Scrittura interruptus

Guest post by Lytton John Musselman

“A book is never, ever finished, only interrupted by publication,” my friend Garrison Keillor wrote me in response to my query about his forthcoming book deadline. The Quick Guide to Wild Edible Plants is unfinished, though I am thankful it was interrupted by publication.

Writing a book on a topic you love with an enthusiastic colleague and an outstanding press is very rewarding. I especially enjoy the final editing stage—changing this “which” to a “that” and that “that” to a “which.” Then seeing the page proofs and finally weighing the book in your hands—the stiff cover, the distinct smell. It’s all good, and gives a reality to a project you have worked on for decades. But the reality is that the book is unfinished simply because so much more could be added. Reviewing, revising, and reviewing the revisions is a great way to know content even better and realize afresh how much there is to learn.

My coauthor, Harold J. Wiggins, and I limited the amount of information in our book. We conceived the manuscript as a sort of combination of botanical Cliffs Notes and Food Network recipes, where the user would have simple but adequate information ensuring the leafy greens steaming in the pot were not Poison Hemlock and that a palatable—contra delectable—food could be quickly prepared with a minimum of non-wild elements. We met this combination; but the project is unfinished.

There is so much more that could be added based on continuing research and experimentation. For example, the Native American preference for hickory nuts (certain species of the genus Carya) over black walnuts (Juglans nigra) always puzzled me because of the smaller size of hickory nuts and the difficulty of extricating the nutmeat compared to the larger, meatier black walnut. The reason for this preference is the nature of the different nuts’ stony wall. The wall of the black walnut is furrowed and pitted, while the wall of the hickory nut is smooth. When hickory nuts are smashed and then put in water, the nutmeat is easily retrieved, while it is difficult to remove black walnut from the rough surface of shell fragments. In light of this, a future volume of our book should include the abundant, easily identified hickory nuts. Several additional starch sources, along with greens, could be included, but at the cost of added pages. Publication interrupted the book, but new plants and new recipes continue.

While I have no plans for another edible plants book, I continue to collect, eat, and experiment with wild plants from Eastern North America and elsewhere. I am working on a volume for preparing cordials and aperitifs (also known as bitters) from native plants. We included a few such recipes in  The Quick Guide, but the whole area of preparing these (usually) tasty brews from native plants has received remarkably little attention despite a renewed curiosity in wild edibles and an increased interest in bitters and plants used to make alcoholic drinks, as such books as Bitters and Drunken Botanist attest.

I am heartened by the positive and constructive comments on the book even before its publication. Feedback seems an appropriate term for a book on edibles, and a balanced diet of sweet and savory criticism is healthy.

musselman.quick.guideLytton John Musselman is the Mary Payne Hogan Professor of Botany in the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is coeditor and author of several books, including Plants of the Chesapeake Bay: A Guide to Wildflowers, Grasses, Aquatic Vegetation, Trees, Shrubs, and Other Flora.