“Doesn’t Mummo know how to cook without spruce tips?” Grandson Jackson said to his mom, my daughter Brea. She explained I’m experimenting with spruce tips: Spruce tip white chocolate candy, spruce tip truffles, spruce tip cake donuts with salmonberry glaze. No wonder my grandson asked if spruce tips are in my cooking.
Spruce tip humus, spruce tip pesto, spruce tip salsa, spruce tip corn tortillas, spruce tips in salmon tacos, spruce tip hot crab salad, and spruce tip mayo.
Grandson Jonah follows me down the trail to the beach, carrying our woven cedar bucket. Spruce branches hang low over the logs. I show Jonah which tree is a spruce. I touch the bark, inhale the scent. I show him how to pinch off the spruce tips. I tell Jonah to thank the tree and he says, “Gunalchéesh.” Every time we move to a new section we say Gunalchéesh shéyi, Gunalchéesh spruce tree. We keep telling stories while we pick, letting the animals know we’re here: We are out picking spruce tips, Grandfather. We don’t say the name b-e-a-r out loud in the woods.
Spruce tips in macaroni and potato salad, spruce tips in halibut enchiladas, spruce tips in salmon patties and salmon nuggets, and spruce tips in halibut patties and crab cakes.
I point out other types of trees. I’ve shown my grandchildren how to tell spruce from hemlock. Spruce bark is round and dragon-scaled and hemlock is striated with marks from where Beaver — in one of their traditional Tlingit stories — drug his claws down the bark after he visited Porcupine’s house up in the tree. They’ve also learned to tell stages of spruce tip ripeness: “Gítgaa, spruce needles. You can tell they’re ready. Look at the light green color and look how long they are. See their closed needles. See their open needles.”
Spruce tip shortbread, spruce tip teacakes, spruce tip Oreos, spruce tip brownies, spruce tip/blueberry jam thumbprint cookies. Spruce tip blueberry muffins, spruce tip/cranberry muffins, spruce tip muskeg muffins, spruce tip poppyseed muffins, and spruce tip chocolate cake pops.
At 5 years old, Jonah’s attention span is short and he heads off searching for rocks. I tell him not to keep too many because we have to carry them back. Picking spruce tips is work, but also meditative and fun. Tomorrow, we are inviting his cousins Timothy and Jackson to the fishcamp to help package up the spruce tips to give away.
Spruce tip blueberry smoothie, spruce tip thimbleberry yogurt smoothie, spruce tip/fireweed/ salmonberry smoothie, spruce tip/red huckleberry smoothie.
Sharing is an important value in the Tlingit and Sámi cultures. My grandsons learn to give by sharing our harvest. We’re planning to take the spruce tips to Wrangell Cooperative Association (WCA), our local tribal agency, for distribution to local elders and disabled people. I explain to the grandsons that we are guests of the Shtax’héen Kwáan. Their ancestors are from Kake and the Glacier Bay area.
Spruce tips with sugar on toast, spruce tips in oatmeal, spruce tip water, spruce tip syrup, spruce tip jelly, and spruce tip/huckleberry pancakes. Add to muffins, add to berries with milk, sprinkle finely chopped spruce tips on scrambled eggs, and add to vegetable omelets.
At the fishcamp, we set up small tables. My three grandsons who live in Wrangell, Grandson Jackson, Grandson Timothy, and Grandson Jonah, help package spruce tips into plastic freezer baggies. Jonah helped me harvest these spruce tips. Spruce tips tumble to the floor and I scoop them up and rinse them off, setting those aside for our supply. With measuring cups, we figure out two cup portions and four cup portions.
Spruce tip lemonade, spruce tip/blueberry lemonade, spruce tip/salmonberry lemonade, spruce tip/thimbleberry lemonade. Spruce tip iced tea, spruce tip/blueberry iced tea, spruce tip/salmonberry iced tea, spruce tip/thimbleberry iced tea, spruce tip/red huckleberry iced tea, and spruce tip ice cubes.
“Auntie Viv and I are writing a cookbook,” I tell my grandsons. They look up at me, spruce tips overflowing the containers in front of them, their hands grasped around measuring cups.
“Are you going to write about spruce tips?” Timothy asks.
“Yes, how did you know?”
He shrugs, “You always talk about spruce tips.”
I explain to my grandsons the importance of spruce trees, how eagles nest in the spruce trees in our neighborhoods, how salmon help nourish the spruce trees, how everything is connected, how their relatives and friends make jewelry and baskets with spruce roots. I explain how we only get a short time to harvest spruce tips each year.
Spruce tips in clam chowder, salmon chowder, vegetable soup, add to halibut Olympia, season salmon and rockfish. Spruce tip/salmon rice noodles, spruce tips in spring rolls, edible spruce tip forks and spoons.
Jonah carries a bag filled with spruce tips packages into the tribal office, Jackson carries the other. Timothy carries a case of assorted jams and jellies. They happily gift the spruce tips and the jelly.
From their Auntie Viv, a traditional foods expert, they learned that spruce tips are high in vitamin C. “We won’t get scurvy!” Timothy declares, in the tribal office, demonstrating his nutritional knowledge. We pose for a photo with our spruce tips and make an appointment to show the best places to harvest around the island in order to pass on spruce tip knowledge, a gift to the next generation.
Spruce tip tea, spruce tip/Labrador tea, spruce tip salt and spruce tip sugar, spruce tip ice-cream and spruce tip beer.
The main question I’m asked is: What do spruce tips taste like? Trees, I answer. A bit tart like a pickle. But as I describe my recipes I often get funny looks because my description doesn’t sound appetizing: a pickle taste in cake doughnuts? My daughter Vivian Yéilk’ says spruce tips are like the herb, rosemary. Maybe spruce tips are an acquired taste.
Another season is done. Now, with my spruce tips in the freezer, I brainstorm recipe ideas: spruce tip/berry teas, spruce tip fireweed scones, spruce tip granola, salmon spruce tip casserole, spruce tip blueberry oatmeal bars …
I stand in the entryway at my daughter Brea’s house, holding a plate of freshly made blueberry oatmeal bars. I say to Grandson Jackson, “Guess what’s in them?”
“Spruce tips,” he says, trying not to smile. “Do you make everything with spruce tips?”
I hand him the plate: “Eat your trees.”
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes Planet Alaska with her daughter Vivian Mork Yéilk’.