Generally, I don’t like soda (ahem, excuse me, I live in Michigan again– what I meant to say was “pop”). I’ll drink a Coke every now and again, but I usually drink water, coffee, or beer– sometimes juice. I sort of like root beer but not really; It’s so sweet. That said, it’s usually the most interesting pop available.
So when I realized that sassafras, the tree whose root was the main ingredient in old-timey root beer, was native to the area, it was clear what I had to do.
Obviously I had to find this tree and make root beer.
This is a typical example of what I do: I don’t really like root beer but I became infatuated with the idea of making it myself. It’s sort of a game I play: Can I make this from scratch? What about that? Sure there are health issues at play (what the hell are all those things in this jelly? Why is “high fructose corn syrup” always first on the list of ingredients?) but when it comes right down to it, I do these things for fun and enjoyment.
I love the process, the various steps of doing things from scratch, and usually enjoy the result as well.
Sometimes I daydream about living in a post-apocalyptic world where we have to do everything from scratch not for fun but out of necessity. The more I think about it the more I think that would not be fun, especially if there were zombies everywhere.
Since we live in a comfortably pre-apocalyptic world these are just games I play. Sometimes the result is great, sometimes not, but the satisfaction I get is always worth the trouble.
Enter Sassafras albidum, the variety of Sassafras native to the Northeast. After a quick flurry of internet image searches, I knew I’d seen this plant before in any number of fishing adventures. Most of the waters I fish are bordered on both sides with woods, and as it turns out these woods are full of edible things. Could I find this plant, correctly identify it, and make a drink out of it? I was determined to try.
At lunch on Tuesday, instead of grabbing a fishing rod and heading to a local stream I grabbed my Edible Plants of North America field guide and headed to a local State Game Area. Of course I’d already scoured our backyard. Although it contains many delicious edible plants it does not have any sassafras; I needed to look elsewhere.
I had many reasons to visiting this particular game area. Firstly, I thought there was a good chance to find sassafras in its extensive woods and fields. Secondly, it was the closest public land that allows removing plants and mushrooms (yes, I read the entire rules and regulations which were printed in 4 pt). Thirdly, a series of small designated trout streams crisscrossed the entire game area (enough said). Fourthly, since this is the closest public hunting land to where we live, it is very likely I will someday hunt there. It’s never to early to scout.
It only took about 15 minutes to get there. I passed fields and farms and grain silos and tractors and corn and bridges and roadkill. I love where we live. I haven’t been on an expressway in what seems like weeks. Two-lane roads used to intimidate me: Now that’s all I drive. In my truck.
I rolled down a bumpy dirt road– almost a two-track– and parked in a pull-off only slightly wide enough for my Sierra. I looked out the driver’s side window right into the unmistakable leaves of a small sassafras tree.
Well that was easy!
I got out of the truck, doused myself with bug spray and grabbed my field guide. Yessir, this was sassafras for sure. I looked closer. The single plant had three different types of leaves (very unusual); It was growing in a group of other sassafras trees; and when I pulled the tree out of the ground, the roots smelled sort of like root beer.
This was it!
I suppose I could have just grabbed that single plant and gone back home, but I didn’t drive 15 minutes into the sticks to not have any adventure. So I put the plant in the truck and hiked along a stream into the woods.
Somehow in all my excitement I didn’t get even a single picture of the plant itself. If you want to see it, Google can help you out.
And it certainly was an adventure. When I’d parked the truck storm clouds were on the horizon, and as I hiked they quickly headed in my direction. In twenty minutes the sky turned light to dark and then came the downpour. Thankfully I’d thought to wear my rain jacket. Somehow I managed to navigate the dark woods back to the truck, my pockets stuffed with sassafras.
At home I cleaned the roots, cut them into small pieces and boiled them for half an hour to extract the flavor. I added molasses to make a simple syrup (per internet directions) and sampled my creation in a glass of soda water.
It was certainly root beer-like, but the strong molasses flavor (which I didn’t like at all) totally covered it up. But it was a start.
Yesterday I was back in the woods– this time with my burlap fish creel doing double-duty as a foraging satchel– quietly hiking, watching the ground for plants I can recognize. I found mayapples, blackberries, grapes, wood sorrel, sassafras, wild ginger, 9 shotgun shells, 3 beer cans, 1 pop bottle, and some plastic from convenience store donuts.
It pains me how much damage we do to our environment through pollution and similar means as a species, but it absolutely disgusts me what individuals are capable of.
The people leaving their trash in the woods were most likely hunters, considering the close proximity of beer cans and shells. I could almost understand loosing your shells in the dense foliage, but really?! You stand in one place and shoot four rounds at some animal, and not only leave the shells on the forest floor but you leave your beer cans as well? Maybe those two are related. If I were half in the bag shooting a gun I’d probably forget my spent shells as well.
No wonder hunters have a public image problem. You don’t see the footprints left by the vast majority of responsible outdoors-people, you only see the trash left by the fuckers who don’t give a shit.
What I just don’t understand is this: You know these littering assholes come back to the same spot– just 60 seconds from the parking spot– to hunt; It’s not like they aren’t going to see their crumpled beer cans and shells again.
I just don’t get it.
And these people aren’t just filling the woods with their trash, they are wandering around with firearms. I am thoroughly pro-gun, but it sure seems like we should be more discriminating with how we hand out guns. We should also be more discriminating with how we hand out power tools and motor vehicles, but that’s another story.
At any rate, I was back at home with a creel full of plants. I’d only taken a few plants from each patch, trying to minimize the damage of my foraging. I’d had quite a hike: Sassafras was everywhere if I paid attention. I’m starting to recognize other plants now– edible and otherwise– and it really makes the woods come alive. Taking a hike to hike is nice, but hiking with a purpose really focuses me on my surroundings.
Like every other creature in the woods with me, I’m looking for food.
When I found a patch of wild ginger it was like catching a new species of fish on a fly I tied. When I pulled up a small sassafras tree and discovered its 20″ root– much longer than the others– it was like catching the big fish out of a dark pool.
Rivers used to be a complete mystery to me, but after learning to identify the currents and read the water, I understand them. The same thing is starting to happen with the woods.
This time I went all out: I gathered yellow dock roots from tall plants in our yard and spent a good half hour scrubbing and cutting all the various roots from the various plants. Into a pot I tossed sassafras root, yellow dock root, wild ginger root (technically rhizome), allspice, cloves, juniper berries, and water. I brought it to a boil and simmered for half an hour while I took phone calls and replied to emails. Then I added sugar and simmered some more.
After the liquid had become an extremely fragrant syrup that smelled like a funky root beer, I took the pan off the heat and added a handful of shredded black cherry bark from our yard. This stuff is amazing: It smells and tastes like a delicious combination of almond and cherry. Yes, it’s tree bark. Yes, it’s so good. Heat apparently kills the flavor, hence my after-heat addition. I let the mixture steep for a couple hours before straining it and sampling.
The syrup looks like root beer but when mixed with soda water it does not. It smells like root beer, sort of, and the taste follows the nose. Claire tasted some. “Close, but it mostly tastes like dirt,”
I don’t taste dirt, but it’s certainly a different animal altogether from 2 liters in the pop aisle.
Plus I don’t really like root beer anyway.
I put the roots and spices back into the liquid to steep some more, hoping for a stronger bite. I’ll be sampling later today to see if that had any effect.
Is it worth it? All that trouble for an end product I probably wouldn’t like even if I prepared it perfectly?
Hell yes it’s worth it. The adventure, the mystery and suspense, the surprise, the process, the satisfaction. It’s like a video game but it’s real life. It’s live-action Minecraft.