Meditations on Okok

A recent item in Forests News, a blog by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), about a little known edible evergreen tropical plant induced a moment of reflection about food. Precisely, what is the definition of “food”? Does “food” shape human identity, imparting some ineffable stamp on our conscious life? Why are some edibles frowned upon because they’re not raised in fenced feedlots or in equally spaced, weed-free rows? Amid all the clarion over the dire prediction of planet Earth overrun with 9 billion hungry grasping humans by 2050, and the tremendous strain this will put on the resources we depend on for agriculture, there is little thought given to the contribution of so-called “bush” or “wild” foods that sustain many a rural household.

What is Okok? Okok, or Eru, are local names for a forest-dwelling woody vine (“liana”) of the genus Gnetum (species africanum or bucholzianum) whose leaves are harvested for food and medicinal purposes in Cameroon and adjacent West- and Central African republics. For the botanically inclined, the Gnetum are gymnosperms, related to pines and conifers, bearing leaves as opposed to needles or scales. I spent a year in Cameroon and admit to never hearing of this plant. I’ve always been keen to plug into the local bush food scene wherever I traveled but Gnetum escaped me. I’ve dined on monkey, snake, caiman, birds (“parts is parts”), chicha, seaweed, insects and their gooey grubs (shades of Andrew Zimmern!), and never held back. Wild game and vegetable foods are gifts of nature, the fat of the land not factored into modern economic concepts of integral value and return on investment. The congregations of deer that gather, nightly, in the grassy draw on my property do not imbue it with the luster of value-added. Wild edible mushrooms that randomly appear might be harvested or not, it doesn’t matter. Chanterelles may be selling for US $75.00 per pound in gourmet markets, but their pushing up humus makes no difference, economically speaking, to the landowner. Yet, when hunted or harvested, they contribute richly to human sustenance.

Okok is one of many wild foods, worldwide, that help to bridge the gap between human nutrition and malnutrition, and rural economic sustenance. Such plants (and animals) receive little attention outside the occasional articles published in specialist, limited-circulation publications like CIFOR. It is impossible to say exactly how much human nutrition is supplied by wild foods, but my guess is that the total is underestimated. Certainly, wild foods are not taken into account in future predictions of needed land productivity. Where is the modern-day Euell Gibbons?

Another semi-wild food I remember from Cameroon is “le safoutier”. Safoutier, Safou, or African plum (Dacryodes edulis), is a little known tree capable of producing vast quantities of elongated, green-purplish fruits that taste, when roasted, like a cross between butter and custard. It is unrelated to the European plum and seems not to occur outside a cluster of territories around the Gulf of Guinea. Le safoutier was featured in the National Academy of Sciences publication Lost Crops of Africa: Volume III: Fruits (2008), a series of fascinating, scholarly works I encourage the reader to browse online, or download entirely from the NAS website, free of charge. In 1987 we feasted on safoutier rôti in Cameroon at the local watering holes in Dschang. Thirty years on, le safoutier is considered a crop for the future.

It isn’t. Le safoutier, like Okok, has always been, and will always be, there for the picking by those who know the secret.

Le safoutier, Cameroon, Central Africa.

 

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