CHEROKEE EATS: WILD ONIONS
Cherokee Nation citizen Cullus Buck, second from right, with Eucha community members, cooks an annual wild onion dinner on March 22 in Eucha. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Wild onions are a staple in Cherokee communities throughout northeastern Oklahoma and grow each spring in moist wooded areas and are recognized by their bright green stalks. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
When wild onions are dug from the ground, they reveal a white bulb with roots. There are several types of onions including the river onions, prairie onion and native onion. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Wild onions can be cleaned by rinsing off dirt and pulling back the top layer and roots from the bulb. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Food Type: Wild onions
When and where to find them: Wild onions, a Cherokee staple, can be found in wooded areas in northeast Oklahoma when the spring weather begins to warm the ground, most likely at the beginning of March.
“Usually we find ours around the last of February and early March but this year they (were) behind, they (were) late. Usually we done picked for the year. Usually, we find them by the creek or in a wooded area where a bunch of leaves grow and stuff. We got a couple of places around the lake that we get ours,” Cherokee Nation citizen Cullus Buck said.
He said they try not to pick an entire patch and leave some soil undisturbed so there will be some to grow for next year.
“We always want to leave some to regenerate, let it bud out and lay seed. A lot of (people) anymore, when they find a patch they will pick all of it and it’s all wiped out and they won’t have none next year. But we try to leave as much as we can and just get what we need,” Buck said.
Types of onions: river onion, prairie onion and native onion
“The native onion around here, the bulbs are bigger. The prairie onion and the river onion it’s just straight. The bulb is still there but it’s just flat and straight. But the true native (onion) it’s got a bigger bulb on it. I think a lot of the old timers, that’s what they really look after,” Buck said.
There is also a difference in flavor depending where wild onions are found.
“It depends on where you gather them, too. You might go to one patch, they taste different, and you go half a mile away and they’re totally different,” CN citizen Tad Dunham said.
He added that it could possibly be attributed to the minerals in the ground where the plant grows.
How to cook them: Using several ingredients, wild onions can be sautéed or boiled using cooking oil, water, eggs and salt.
Buck said his wife, Rebecca, sautés the onions by placing them in a pot in oil, adding water, lets them cook for about 10 minutes. Then, depending on how much onions are being cooked, several beaten eggs are added into the onion and water mix, stirred and cooked until the eggs have a scrambled-like texture and served.
Buck said sautéing the onions will turn them a darker green and keep their flavor.
Other uses: Aside from the wild onions being the main dish, they can be used as an ingredient in other dishes.
“We use them at home in all kinds of dishes. Anything you use a regular onion for we use them, you know, chopping them up and using them with different foods,” Dunham said.
Buck and Dunham said they’ve seen wild onions used in fried or baked potatoes, to flavor meats, and even as a pizza topping.
Dunham said there is no limit on its use. “It’s that flavor. It’s a milder onion. It’s sweeter.”
Preserving tradition: When eating a traditional wild onion dinner, the dinner may include several components quite often eaten by Cherokee people. Buck said he likes to have a type of meat such as salt pork or hog meat and other foods such as brown beans, fried bread and potato wedges.
Buck added, “Wild onion in the younger generation is going out.”
“A lot of the kids don’t like it. But around here, I think a lot of our kids could actually live off the land (whereas) the other ones in the bigger towns they don’t what anything is. But we try to keep it up and get the kids to look for wild onion and all the other greens,” Buck said. “It’s just a tradition people have had from years ago. We try to keep up tradition here.”