OPB’s “Superabundant” explores the stories behind the foods of the Pacific Northwest with videos, articles and this weekly newsletter. To keep you sated between episodes, we’ve brought on food writer Heather Arndt Anderson, a Portland-based culinary historian and ecologist, to highlight different aspects of the region’s food ecosystem. This week, in anticipation of the vernal equinox, she reflects on the foods of spring.
The days are getting longer, and winter is finally relenting to the new signs of life emerging all around us. Daffodils are waking from their slumber, nests are being built, calves are being born — all proof that spring is officially here. March 20 is the spring equinox, the day when daylight hours are equal to the hours of darkness, and humans have long celebrated the arrival of spring with symbolic foods. In the Northwest, we even have a few of our own. What anadromous springtime fish is thought to be Oregon’s namesake? Read on to find out!
Small Bites: Cherry blossoms, St. Paddy’s Day, and milking it for all it’s worth
Freshly picked morsels from the Pacific Northwest food universe:
The pink snow is coming
The cherry trees are now in bloom, signaling the true beginning of spring (as those with seasonal allergies can attest!). Sakura No Hi, or Cherry Blossom Day, is celebrated on March 27 in Japan, but if international travel isn’t in the cards for you, the third Saturday in March is Cherry Blossom Day in Salem (this year it’s March 18). You could also take a scenic drive over to Hood River to look at the blooming cherries. If you’d like to keep up with cherry blossom progress from the comfort of your own home, stay up to date on the Portland Japanese Garden’s sakura situation by checking their 2023 Cherry Blossom Watch.
Bring on the green beer
The Irish have a long history in Oregon; not only were Irish immigrants among those who traveled the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th century, but once the Portland townsite was well established, many more arrived for railroad and dock jobs. Because of its opportunities for shepherding, Morrow County saw another wave of Irish immigration, as did Lake County, which, at one point, was thought of as Oregon’s own Little Ireland. On March 17, the All-Ireland Cultural Society of Oregon will be hosting its 82nd annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration with traditional Irish music, dancing, and food. Festivities can likewise be found around the Northwest at McMenamins hotels and pubs. Sláinte!
White-hot dairy news
It’s been a busy few weeks for Oregon’s official state beverage. Last week The Atlantic ran a story on the news that the FDA finally threw up its hands on the “what even is milk” debate and ruled that yes, oat, soy, almond, et al can legally be called milk, to the chagrin of Big Dairy. And another new study published in the Royal Society of Open Science this week reveals that Late Neolithic humans figured out the first workaround in lactose intolerance: turn milk into yogurt and cheese, and use the milks of a number of different animals (cows, goats and/or sheep). Genetic mutations eventually arrived to the human genome in the Late Bronze Age to help humans digest lactose, but even today many lactose-intolerant people find fermented dairy and non-cow milk easier to digest.
The flavors of the vernal equinox
March 20 is the first day of spring, also known as the vernal equinox; the first day of the year when the sun is up for as long as it’s down. Between Holi (Hindu Festival of Colors), Nowruz (Persian New Year), Shunbun no Hi (Japanese Vernal Equinox Day) and Ostara/Easter, there are so many ways humans have traditionally celebrated the return of spring. The vernal equinox represents a triumph of life over the dark cold death of winter; of fertility and rebirth. The symbolic foods of spring are perfect embodiments of this.
There is perhaps no greater herald of spring than eager green shoots emerging from warming soils (though ‘vernal’ is, disappointingly, etymologically unrelated to ‘verdant’; the former has Latin roots while the latter is Old French). From the seven herbs of Frankfurt’s Grüne Soße and the herbed omelets and pilafs of Nowruz to the salmonberry shoots of Pacific Northwest Indigenous cuisine, tender greens are the champions of the season — survival, triumph over darkness, and rebirth made writ.
Greens aren’t just a gustatory reprieve from the stodge of winter roasts and stews; in cooler climates they were the first fresh produce of the year, a veritable shot in the arm that kept nutritional deficiency diseases at bay. Early springtime plant foods like stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns and miner’s lettuce; asparagus, sorrel and cress; garlic scapes, chives and spring onions; and cool-season carrot family herbs like parsley, chervil and dill (as well as the wild celery gathered by Columbia River Plateau people) still feature in many of the traditional spring holiday dishes we celebrate today.
They also all happen to pair well with other early springtime foods like new potatoes, fresh cheeses, lamb and the ultimate symbol of fertility: eggs.
The egg came first
“No other article of food offers more amplitude for the inventive genius of a creative cook than the egg,” wrote Ann Seranne in her 1949 The Art of Egg Cookery, “...[f]or without the egg the artist of the kitchen may have to retire from (their) profession in utter despair.” It might come as little surprise to hear such an endorsement from a book entirely dedicated to the egg, but its versatility is undeniable. A perfect omelet is still the mark of a true chef.
