It’s the time of year when everyone seems to be looking for signs that spring is finally, definitely here. In the Cherokee Nation, one of the first signs spring has arrived is the appearance of the humble wild onion, or inagei ehi svgi. For Cherokees, this tiny plant is a welcome harbinger of warmer temperatures and outdoor activities.
We shared a great story about how to enjoy this Cherokee delicacy back in Season 1 of Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People. Go here (Wild Onions, A Cherokee Foraging Tradition – OsiyoTV) to watch! If you’d like to learn more about gathering and preparing it for yourself, read on.
It all starts with tiny green shoots peeking out from under a crumbling cover of leaves from the previous fall. These first tender sprigs might not be immediately noticeable. A shady spot near a flowing spring or a creek is a likely place to find wild onions growing. You might inadvertently crush them underfoot releasing a tantalizing whiff of onion scent.
Look for bright green, flat, hollow stems growing individually. They will easily pull up with a little encouragement and have a bulb (sometimes covered in brown netting) and small white roots. If left in place, they will grow much taller and begin to flower in a pretty white orb. Most cooks like to dig svgi before it flowers.
There are also look-alikes, such as their darker green cousins the wild garlic. It grows in clumps, never flowers and has tips that sometimes turn brown. It also puts off a pungent garlic odor. It’s not what you’re looking for.
You found them! Now what?
It’s time to bring your sack and digging implement of choice. Some people prefer an old spoon, some use a small hand spade, some a dull pocket knife or some of us use a larger flathead screwdriver. It really is up to you. You might want to bring along some hand clippers in case of greenbriars and some spray to deter ticks.
We are taught to pick respectfully and avoid over-harvesting. Some say you should only pick every third plant or so. In this way, the plants are thinned but will return next spring. Commit that site to memory. You’ll be back.
When you’ve picked your fill, it’s time to rinse and clean them. If you are lucky enough to be picking near running water, give them a few dunks to remove any debris or dirt clumps. You’ll be giving them a final clean and chop, just before cooking.
To prepare, you’ll want to run lots of water over the svgi, making sure to remove any left-on brown netting. They can now be chopped into 2” pieces, with the roots and larger, tougher bulbs cut off.
This next part is mainly a matter of preference. Some Cherokee cooks will start by covering the onions with a small amount of water and boiling them down until they are tender, then drain off most of the water. Others start by frying bacon and saving the rendered grease in the pan. Into the grease go the chopped onions until tender. At this point you can add as many beaten eggs as you’d like to your onions in the cooking vessel, to make a rich, delicious scramble.
As a rule of thumb on proportions, Cherokees tend to like a little egg with their onions and not the other way around. If you want to make a proper wild onion dinner, serve this dish up hot, alongside cornbread or fry bread, brown beans, bacon and maybe some fried potatoes. Add family and friends and you’ve got a traditional Cherokee gathering.
Enjoy! And aren’t you glad spring is finally here?