly” for the sandwich would be a layer of the savory huckleberry compote and the “butter” of the sandwich would be chilled slices of the unctuous foie gras mousse.
The huckleberry “sandwich” was a revelation -- another dish I discovered along the path of the huckleberry.
‘Ischit Wiwnu’ Sleeps, Then Re-Awakens
On a clear day in autumn, I return to Prineville. The chill from the approaching winter whispers through the thin branches of the poplar trees that border the lane to the farmhouse. Perched on a small bluff just to the East, I sit under the gnarled branches of a centuries-old juniper, looking West.
The grassy scent of the last cutting of hay lingers in the air, reminding me of my Grandfather and his huckleberry pancakes. The fields are dotted with grazing Angus and Hereford that have been brought down for the winter from the summer pastures up on the Ochoco’s.
The expansive view showcases the regal peaks of the Central Cascades—the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Three-Fingered Jack and Black Butte. Jutting toward heaven is majestic Mount Hood, a fresh coating of snow covering her summit.
As I look toward Mount Hood I think of the story of the woman from the Warm Springs, filling her basket with huckleberries picked at the sacred grounds they called “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak” -- the huckleberry meadows -- and it reminds me of my Grandmother and her huckleberry pie.
I do not weep for the passing of the Seasons and the memories of a journey less travelled. I know that the end of autumn signals winter and a fresh blanket of snow will cover “Ischit Wiwnu.” The huckleberry will sleep and the path will be still.
In the spring, “Ischit Wiwnu” will re-awaken and feel the drumbeat of a thousand footsteps. A new day will dawn and we will rejoice again along the path of the huckleberry.
David Ross lives in Spokane, but works a one-hour plane ride away. When he's not tending to his day job -- or commuting -- he writes about food, reviews restaurants and does food presentation. He is on the eGullet Society hosting team.
Photos by the author.