Ischit Wiwnu-Path, Huckleberry. In the Sahaptin language spoken by Native Americans, “Wiwnu” is the word for the Huckleberry, the elusive berry that symbolizes sustenance, community and the passing of the seasons in the Pacific Northwest.
Mount Hood, Oregon
Native Americans and the Huckleberry-
The ancient path of the huckleberry is carved through the forest by the footsteps of generations of Native Americans. In late summer, when the huckleberries came into their peak season, indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest 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 base of the mountain, the Native Americans 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 cool mist blanketing the valley floor below. After they had risen thousands of feet in elevation and reached the timberline, the path of “Ischit Wiwnu” led them to the hallowed 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 forth a bounty of wild, purple-hued pearls. The Indians set camp at “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak,” staying into early October, picking huckleberries and filling their baskets for winter.
Fresh huckleberries would be eaten in season, but most of the harvest of huckleberries would be dried to provide food throughout the year. 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, qils fowl and salmon from the mighty Columbia River were common types of proteins used by the Warm Springs in making pemmican. As fur traders and explorers ventured West, they adopted pemmican into their diet.
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery-
From 1803—1806, Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery mapped the lands, described the natural wonders, and encountered the people of western North America. Writing in his journal on November 3, 1805, Clark described coming down the Columbia River and first sighting Mount Hood-
"This river throws out emence quanty of 〈quick〉 Sand and is verry Shallow, th narrowest part 200 yards wide bold Current, much resembling the river Plat, Several Islands about 1 mile up and has a Sandbar of 3 miles in extend imedately in its mouth, discharging it waters by 2 mouths, and Crowding its Corse Sands So as to throw the Columbia waters on its Nothern bank.........low hilley Countrey on each Side (good wintering Place) a high peaked mountain Suppose to be Mt. Hood is on the Lard Side S. 85° E. 40 miles distant from the mouth of quick Sand river."
A Huckleberry Grows Wild-
Old-timers and native Pacific Northwesterners often refer to the huckleberry as "Black Pearls of Gold." 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. One important point to make-a huckleberry doesn't taste like a blueberry. Due to its wild nature, the fragrance, tart yet sweet flavor of the huckleberry will never be matched by the blueberry. Now while we love blueberries, they are not in the same class for our tastes.
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 4,000 feet, (although one can find huckleberries beginning at 2,500 feet). The most favorable weather conditions for the huckleberry start with a long, cold winter and a heavy snowpack that preserves the buds with a heavy coat of snow.
A dry spring increasing to a warm June, building into a hot July and August then tapering down to a warm September lazing into October creates the perfect balance of sweet, yet tart berries. Wet, cool summers can stunt the growth of the berries and blistering summer heat that lasts over the course of months withers the concentration of sugars in the fruit.
Because of the unique environment in which it grows, mere mortals have never really been able to successfully cultivate huckleberries on a commercial scale like their cousin the blueberry. High altitudes in steep terrain and berries on that can be little devils to reach don’t naturally lend themselves to the commercial harvesting machines.
In regions of the Pacific Northwest where huckleberries grow wild, nurseries and garden centers have started to sell a hybrid "garden huckleberry," a ruse to make the public think one can grow huckleberries in the backyard garden. But don't be fooled. Unless you live in a chalet at the top of a mountain, wild huckleberries will not grow in your neighborhood.
The Huckleberryand the Bears
One of Mother Nature’s natural barometers of the annual huckleberry crop is 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 into 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 really doesn’t compete with a grizzly bear for a few buckets of huckleberries. Should a bear choose to stake a claim on your huckleberry patch, you best retreat back down the trail.
During poor huckleberry seasons, Montana, Washington and Idaho State Wildlife officials report often report problematic bears wandering down the mountains in search of food. Unfortunately, recorded encounters with humans are higher than normal in an off-year and many attacks are attributed to bears looking for huckleberries. The sad fate of grizzly encounters often ends with the animals being euthanized.
Huckleberry pickers are a secretive bunch, going to great lengths to protect what many consider to be the provenance of their birth. Rather than reveal the exact location of their prime huckleberry grounds, they’ll intentionally send you down a dirt logging road barren of any huckleberries.
I don't venture into the wilds to pick huckleberries. I've been buying huckleberries for years from a local vendor at the Spokane Saturday Farmers Market. The only tidbit of information I've ever been able to wrangle out of the ladies who mind the stand is that during the season, their 84-year-old Grandfather treks up into the mountains that border Priest Lake in North Idaho, bringing the harvest down into town to the market.
