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Of bikers and blooms

June 6, 2011

When I was a kid, I was part of a gang. It was a biker gang at heart, but we accepted kids on Big Wheels, skateboards, roller skates and foot, both shod and bare. We had various “bases” through the years; under a tree, in a parking lot, at the cranberry bog. We would roll up to the base, looking for kids and bikes. If no one was around, we’d tear off, pop wheelies, and go pounding on doors to get the kids to come out.

Moms and dads answering doors knew us and thought we were cute little kids, or something like that. Parents knew each other and had each other’s phone numbers. But we had something those big, civilized people didn’t understand, something they couldn’t perceive. We were a pack, and when we were loose, we were free. Older members aged out, and younger ones were welcomed in. There were trials of strength, agility, bravery, integrity, cunning, and loyalty. I’m sure we all failed and succeeded at different times. The constants were the pack and the land.

We owned our territory, and it was more vast than adults understood because it included all the woods, ditches, ponds, swamps, backyards, front yards and driveways in the area. We had no concern for private property, except in the rare case of a mean old lady or, more commonly, vicious barking dogs. There were other groups who thought they had dominion over some parts of this territory. Butt-smoking high-schoolers left empty cans of beer and sometimes articles of clothing in the woods by the bike trail and young adults would park muscle cars down by Cedar Pond and blast ’80s hair-metal ballads. We carved a wider path around known threats, but everything else was fair game and well-used range.

One of the many benefits of living close to the ground and free was the snacking we enjoyed. There were heaps of cranberries and various pricker-filled jungles of blackberries. We gnawed the flesh of rose-hips and pulled down great bunches of sweet and tart white grapes. We knew where to snatch a ripe peach or pick handfuls of beach plums. There were orange raspberries with a waxy coating that lingered on our fingers. On a slow day we might sit in the field eating little sorrel leaves and talking about stuff.

Kids who had knowledge about what could be eaten and where it grew led the crew on gathering forays, though I don’t remember bringing much home. Usually, we ate our fill and moved on to other exploits. Little kids were risky because they would eat “some leaves” and wind up throwing up later at home, which brought down some scrutiny. Finding wild snacks and feasting on them together strengthened pack bonds and made us feel like we could stay outside forever. We could rely on each other and the land.

I don’t remember who started eating clusters of locust blossoms. For all I know, it might have been me. They smell so delicious, and when the bloom is on they fill the air with a perfume reminiscent of honey. Now, as a beekeeper, I can taste the locust nectar in spring honey – it is an important forage for our bees. But back then, I just remember grabbing a handful of blossoms off a low-hanging branch and burying my face in the white flowers, breathing in the intoxicating fragrance. What happened next, I can’t be sure. Did someone dare me to eat them? Maybe someone said, “You know, you can eat those.” Or maybe I just took a bite. All I know is that they were delicious – sweet and floral with just a hint of woodiness. I might now say it is like the mid-palate taste of an oak barrel-aged chardonnay – chasing a square of baklava made with plenty of rose water.

That first locust-blossom feast led to many more. There were plenty of places within our territory where bunches of blossoms hung low. Our favorite was a little gully, or “whoop-dee-doo”, where we rode our bikes through a very narrow path between locust trees. We’d dip down into the tiny valley and come shooting up the other side through a veil of locust blossoms. It became a game to reach up and grab some, then pull over and eat them as our friends followed.

That first bloom was tremendous. The newfound treat on our old stomping grounds was “awesome.” The flavor of buds ready to burst and newly-opened flowers was magically delicious. In the weeks that followed the quality went downhill fast. Older flowers became filled with ants. I liked the blossoms enough to brush off the ants and eat some, but the flavor wasn’t the same. Besides, I ate a few ants and knew it. There were plenty of other fish to fry; a new bike jump on the hill, a new kid on the block, plans for a fort, bullfrogs to catch, daylight until past my bedtime, and about a zillion other exciting, immediate things to thrill a Cape Cod kid. But once a wild, tasty treat is etched onto my brain’s local food map, it never gets erased.

I still eat locust blossoms. By the handful. And I don’t have to come up out of a whoop-dee-doo to catch them – I’m taller now, and can stand on the roof of my Suburban if necessary. I got curious and searched around the world wide web for others who enjoy this rarely-mentioned delicacy. I ran into a post over here that garnered an interesting comment, and I hope he doesn’t mind my repeating it here. “Weihua” wrote: “I am from China. There we have a way of cooking black locust flowers, I’d like to share. Pick the flowers when they are ready to blossom but yet to fully blossom. rinse, dry and coat the flowers with a generous coat of flour. steam the flour-coated flowers for 10-15 minutes, let cool. prepare a sauce: mince garlic, pepper, green chili pepper,with salt, vinegar, saseme seed oil to the taste you like, pour the sauce over cooled flower and serve. This is heavier than a salad, could eat as a meal. Another way is to dry the flowers in shade, and cook the dried flowers in meat stew. It adds texture and flavor. ”

I haven’t tried cooked locust blossom, but maybe this year I will. Even if I don’t, you can be sure I will be looking for low-hanging locust branches loaded with sweet blooms and when I find them I will be standing under the tree eating them by the handful. Truth be told, I already have.

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