A Spice You Can Find In Your Backyard


Photo by Daniel Fromson

I am an incurable forager: a fiddlehead fanatic and an unlicensed digger of quahogs, the kind of person who, at an early age, once ran away from home because my mom wouldn't let me sauté a painstakingly gathered handful of Cinnabar-red Chanterelles. So, naturally, having recently moved to Washington, D.C., I decided to take a trip to the northern fringe of the District's Rock Creek Park. The reason for my journey? I had heard that the woods were full of ripe red spicebush berries, and I was set on mashing some up to season a hearty fall dinner: pork chops with apple-spicebush chutney.

I'd never tasted a spicebush berry before, and I wasn't sure what to expect, but that was part of the fun. As a friend of mine put it, "spicebush" sounds like something dreamed up by Dr. Seuss. In fact, the plant is a striking shrub that grows about ten feet tall, with glossy emerald leaves that begin to turn golden around the time its resinous berries ripen. A member of the laurel family--which also includes cinnamon, sassafras, and the bay laurel, from which bay leaves are harvested--it thrives from Maine to Michigan and south to Texas, and even in New York's Central Park. Visually distinctive and nearly ubiquitous, the spicebush is an ideal target for novice foragers. Nowadays, it is more likely to appear in a dusty botanical guide than on someone's plate, but colonial Americans devoured it.

During the Revolutionary War, New Englanders clung to their favorite recipes by substituting dried, powdered spicebush berries for allspice, which they could no longer import from British-held Jamaica. Westbound pioneers used the plant's bark instead of cinnamon. Spicebush tea was the beverage of choice for coffee-deprived Civil War soldiers. Even George Washington was a fan. He believed that the spicebush, which usually grows in the moist soil near rivers and streams, was a sign of fertile land.

The berry was bitter and slightly oily, with a warm, spicy flavor that was hard to identify, although sassafras and allspice seemed close.

The plant's historical appeal intrigued me, but history was also a source of concern. The pinnacle of American spicebush consumption may have been Ohio's famine of 1790, when homesteaders also subsisted on nettles and the tops of potato plants. Our first president's fandom notwithstanding, cooking with spicebush seemed a bit like the seasoning equivalent of coping with a shortage of wild game by eating one's tri-corner hat.

I also knew that spicebush tea had often served as an early medicine. This fact seemed benign until I read an 1846 treatise by George Barrell Emerson of the Massachusetts Zoological and Botanical Survey. He wrote, "In Pennsylvania, a decoction of the branches is often used as a medicinal drink for horned cattle in the spring of the year."

Nonetheless, as I approached a trailhead near Rock Creek Park's Washington/Maryland border, a plastic shopping bag lining my backpack, I tried to think happy thoughts of allspice and cinnamon--not Dimetapp for cows. It was a warm October afternoon, and sunlight filtered through the forest canopy in patches, illuminating a quilt of fallen leaves. I was reminded that the appeal of foraging lies not only in the thrill of plucking something mysterious and edible from the wild but also in the simple peace of a walk in the woods. The hum of traffic faded into the distance, replaced by the rustle of branches tossed by the breeze and the occasional shuffle of robins in the undergrowth.

Harvesting wild foods or plants of any type is forbidden in national parks, so I planned to forage just outside the park's northern boundary. (If you intend to play hunter-gatherer on public land, it is a good idea to check local regulations in advance.) But when I discovered my first spicebush--a scraggly specimen still within the purview of the vigilant National Park Service--I broke off a smooth red berry, just to taste.

A thin, juicy skin enclosed a single large seed, which I crushed between my teeth. The berry was bitter and slightly oily, with a warm, spicy flavor that was hard to identify; sassafras and allspice seemed close. In truth, it was somewhat medicinal, but I still hoped it would go well with food. Continuing on the path, I crossed a bridge that marks the edge of the park and eventually came upon a spicebush thicket, the plants heavy with fruit. I picked a couple of handfuls.

That night, I invited over my cousin, a college senior and strapping, slightly carnivorous male who was wary when I tried to persuade him that no, really, these things were probably going to taste pretty good. Fresh spicebush berries--ground in a spice mill, a food processor, or a mortar and pestle--can be used in any recipe that calls for cinnamon or allspice, and I had read that they pair especially well with apples. Pancakes with cinnamon-spicebush apples sounded delicious, but wasn't ideal dinner fare. "Cherokee-style" baked apples with spicebush didn't pass muster because I wasn't gunning for a multi-course extravaganza. Instead, I opted for a classic one-plate meal: pork and apple chutney, with a spicebush twist.

Into a large saucepan sizzling with a couple of tablespoons of butter went one chopped onion, then, when the onion was soft, four medium-sized apples cut into small chunks. I mashed about a tablespoon and a half of fresh spicebush berries with a mortar and pestle, taking care to crush each obstinately smooth and slippery seed. (Next time, I'll resort to more advanced technology.) When I added them, the unmistakable aroma of apple pie wafted from the pot. A long, caramelizing simmer with a tablespoon of sugar and a half-cup or so of water yielded a pleasingly dark stew, which we finished with salt, pepper, and a couple of tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

Next, we liberally salted a few well-marbled pork chops before sautéing them over high heat and transferring them to a baking sheet, which we placed for about five minutes in a 450-degree oven. (This sear-and-roast method forms a golden crust and keeps them juicy. A cast iron skillet would have been ideal, since they conduct heat nicely and can be placed in the oven to minimize cleanup, but we persevered.) Removing the fragrant chops, we served them with the chutney, some roasted butternut squash, and bottles of a hoppy pale ale. But, of course, when we sat down to take our first bites, we started with the chutney.

Its sweetness had banished all trace of the berries' bitterness, and what remained was a slightly funky but addictively delicious spiciness that enhanced the buttery, oniony apples, and, as we dug into the rest of the meal, the richly flavored pork. We were as happy as George Washington stumbling into a grove of spicebush. Or a couple of horned cattle from 19th-century Pennsylvania savoring medicinal tea.