A Basket of Huckleberries for Prineville
The Slayton ranch sits just to the east of town, carved into a narrow valley bordered by the Ochoco Mountains. The Slayton family homestead was born out of a land claim staked by my Great-Great-Grandfather Samuel Slayton in 1868. The Slaytons had traveled west from Missouri in covered wagons along the Oregon Trail, settling into the valley and township that would eventually become Prineville.
Prineville is, located in Central Oregon, is the seat of Crook County, Oregon. It was named for the first merchant located in the present location, Barney Prine. The post office for the community had been established with the name of Prine on April 13, 1871, but changed to Prineville on December 23, 1872. The city was incorporated by the Oregon Legislative Assembly on October 23, 1880.
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.
My Grandmother, Mildred Lura Slayton Ross, told the story of a Native American woman from the Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs who went door-to-door in late Summer, selling fresh huckleberries out of a hand-woven basket.
The dark purple beauties had been gathered on “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak” in the huckleberry meadows on the east side of Mount Hood.
I considered my Grandmother to be a very good cook. Born in 1898, in a farmhouse with no running water, learning how to cook was a necessity for young women in those days. Yet she was a unique woman and cook for the times. She was the first in the family to drive a car. Sent down to the train station with her Sister Mabel, the car was unloaded and Grandmother drove the car back to the ranch. She graduated from Oregon Agricultural College in 1920, (now Oregon State University).
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 in 1919, (today Oregon State University). 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.
But it was my Grandmother’s huckleberry dishes that I remember the most. To this day I can still taste her huckleberry pie. Grandmother’s huckleberry pie was pie perfection—a supple dough rolled into a thin, 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 berries respect and create a silky, warm huckleberry juice that would run onto the plate.
Imagine the thoughts running through the mind of a young boy watching a freshly-baked 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. A combination of shortening and butter, it was both light and flaky. As she cut into the pie, the scent of warm huckleberries wafting through the kitchen was the essence of the mountains.
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 by hand 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. Accompanied by thick slices of smoked bacon, Grandfather’s huckleberry pancakes were light and fluffy with the texture of a soft “cake,” beautifully golden on each side.
The heat of the well-seasoned griddle would temper the berries just to the point that huckleberries would burst, sending an explosion of warm, tart juice into every bite. If we were especially lucky, my Grandfather would make huckleberry pancakes on a griddle heated atop the old family woodstove. Still standing in their "modern" 1950's kitchen, I imagined this stove had either come in the wagon across the Oregon Trail or been a part of a former home in much earlier times.
The Huckleberry and Cuisine-
James Beard is often called the Father of American Cuisine. Yet most don’t realize that Mr. Beard was a son of the Northwest, born in Portland in 1903. Every year the beard family would travel down to the Oregon Coast, tasting fresh oysters, Dungeness crabs and the deliciousness of fresh seafood.
Beard moved to New York in 1937 and went on to be a luminary figure in America’s emerging tastes for food, dining, and cooking. His fame never shrouded his roots, and every summer Beard would return to his beloved Oregon Coast and the family home at Salishan, teaching classes and cooking with the fresh Northwest ingredients of his youth.
In his book “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.”
“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.”
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 being brought off the mountains to the marketplace, the huckleberry is incredibly expensive. A gallon bag of fresh huckleberries commands upwards of $60.00.
One year I went to a sniffy food event in Las Vegas and a Chef friend was serving small bites of smoked duck breast on dainty toast points with a huckleberry relish. I told him what I paid for fresh, local huckleberries in Spokane and he winced and coughed. He didn’t tell me what the restaurant paid, or the mark-up to the diner, for a thimble of huckleberries on duck. In the end, I took pleasure in knowing that his customers tasted a piece of the culinary heritage of the Pacific Northwest.
Huckleberries are best in the first of the season pie, but they freeze remarkably well. Put some huckleberries in a quart bag, use a vacuum sealer to bring out the air and freeze. If you plan wisely and resist temptation, you'll be savoring huckleberry cobbler in January.
When I appeared on MasterChef USA on PBS in 2001, I rose to the grand finale of three contestants to choose the top amateur cook in America. My vision was to craft a three-course menu that would pay homage to the Pacific Northwest. The starter was a Dungeness crab “mosaic”—diced “tiles” of tomato, cucumber crowned with Dungeness crab tossed in marjoram mayonnaise. The main dish featured roasted Alaskan halibut in a garlic and potato broth garnished with frizzled Walla Walla onion rings.
I knew the dessert course had to be a stunner—the dish that would define my journey during the 13-week competition. I settled on a simple, humble-sounding dessert-“Toasted Hazelnut Ice Cream with Huckleberry Compote.” The hazelnuts would provide an herbal, woodsy note and crunchy texture, (we still prefer to call them “filberts” in our neck of the woods) paired with the sweet, yet tart flavors and the fragrant perfume of the huckleberry.
