It is late May in Chicago. Inside Cook County’s Forest Preserves, along the North Branch of the Chicago River, it is now warm enough to kayak absent the fear of freezing water. Pushing our boats onto the muddy shore for a beer break, we see another early summer tradition.
It starts with voices in a strange tongue, almost half-singing, half-talking. Then, a group of older women appear. They are wearing old but colorful house dresses and many have hooped earrings and babushka scarves. Judging by their language and dress, they may be Eastern European in ancestry. Some are barefoot and all carry wicker baskets or Aldi bags as they delicately walk through the woods along the swampy wetland shore. Squatting on the ground, they are harvesting wild onions. Also called “ramps,” these are the bulbs that, if not picked before the midsummer heat, begin to give off a smell that Native Americans called “Chi-Ca- Gua,” or smelly wild onion, our city’s namesake. Used in soups and stews by local Eastern Europeans as well as Southeast Asians for generations, these ramps, if picked at the right time, are now also prized by many chefs and sold at stores like Whole Foods.
One of the women, smoking an unfiltered cigarette, glances at us as we sip our beers. We try to give them a peaceful, “we mean no harm” look. But in an instant the sing-song chatter goes silent and the Aldi bags disappear as the women vanish back into the woods. Maybe we will see them again, next May. (David Witter)