Published November 22nd, 2023 at 12:00 PM3 minute read
LAWRENCE, Kansas — A line of crockpots warmed stews of various meats, fish and wild mushrooms to eat at Baker University Wetlands Discovery Center.
Families and friends sat at tables and enjoyed bowls of wild turkey corn chowder, braised squirrel, venison pastrami and paw paw dessert bread. Conversations strayed to topics of conservation, foraging and food preparation.
The first-ever Wild Foods Cook-Off, put on by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, drew a crowd of contestants and community members. Homemade dishes were carefully crafted by lifelong hunters, foragers, gardening gurus and indigenous home cooks using traditional cultural methods.
Amy Bousman, who organized the event, is the KC District education specialist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. She estimated that between 200 and 300 people attended the event on Sunday.
Bousman encourages hunting, foraging and fishing to live more sustainably and with a closer connection to the natural world. Many of the attendees came with a similar ethos, wanting to experience new foods and different cooking methods.
Contestants submitted 18 dishes across six categories – wild game, fish, vegetation, mushrooms, sweets and invasive species/nuisance species.
“I think people really enjoyed a unique opportunity to gather with food and to experience wild foods in a new way,” Bousman said. “There was so much innovation… I was totally, totally blown away by the creativity.”
Gilbert Randolph forages and hunts for a lot of the food he and his family eat. When it came time to enter the competition, he was torn between entering his maitake mushroom pho and the beaver charro beans he makes.
He was able to forage some hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (maitake) and decided to make the pho. The rich broth and noodles enabled Randolph to win the wild mushroom category.
This was the first competition he had entered, but Randolph said he regularly hosts dinner parties where he introduces friends to the complex flavors of his hunts, such as beaver or venison.
In the invasive species category, Michael Parr entered his fish croquettes from silver carp, a nuisance in Kansas rivers.
Parr, who works for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, said the fish is pretty difficult to catch because it filter feeds. But the pesky breed often jumps into fishing boats or gets caught in nets.
It is illegal to catch and release the invasive species back into the river alive. Parr thought this recipe would show anglers how tasty silver carp can be.
“These silver carp are big, ugly. You might think of them as a trash species but they’re actually really good tasting, high in protein, low fat and they don’t accumulate as (many) biomaterials,” Parr said.
He hopes the state will change its snagging laws (a way of hooking filter-feeding fish like the silver carp) to include the Kansas River and a longer season to encourage anglers to catch the invasive fish.
The free event was an open tasting for everyone, not just competitors. Much of the crowd turned up just to sample the delicacies presented.
“Eating from the things around you in a sustainable way is just incredibly exciting, and I think it helps our community to be more resilient,” said Adam Lang, who attended the event.
Antonia Gutierrez won in the wild vegetation category for her preparation of milkweed. Gutierrez was excited to participate in the event and share the food she often cooks. In the language of one of her tribes, it’s called “nenwejek” and eaten at ceremonies.
“It’s very simple, it’s just three ingredients and I usually gather it in the springtime—milkweed is everywhere,” Gutierrez said.
“I knew there was going to be some amazing dishes here and it was not disappointing,” Gutierrez said. “I can’t wait until the springtime. I hope it (the event) grows. I want even more people to come and enter their dishes.”
Bousman plans to host another cook-off in the spring to highlight the forages and hunts available in different seasons.
Another first-time competitor, Jolene Hundley, entered a morel mushroom pizza in the wild mushroom category.
“I call it the springtime pizza,” Hundley said of her white sauce pizza with morels, asparagus, purple onions, Italian sausage and mozzarella. “I thought all the flavors would go good together, and I thought, ‘I’ll come try it here and see what everyone else thinks.’”
Hundley has foraged for morels since she was a child. She said it’s a free way to eat and it gets folks outside and into the nature around them.
“There’s no better place, whether you’re hunting or fishing or anything,” Hundley said. “It’s always a good day to be outside.”
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America. The work of our Report for America corps members is made possible, in part, through the generous support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.