The huckleberry is equally adept in savory recipes like sauces fortified with stock and the spicy, black cherry notes of Oregon Pinot Noir. The dark meat and bold flavors of wild game are a natural partner to huckleberries. A rich venison stew with buttermilk biscuits slathered in salted butter and huckleberry jam is a rousing success at hunting camp.
I favor thick slices of tender elk loin, quickly sautéed in butter and olive oil with just a hint of garlic, then served with a few pebbles of fresh huckleberries tossed into the pan with a swirl of blackcurrant jelly and a swale of Calvados, (French apple brandy). Huckleberry compote, like any fruit compote, is a blend of berries cooked down with sugar and spices added. In our recipe, we add a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg, along with a few pats of butter and rich red wine. Huckleberry compote can be frozen, then brought out to glorify the Holiday Turkey.
One of my favorite recipes combines huckleberries with foie gras. Now there are plenty of discussions regarding foie gras, but, for those who love the taste, the huckleberry's tart, sweet flavor, and fragrance is the perfect counterpoint to rich, silky duck or goose liver.
One autumn some years ago I prepared a Scottish game feast with wild grouse. I was left with half a loaf of brioche, a small nugget of foie gras mousse and enough huckleberry compote to last through the Holidays.
Inspiration led me to craft a sandwich based on a child’s favorite. The sandwich was crafted with thin rounds of buttered and toasted brioche stacked between layers of silky, chilled foie gras mousse. The “jelly” for the sandwich was a dollop of piquant huckleberry compote stewed in red wine. It was, I might boast, fit for the finest of fine dining restaurants.
While the huckleberry may be a stunner at a classy, horribly expensive restaurant, it is, as it goes for other special ingredients, best in the most simple, humblest of dishes. The wild morel mushroom, the chanterelle, wild salmon and fresh Yaquina Bay oysters are iconic ingredients from the Pacific Northwest that share this rare status with the huckleberry.
Pastries, pies, cakes, and cookies are the best recipes for the huckleberry where it can stand alone rather than be a garnish or one of 30 other ingredients in a dish. Our Huckleberry Shortbread Bar Cookies are a fine example. A base of a butter-rich shortbread crust, a thick layer of huckleberry next, then a topping made simply made of the shortbread crumbs. Sweet, very rich and with the flavor of huckleberries, have them for dessert, an afternoon with tea, with ice cream or whipped cream. Even better we have Huckleberry Shortbread Bar Cookies for breakfast.
The Clafouti is a French pastry. Americans think of it as a fruit tart. Each year when the annual Washington cherry harvest begins, I make a classic cherry clafouti based on the recipe of Chef Joel Robuchon, one of France's most noted and beloved Chefs. The clafouti begins with a pastry shell molded into a tart pan with a removable bottom. The pastry shell is par-baked to just set it. The filling for a clafouti is a blend of eggs with a bit of flour, similar in looks to a thin pancake batter, then the berries are blended in. The clafouti is baked, warming the fruit to the point where it just starts to infuse its juices into the light, cake textured batter. Clafoutis are served warm or cold, usually with whipped cream.
Another simple pastry that showcases the huckleberry is a simple tart. We use our shortbread crust recipe and form it into small tart shell molds. Into the oven to bake until just golden. Then we spoon in a pastry cream-a fancy term that describes a thick custard of eggs, vanilla and milk. A mound of huckleberries goes on top, unadorned with no sugar or sauce. To the side, a small spoon of our huckleberry compote, if you choose, giving the dish another flavor level of huckleberry. And when we really want to impress, say at the family reunion, we'll add a big scoop of homemade huckleberry ice cream.
Ischit Wiwnu Sleeps, Then Re-Awakens-
On a clear day in late September, I return to Prineville. The chill from the approaching winter whispers through the thin branches of the poplar trees that border the lane to Grandmother’s farmhouse.
Perched on a small bluff, I sit under the gnarled branches of a centuries-old juniper tree looking west. The grassy scent of the last cutting of alfalfa lingers in the air, reminding me of my Grandfather and his huckleberry pancakes.
The fields are dotted with grazing Hereford cattle that have been brought down 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 at Mount Hood, I think of the story of the Native Americans from Warm Springs and the sacred grounds they called “Wiwlúwiwlu Taaktaak”-The Huckleberry Meadows. It reminds me of my Grandmother Mildred Ross and her fresh, warm, huckleberry pie.
I do not weep for the passing of the seasons. I celebrate it, and 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.
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Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs https://warmsprings-nsn.gov/
Lewis and Clark, The Corps of Discovery https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corps_of_Discovery
Mount Hood National Forest https://www.fs.usda.gov/mthood/
Google Images: Mount Hood, James Beard, Priest Lake, Prineville