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 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.