Though they are fragile, eggs contain the origins of life and as such, have long been a symbol of rebirth and fertility — themes especially relevant in the spring. Under natural conditions (e.g., in backyard coops and free-range farms), hens take a break from laying eggs sometime in the fall, when the photoperiod drops below 14 hours a day. As the spring equinox approaches most hens pick back up on laying, coinciding with the timing of wild birds’ nest-building. It’s no surprise, then, that so many egg dishes are associated with springtime observations — besides the usual brunch soufflés and deviled eggs made from Paas-spangled Easter eggs there are tsoureki (Greek Easter bread) studded with whole, bright red eggs; huevos haminados enjoyed by Sephardic Jews during Passover; and kuku sabzi (herb omelet) made for Nowruz.
Like they do for First Salmon, Indigenous Pacific Northwesterners traditionally observed ceremonies for the season’s first eulachon, or Columbia River smelt, (aka ooligan or hooligan), a sprightly, anadromous fish that is so rich in oils it could purportedly be burned like a candle if dried and strung on a wick (lending its other name, candlefish). Grease could be rendered from the fish to use for cooking, skin and hair care, or for gifting and trading. The eulachon were a salvation against hunger after the winter food stores had run dry. Some anthropologists and archaeologists posit that the name Oregon traveled along the “grease trail,” following ooligan-trading routes from the Columbia all the way to the River Ouragon at the Great Lakes.
Locally, people traveled from both sides of the Columbia to take advantage of the vast shoals of these fish, scooping them straight out of the water with dip nets, or raking them into a canoe with a giant wooden comb toothed with fishbones. A more passive method of catching the fish used nets woven from the fibers of stinging nettle; these were anchored into the stream bed with poles, allowing the current to drift the fish into the net.
In the bitter days of late winter before the vernal runs of salmon, the eulachon still arrive, migrating up the Columbia, south into the Sandy River and north into the Cowlitz to spawn. Today, the distinct population segment of eulachon traditionally fished by the Chinook is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, but a joint management effort on the parts of Washington’s and Oregon’s respective departments of wildlife aim to allow sustainable harvest as part of the species’ recovery plan. Removing dams from the Klamath River is another solution being proposed by some tribal leaders.
Nowruz isn’t just about eating herbs and symbolic foods; it’s also the time for khāne-takānī, or “shaking the house” — the practice of spring cleaning that dates back to the 11th century. It’s beginning to get warm enough to leave the doors and windows open for a little bit while you shake out the rugs and drapes. (Though even in the dead of winter, many Germans stand behind the practice of lüften, where the home is regularly flushed clean with fresh outdoor air.) A top-to-bottom cleaning to dislodge winter’s husk is as good for one’s health as it is one’s disposition. Out with the old, in with the new.
Spring is a practical time to clean for other reasons, too; it’s the best time to fully sanitize your chicken coop to keep mites and flies at bay, and hens are genuinely happier when they have fresh straw to kick around. Pile the old straw with the chicken manure into your compost heap and it’ll rot over the spring and summer. While you’re at it, freshen your garden beds with a new layer of compost to boost the soil’s nutrients when plants need a quick burst of energy for spring growth.
Give your mason bee blocks and insect hotels a look-see too. To prevent harmful fungi and parasites from taking hold, tidy them up, remove any debris and replace paper or grass tubes once they’re empty (solitary bees will begin emerging from dormancy once temperatures reach the 50s).
We might still have many rainy days to endure before it truly feels like spring, but the flowers will have something to show for it.
Recipe: Green borscht
When it comes to cooking, we at Superabundant embrace ethnochaos. As long as humans have traveled, ingredients have moved around with them, so don’t be afraid to go off script once in a while. Life’s too short to not try Hessian-Japanese fusion. Go ahead and make a curried shepherd’s pie. Try your hand at Hungarian-style dumplings with a French fava puree. And then there’s green borscht: eaten all over Eastern Europe (the German version is called Sieben Kräutsuppe, or seven-herb soup), it’s made with tons of everything in the garden, even the weeds. It’s best served with a jammy egg (cut chunkier than mimosa), flowery garden stuff, and sour cream on top. Is it Ukrainian? Is it Polish? Is it German? Irrelevant. It’s a perfect embodiment of spring and an important reminder that soup is for all seasons. Serves 4.
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp minced shallots
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 fist-sized Yukon gold potatoes, diced
4 cups homemade chicken stock, low-sodium chicken broth, or vegetable broth
2 spring onions or 3 scallions, finely sliced
3 cups finely chopped mixed greens such as sorrel, nettles, spinach, salad burnet, arugula, cress, orache, dandelion, chicory, endive, and/or chard (with white or yellow stems)
2 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp finely ground black pepper
1 cup finely chopped mixed herbs, such as parsley, chives, chervil, dill, and/or lovage
1 cup cream
Sour cream for garnish
2 boiled eggs, finely chopped, for garnish
Crusty bread, for serving
- Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the shallot and garlic, and sauté for a few minutes, stirring, until glossy and fragrant. Add the potato and broth, bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes.
- Add the spring onions, mixed greens, salt, and pepper, and bring the heat up to medium. Simmer for 5 minutes, until the potatoes and greens are tender.
- Add the cream and herbs (reserve a few pinches for garnish), then simmer for 1 more minute, until heated through. Add salt and pepper as needed to suit your palate.
- Serve the soup with a dollop of sour cream, a spoonful of chopped boiled egg and a sprinkle of herbs on top, and thick slices of buttered bread.