First stop was a riverside bog carpeted with watercress where our guide and chef directed us to "pick only the leaves. Let the plants stay to grow. And taste it."
It was a revelation -- crisp and tart, but not bitter. Accompanying it, however, was a cautionary note: "If you pick watercress from polluted water, soak it in three drops of bleach to a quart of water before you use it," advised Aurelia Kennedy, who manages the restaurant at the outdoor center of North Carolina's Nantahala National Forest, on the eastern edge of the Great Smokey Mountains.
She swiftly turned our first find into some quick-break sandwiches that also included cucumber and cream cheese on herb bread. The cream cheese was mixed with wild- pepper root. Also called toothwort, it's similar to horseradish. In using wild plants, Kennedy tries to "think of what it's like and use it in the same way."
As she worked, she explained that some of her wild- foods cooking knowledge was acquired during expeditions to Nepal, where she "learned to tempura-fry wild vegetables from a Sherpa. Now I will tempura-fry almost anything -- roots, mushrooms, stems. No matter what you put in that batter, people seem to love it."
Then the hike began in earnest, with a long climb under a canopy of rhododendron. We stopped by a small stream to pick the dandelion-like leaves of branch lettuce (saxifrage). It grows, pointed downward and touching the water, plastered to the bank and to rocks in streams.
When we had all we could use, Kennedy moved us along to dig Solomon's seal. "You can always tell it by the flowers that hang underneath," she said. Solomon's seal root, cleaned and sliced, is similar to water chestnuts.
Along a mountain gully we set out to find ramps, wild North American leeks that are as renowned for their powerful odor as for their pungent flavor, a cross between wild onions and fresh garlic. The older and riper the plant, the more it smells, or, more accurately, stinks.
Ramps grow in patches and have only two oval leaves emerging from the ground, Kennedy pointed out. Like many edible plants, it has a dangerous look-alike -- in this case the poisonous false hellebore, which grows singly and has several leaves per plant. Because of those dangers, Kennedy is careful to warn food-gatherers: "Just pick those plants of which you are certain. If you have any doubt, look it up in wild-foods books or find someone knowledgeable to ask. Don't take chances."
As we searched for ramps, another woman and I moved slowly in parallel paths, laboriously climbing the steep gully, stopping often, meticulously examining leaves, twigs, tree trunks, bare ground!
Our eyes finally met and we laughed, acknowledging our subterfuge. The frequent stops were blessed relief for aching lungs and strained muscles.
When we had our quota of ramps and Kennedy had gathered twigs from a spicewood bush, I rushed off to keep an appointment with some canoeist friends at the outdoor center. As I headed off, Kennedy cautioned that "supper will be around 6:30, maybe closer to seven."
It was already 3:30 and I should have hurried then, but the trail was dappled by sun sifting through the rhododendrons and playing out a moving light show ahead of me. In the occasional clearings, I could see an electric-blue sky. I found myself grinning from inside out.
And then my friends were full of their experiences learning rescue techniques for whitewater rivers. Swept along by their enthusiasm, I didn't check the time until it was nearly seven; suddenly the nine miles to the campground seemed nearer 90.
Night had obliterated the distinctions between mountain, road and river, multiplying the miles. There was only the yellow of the headlights, the crunch of the tires on gravel and myself to fuss with for filling yet another day too full.
But then, I wasn't too worried -- after all, who'd want to eat a meal of just plants?
It was a relief to spot the campfire. Easing out of the car, ever so tenderly, I crawled over the rail fence and into the campsite and a strange silence.
"You're late," someone called finally. "We thought you weren't coming back."
I smiled, shrugged and searched the fire-lit faces for Kennedy. She was not smiling.
"I saved something until about 10 minutes ago," she said. "All that's left is spicewood tea. I'll get you some."
I was stunned. "But, it's only 7:30," I sputtered, with a mixture of disappointment and chagrin.
It didn't help to learn that supper had been grilled fresh trout split and stuffed with ramps; wild rice and Solomon's seal root; wilted salad of ramps, branch lettuce and watercress; spicewood tea; and cheesecake topped with Japanese knotweed, which looks like bamboo and tastes like rhubarb.
"The trout was delicious," one diner said with sympathy.
"I love fresh trout," I mumbled, sucking on my cup of lukewarm, sweet tea.
"I'll fix you one for supper tomorrow night at the restaurant," Kennedy offered as the children pulled her away to play games.
"I have to be in Durham tomorrow night," I called after her.
Turning to the others arrayed around the circular firepit, I said, "I hope you all feel guilty." It was half in jest, half, an attempt to throw off some of my own guilt.
"Oh, we do," they replied, purring in unison, as someone poked the fire. In the sudden flare of light, I saw their faces split by wide grins -- Cheshire Cat smiles that faded with the flame. ON FOOT IN THE FOOD HILLS -- Aurelia Kennedy's trips -- which feature wild edible foods, wildflowers or Smokey Mountain history trips -- cost from $110 for two days to $250 for five days. For information, phone 704/488-2175, or write Nantahala Outdoor Center, U.S. 19W, Box 42, Bryson City, N.C. 28713. FOOD AS A MAIN COURSE The U.S. Department of Agriculture Graduate School offers spring and fall classes on recognizing, gathering and cooking wild foods. For information, call 447-4419. In the past, depending on enrollment interest, the Smithsonian Associates (357-3030) and some area community colleges have offered similar courses. Two local groups also meet regularly for wild-food hikes and potluck dinners. They are The Wild Thymers and Potomac Foragers. The Wild Thymers generally prefer that members be graduates of the USDA course or an equivalent. For information, write The Wild Thymers, c/o M. Walker, 1218 North Lincoln Street, Arlington, Virginia, 22201. Potomac Foragers require only an interest in the subject. To join and receive activity notices, send 10 stamped, self- addressed envelopes and $1 to Potomac Foragers, c/o GG Connally, 3111 First Street North, Arlington, Virginia 22201.