Can you actually eat cattails?

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Dear Cecil: On our vacation to the wilds of Wisconsin, we noticed some of the locals picking cattails from the swamps. My husband asked them why, and the terse midwestern reply was, “eat ‘em.” Is this on the level? If so, how do you cook them — roast the tips like hot dogs? R.B., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Cattails are one of the enduring favorites of the Euell Gibbons crowd, and can be enjoyed in at least three different ways. The favored cut of the cattail is the inner portion of the stem, called, for unknown reasons, “Cossack asparagus.” The outer covering of the stalk is removed by pulling down on the leaves that cover it, breaking off the shell near the roots and exposing anywhere from one to twelve inches of the succulent white pseudo-asparagus. It can be washed and eaten raw, chopped up for salads, or cooked in a stew. The best plants for harvesting are the younger sprouts, two feet tall or so, in the early spring, but the stems are edible all summer long.

Some woodland epicures also collect the pollen of the cattail, which starts to flow in the middle of the summer. The powder is used as a seasoning, or mixed with flour for pancakes, cookies, and so on. Finally, the roots can be dried, ground up, and used as flour. In the spring, the roots are covered with small, potato-like bulbs, which can be boiled, dipped in butter, and served up to the delight and amazement of your city slicker friends.

Cecil Adams

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