Theresa lived in a green, pointed house down a two-track, about a mile from where I lived back in the woods. We didn’t see each other often because we weren’t that kind of women. Each to our own, we always understood and respected the great circle of Northern Michigan woods we’d drawn around us. But there were days—mostly cool afternoons—when I’d see her coming slowly along the sandy curve of my drive; her head in a red crocheted hat made of beer cans, her body bent forward as she searched the ground for booty.
Then suddenly one day she was there, standing in my clearing, calling my name like a Ulyssean siren, inviting me out to play in the woods.
You have to understand, Theresa was one of those people everyone calls one of a kind. Someone you meet serendipitously and know you’ll value forever; teacher as much as friend.
I accepted that first invitation and then many more. With her eyes squinting hard behind thick glasses, skin wrinkled and weathered, bare, skinny arms bulging with muscle, tight body lean and slightly bent forward, she’d spot me in my window and give that arm-calling motion that meant, Come on, Girl, we’ve got things to do.
My first lesson was in morels. She’d stand very still near fallen elm trees, hands out to stop me, in my myopia, from trampling what she searched for. She’d point to the ground. I’d see nothing. There. She’d point again, a little exasperated. I’d squat and squint, scan back and forth, and know I was missing the obvious. Finding me a little funny, she would bend and put her finger on a small cylindrical mushroom at my feet, just barely sticking up from the dry leaves. I’d look embarrassed, and she’d smile in that way she had; a way of telling me it was all right. I’d do better next time.
Then came milkweed pod season. Gotta get ’em little. She’d frown, adjust her hat, and we’d be off. Not into the woods this time but along the road and down to the pot-hole, where the first wildflowers and weeds were coming into bloom across the open fields and up the sides of the wide glacial depression. Milkweed doesn’t grow in big patches so the picking can be hard unless you’re lucky. I always seemed luckier with Theresa. We’d find a nice patch with pods only an inch or two long and take them back and cook them. We’d wash the pods, bring them to a boil in plenty of water, drain, boil again, drain, boil again and serve with butter and pepper. Heaven.
After milkweed time came juneberries and wonderful juneberry cookies. My husband loved Theresa’s juneberry cookies. He wanted to market them, Nationally, he said, enthused as he bit into the chocolate-chip-type fruity cookie.
First you have to find the trees, Theresa said, letting him down easy. They only bloom in June. Can’t find that many. Maybe a dozen or so a year is all.
Then came purslane, a glutinous-leaved plant cooked just like the milkweed pods and served with a little butter and crumbled bacon.
In August she showed me the puffballs—from small beige globes to huge basketball-shaped growths. Sliced, dipped in egg then bread crumbs, fried in half olive oil/half butter mix—I’d say puffballs taste like chicken but they don’t. It’s all pure puffball.
In between there’d be patches of wild leek. Our noses would lead us to them under the maples. We dug armfuls. They went into soups and salads and stews and meatloaves.
And then, one spring, she was gone. I was sad that first year and didn’t go foraging. But by the second year I noticed morels when I was walking and told myself nothing really ends. As long as there is the memory, I’ll be out in the woods looking where she taught me to look, foraging as she taught me to forage, cooking my bits of plunder as she taught me to cook them. I’ve had many teachers, from kindergarten through all those staid professors at the University of Michigan. None have been as dear to me, or as instructive, as my teacher of the woods in her beer-can hat.
Elizabeth Buzzelli writes from the woods between Leetsville and Mancelona. Her newest novel, Dead Little Dolly, is the fifth in the Emily Kincaid mystery series and is available at bookstores and on the web. [email protected]