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What did the people who lived in what are now North Carolina State Parks eat?

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What did the people who lived in what are now North Carolina State Parks eat?

In a quote from his 2011 book “Folks, This Ain’t Normal”, author and family farmer Joel Salatin states,
“The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard”.
I admittedly grew up in a post-1946 world. Growing up in a suburban area with two working parents, my food almost always came from a grocery store and sometimes (regrettably) even from the convenience store down the street. I didn’t happen upon the concept that food could come from anywhere else until I was hiking part of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia in high school and began sitting down for a less than balanced breakfast of plain instant oatmeal. While I was getting ready to take the first bite of my bland breakfast, I noticed a knee-high bush nearby with some blue berries on it and after checking with my scoutmaster, decided to throw some of these wild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) into my breakfast. After that, my backpacking breakfasts were never the same.

The North Carolina State Park system is an incredible living classroom for people who both reside in and visit the state. You can learn about Civil War history at Fort Macon State Park, discover Native American artifacts at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area, or even learn about the Underground Railroad from the rangers at Dismal Swamp State Park. Each park has its unique history but what they all share is the fact that in each park, in more ways than the average person may know, there is wild food all around you that supported the populations that lived once there. Part of my job as a park ranger at William B. Umstead State park is to bring the past to life and educate the public on what living in the Triangle area of Raleigh, Cary, and Durham was like prior to the days of a grocery store on every corner.

The real answer to this question is that a combination of agriculture, hunting, fishing, foraging and gathering was necessary to fill the stomachs and sustain the people who lived on the land that is now North Carolina State Parks. A couple bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus), a bowl full of blackberries (Rubus sp.) and bread made from a combination of cattail (Typha latifolia) root starch and cattail pollen mixed in with mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosal) meal made for nutritious gathered provisions in the days before you could order a pizza and have it delivered to your house in 30 minutes or less. And of course, as you move from park to park and from one ecosystem to another, there are different edible plants and animals that may exist.
From oral history records from people who lived in the Raleigh area in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, it is apparent that people also ate some wild foodstuffs that would be deemed too adventurous for the modern palate. Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus), fungi like field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), and other somewhat forgotten options were staples for people living in the Wake County area and in other parts of the state as well. 

This being said, there are real dangers to the average person going out to sample the fare of the forest without being properly educated on the topic. It should also be noted that in North Carolina State Parks, it is illegal to gather and/or disturb any plant, fruit, mineral, etc. on park lands. My hope is that people visit North Carolina State Parks to both educate themselves about how to be more self-reliant and rediscover the ways to reconnect and become more involved with the natural supermarkets right in their own forests, fields, and backyards.

Cluster of Blueberris by J. Mickely
An inviting trail at William B. Umstead State Park

8801 Glenwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27617



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