I am very fond of cabbage. Very fond indeed. As a result, and like many normal people who’ve got a hobby (or as my wife, Tobie, calls it a cabbagery obsession), I am also interested in all and any other things related to, or even influenced by, aspects of the cabbage world in general.
It has been said that skunk cabbage is not actually really a cabbage in the strict biology of it all, but then if something’s called a cabbage and everyone accepts that it’s called a cabbage and that’s what everyone calls it, then I think you might be hard pressed to exclude it from the greater cabbage family of things, or at least that’s how I see it. I think today, in a time of some enviromental upheaval, not to say uncertainty, we need to welcome, nurture and investigate all of the cabbages we come across or hear about (metaphorical cabbages or otherwise), as we do and should with other things also.
My grandfather first told me about how bears use this plant as a laxative more than forty years ago. He had been a visiting coal miner in the Canadian Miner Exchange Program for a number of years as a young man and would go out with the other men at the weekend and look for bears to hunt and eat, as one might if one found oneself in the middle of a Canadian nowhere way back then. I don’t believe in hunting myself nor much condone it, and also have not heard of bear meat being a particularly acceptable food, but then if there were a lot of you, and you were all hungry, anxious, dirty miners, finding something more than sizeable to cook would make good sense certainly.
One Sunday afternoon he went out into one of the great forests of Saskatchewan or Newfoundland or Manitoba or wherever he was in Canada that had mines and big forests (and bears), intent on stalking himself a bear. Perhaps unwisely he decided being a solitary man that it would be nicer to go off alone and so off he went on his own into this very, very big Canadian forest and it was probably already gone three o’clock.
It had been old man Tip, the one-legged camp cook who’d lost the leg he no longer retained to a large male bull stag bear apparently (this had been some long time previously, mind), who gave him the idea of using skunk cabbage to lure a bear to him, rather than having to spend overly long poking around hoping to locate a bear all on his own, which is not something he’d tried previously while in Canada, nor before that back home in Yorkshire either where bears can be scarce.
According to old man Tip, the time of the year that they happened to find themselves in was a time when many a bear would be eating a diet consisting largely of available constipants and thus skunk cabbage would be much in demand and easily found by a nearby bear (or bears even) because of the powerful smell of the skunk cabbage itself (hence the name) and also, of course, because many bears have an incredibly well-developed sense of smell that can smell even small amounts of things that don’t even smell very strong in the first place when they need to.
Old man Tip told him about the time he was out walking close to the river which wasn’t far from the camp (and with only the one remaining leg he wasn’t one to wander) when he was confronted by a bull stag male bear in full plumage and heat or whatever and all because he’d eaten a tunafish sandwich in the bunkhouse with Ghillie not ten minutes before and there was probably some of the tuna still stuck to him or maybe he’d just been breathing heavy and the tuna breath got out into the air currents and that old bear must’ve got up on his old back legs and was probably about fourteen feet tall so would have been in a good position to sniff the breeze as they do. Ghillie being the man who serviced the bunkhouse and kept it about as nice as might be reasonably expected.
The especial reason that the skunk cabbage would be particularly attractive to the constipated bears was that it wasn’t peak skunk cabbage season where they were then neither, but old man Tip and Ghillie had thier own growing field and rudimentary greenhouse where they’d been forcing skunk cabbage to mature and bloom early. And thus it could be said that my grandfather had somewhat of a secret weapon albeit a fortunate one at that from a horticultural viewpoint.
Anyway, he wandered around for some time with a cobbled together skunk cabbage necklace of a sort that Ghillie had helped him make and the daylight was begining to get less and thus it was getting dimmer and dimmer on towards dusk, and then after a little while longer and with no sign of bears whatsoever, and somewhat disoriented, for remember he was, in truth, a miner, and not a country boy type person at all, he came across an old fishing cabin, rough sort of place, long ago abandoned, and thought, discretion being most often the better part of valour, especially to canny Yorkshiremen, that he might do better to hole up in the cabin overnight and strike out back for the mine at first light.
Tired and somewhat put out by the lack of bears and his own poverty of orientation and certainly most sick of the smell of the skunky necklace, he left the cabbages outside, barred the door and settled in for the night. He was, perhaps predictably, awoken a few hours into the very dark night by the sound of several contentious-sounding bears who were obviously in dispute over the ownership and eating of my grandfather’s skunk cabbages.
Suffice it to say that that on the morrow all of his lures had been lost to the appetites of the bears and confirmation of the old defactory adage regarding things ursine when in the woods was his to encounter in quantity as he wended his somewhat forlorn way back to the mine.
He was a very taciturn man, my grandfather, not given much to pontifical phraseology or talking rubbish for the sake of hearing his own voice, and he never was much impressed with the ribbons and prizes my own homegrown cabbages and other greengrocery would win at the village fete, but I have made it a goal of mine in this life, and as a consequence of his alerting me to this unique vegetation, to find, or refine, a cooking method that will make this step-cousin to the vast cabbage family acceptable to the human palate and thereafter be able to take its place proudly upon the dining room table at last.