Revisiting My Side of the Mountain in the Locavore Era

Categories: Books

One of my favorite chapter books growing up was My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George's 1959 fable about a boy who runs away from New York City to the Catskills and lives off the land, aided by his trusty falcon Frightful. I picked up the book for a quick reread one night over Thanksgiving weekend, and was surprised to discover how much of the text is focused on Sam Gribley's food foraging and preservation efforts, including plenty of recipes for things like acorn pancakes, dandelion greens, wild garlic, fresh mussels, venison, smoked fish, and other forest edibles. As a kid, I spent long afternoons in my own city backyard playing My Side of the Mountain by making elaborate, inedible "soups" out of branches and weeds -- it had never occurred to me that the foods that Sam eats in the book were fact more than fiction, and that the book was a sort of handbook for off-the-grid living. Pretty subversive reading for a fourth grader.

See also:
- Wild Kitchen Dinners Serve a Gourmet Introduction to Foraged Foods

I wanted to ask George if she'd intended to inspire her readers live off the land -- Sam grinds his own flour, dries his own salt, smokes his own meat, traps his own game, and so on -- or if it had just flowed from her own experiences growing up in a family of naturalists. I also wondered how she felt about such things becoming de rigueur in restaurants across the country. Sadly, the writer passed away earlier this year at the age of 92, leaving behind more than 100 books, including two forager cookbooks aimed at children: 1982's The Wild, Wild Cookbook: A Guide for Young Wild-Food Foragers, and 1995's Acorn Pancakes, Dandelion Salad, and 38 Other Wild Recipes. So at least part of her probably did want to empower America's youth to learn more about the natural world and where their food came from.

Regardless of the author's intentions for it, My Side of the Mountain remains a good little read more than 50 years after its publication, and worth passing along to someone young and impressionable. Meanwhile, consider the menu for Sam Gribley's Christmas dinner: wild onion soup, seared venison steak, "fluffy mashed cattail tubers, mushrooms and dogtooth violet bulbs, smothered in gravy thickened with acorn powder," and "soaked and stewed honey locust beans mixed with hickory nuts." I wouldn't be shocked to see any of those components on San Francisco restaurants today. And if anyone wanted to hold a dinner inspired by the novel, I'd be first in line.

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I so loved this book as a young boy, but I lived in a happy home so never got the chance to run away and try any of this on my own. Had to make due with the Boy Scouts and a lot of camping and backpacking, and trying some of the skills out in the woods near my cousin's small, family farm - c'est la vie.  :-)  I've been thinking of trying to find this book for my 10-year old son to read , now I definitely will (though I get first dibs). Thank you for reminding me how wonderful this book was and what it meant to me growing up. Will have to look up some of her other titles as well.

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