As I sat down to begin researching for my next article, my wife, Cheyenne Gray, made an exciting discovery. Just 10 feet from our front porch, was a strange clump of grass. For years we would mow it over in the summer, and each year it would just grow back. My wife, being the green thumb that she is, wondered if that strange-looking plant could in fact be wild onions. Once we dug it up, we noticed a distinct onion aroma coming from the plant. Sure enough, underneath the roots were tiny onion bulbs ready to be picked. Soon my wife, with a spade in her hand, went searching the neighborhood for more wild onions.
For the members of the Muscogee (Creek) nation, they are called Tafvmpuce (Da-fum-boo-che) meaning wild onion. It is also referred to by other names such as meadow garlic. Wild onion season begins as early as February as it is usually the first green plant that emerges in the winter. These hardy plants can grow in a variety of conditions. They thrive in nutrient dense soil as well as wet or damp areas. Wild onions are excellent at thriving in the heat and cold, making them perfect for Oklahoma’s diverse weather conditions. Fortunately, these plants can reproduce and flourish in many urban areas as well as in the wild.
An easy way to identify wild onions are by the smell. Usually, a strong onion smell will arise after the stems have been cut or when standing close by it. If they do not smell like an onion, you are better off leaving whatever plant it may be alone. They have leaves like those of onion chives, hollow and thin. They can even be mistaken for just clumps of grassy stems.
Forging wild onions has been a practice in many Native communities for decades. Other native plants that have been foraged and harvested from the wild in Oklahoma include possum grapes, polk salet, blackberries, mulberries, and plenty of nuts like pecans or walnuts.
The first step you should take after finding wild onions is to dig them up but avoid cutting the roots. After you have collected your desired amount, make sure you leave plenty of wild onions behind to ensure they can grow and reproduce for next year. It is an excellent tip for all foragers to follow and to ensure sustainable harvesting by only taking what you need and leaving the rest.
Once you have collected several onions, it is time to prepare them for cooking. Properly cleaning the plant is crucial. Begin by soaking them in a bowl or strainer to help loosen up any soil that may still cling onto them. Next, separate the onions and make sure no dirt remains.
After cleaning, start cutting away the roots from the bulbs and then slice them into strips with a sharp kitchen knife. Then, heat up a pot of water to a boil. Once the water has reached a nice boil, place the onions in the pot for several minutes, allowing them enough time to become soft and tender. Finally, transfer the wild onions into a skillet for cooking and add some eggs with them, as that is how many people enjoy them. But feel free to try it anyway you like. All that is left is to simply enjoy your new favorite dish and try something new.
Wild onion meals are served all over the state in many Native communities and churches. At these community meals, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of individuals served every year. Wild onions are paired with salt pork, beans, hominy, grape dumplings, pies, white corn, polk salad, and fried chicken. But the combinations are endless for any adventurous eater.
Cheyenne Gray, a member of the Muscogee nation, has been learning to cook traditional Muscogee meals with her family. She mentioned the importance that these wild onion dinners serve.
“These dinners are a way for the community to gather, even for helping raise funds that would go back to those communities. It’s also a fun time to get together to kick off the spring, kind of like a celebration.”
After spending the last three years traveling across the state for wild onion dinners with Cheyenne, I began to realize how significant these meals are. The meals offer much more than a full stomach; they have a purpose for bringing people together.