I crouch down on the beach beside Grandson Jonah. A field of green clumps of grass-like plants we call goose tongue surrounds us. In Tlingit it’s called sukhtéitl’. I explain to my toddler-aged grandson how we first have to thank the plant for giving its life: “We have to say Gunalchéesh, Gunalchéesh.” Then I say, “We call this plant sukhtéitl’.” I pinch the end of the word, making a sharp sound and Grandson Jonah mimics me.
Grandson Jonah is an important part of our fishcamp. He is one of the reasons why we live here in Wrangell, teaching the younger generation how and what to harvest from the forest, the beach, and the sea. To him I’m Mummo, which means Grandmother in Finnish. Being Mummo means it’s up to me to keep track of where and when to harvest, and it means passing down knowledge. Being Mummo means sharing.
I always bring my favorite hand woven cedar basket—made by Faye Kohrt — with me on our foraging expeditions. We pick the tender leaves at the base of the plant, careful not to pull it out by the roots. With his small hands he plucks a piece of goose tongue. “Gunalchéesh,” he says.
Our fishcamp is located in Wrangell, Alaska, Kaachxana.áak’w — Kaachxán’s Lake. It’s called Mickey’s Fishcamp after my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; three generations of fishermen named “Mickey.” Mickey’s Fishcamp is near Keishangita.aan — Red Alder Head, an early Tlingit village. Today it’s known as Shoemaker Bay. This favorite goose tongue area is located near what once was the old village. I wonder how many hands have foraged here over the centuries.
Goose tongue has medicinal properties. It’s a natural pain killer, an anti-flammatory, anti-viral, and anti-histamine. If you’re picnicking on the beach and get a mosquito bite, you can find a patch of goose tongue, pluck a blade, and rub the juice on the bite to stop the itching.
As Grandson Jonah and I harvest, we say, “Gunalchéesh sukhtéitl’, Gunalchéesh sukhtéitl’.” Plantago maritima is the scientific name for goose tongue, but I don’t teach him those words, because I usually have to look them up myself. I like saying the Tlingit names, how the letters feel in my mouth. Grandson Jonah is Tlingit, Aleut, and Pottawatomi. I love connecting him to the food and traditions of his heritage.
Grandson Jonah holds up a goose tongue leaf. “Eat it,” I say. “Take a bite.” He bites and chews it. He doesn’t make a face. “See,” I say, “it tastes like a pickle and kind of like the ocean.” He takes another bite and then offers me a bite from the same piece.
My primary traditional foods consultant is my daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’, whose knowledge comes from years of studying the medicinal and edible properties of Alaska’s plants. She tells me that some people don’t harvest goose tongue after the flower blooms. I go by a taste; if goose tongue tastes salty and tart then I can use it. The plant is tender when it first comes up and it stiffens as it ages. I’ve discovered that its taste and texture is dependent upon weather. One summer, the ocean was really warm and that year the goose tongue hardly had any salty taste and firmed up sooner.
I show Grandson Jonah how to gather only a few blades from each plant. I show him the difference between arrowgrass and goose tongue. Arrowgrass, a poisonous plant, resembles it, but once you know the difference it’s easy to tell. Sometimes the plants grow in the same area so it’s important to know the difference. Goose tongue blades are flatter and have ribs. Arrowgrass looks like grass and is rounded in shape. Grandson Jonah’s attention span is a few minutes and soon he’s wandering off, stomping in the tide pools, while I finish filling the basket.
Back at the fishcamp Grandson Jonah helps me spread the goose tongue on cookie sheets and place the trays on small tables near the windows. It’s been a rainy year so we’re drying it inside. I’ve used a food dehydrator before but it’s easiest to use a cookie sheet and dry the goose tongue in natural sunlight (or rainlight). Once it’s dried, I crumble or chop it and put it in small baggies and label it for later use.
I don’t soak the goose tongue, but lightly rinse it in a colander. We use goose tongue year-round as a seasoning, and when it’s fresh we use it to make a fabulous ranch dressing, or steam it, or sauté it with other vegetables. I also pair it with spruce tips in numerous recipes. Some people have told me they blanch it first and then vacuum seal it and freeze it. I’m going to try that this year. I have tried freezing it in a baggie but when it thaws it becomes soggy.
Beside me, Grandson Jonah stands on a stool at the counter, stirring, while I hold the bowl. We are making Wrangell ranch dressing. I say to Grandson Jonah, “Don’t you love the Fishcamp? We get to go out and get our own food.”
Spring is my favorite time to watch and wait for the goose tongue to start to sprout. Part of the fun is taking Grandson Jonah to check for progress. Is it growing yet? Is it long enough yet? Does it taste ready yet?
As I pour the dressing into the Mason jar I smile, thinking of the day’s foraging adventure. “Mummo, over here!” Grandson Jonah says to me. I turn his direction thinking he’s found a great patch of goose tongue. Instead, he holds a piece of driftwood over his head, as if they were antlers. “Look, Mummo, I’m a deer.”
“You sure are!” Yes, indeed, you are!
Wrangell Ranch Dressing
2 tbsp. fresh chopped goose tongue
(Double this amount if you like more goose tongue flavor.)
1 tsp. dried goose tongue
2 tbsp. fresh chopped spruce tips
(Dried or frozen tips can be substituted.)
1 clove garlic
1 tbsp. chopped chive or green onion
1/4 cup beach, or sea lovage
(Parsley can be substituted.)
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
or a few finely chopped peppercorns
1/2 tsp. spruce tip salt
1 tbsp. fresh chopped sea chickweed
(New growth foraged from the beach.)
1/2 cup olive oil mayo
(or homemade mayo)
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup coconut milk (carton)
(Almond or cashew milk can substitute.)
1 tsp. spruce tip juice
(Juice from boiled tips/saved in freezer or fresh.)
1/2 tsp. white vinegar
Chop all dry ingredients finely or mix in a food processor. In a medium sized bowl, slowly add the liquid ingredients to the dry, stirring between additions. Pour the dressing into a small jar with a lid and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
*You can follow foraging adventures of Grandson Jonah and Mickey’s Fishcamp on Instagram @planetalaska and Twitter @planet_alaska.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. She is also this year’s featured writer for Tidal Echoes.