Mark LaSalle, director of the recently opened Pascagoula River Audubon Center in Moss Point, gets exuberant standing on the deck that surrounds the center, which is in the center of the city, but with LaSalle, you'd think you were in the middle of a swamp.
"This is a bay head swamp and these trees are slash pines, sweet bay, and wild magnolia -- the primary trees found in a bay head swamp. And just listen to the birds," LaSalle said. "There are blue jays, redwing blackbirds, doves and a dozen other birds, and believe it or not, these wetlands are full of good things to eat."
Walking the grounds, LaSalle becomes even more excited as he points out all the edibles that are ready for harvest.
"Look!" he shouts, "there's red bay and wax myrtle. Both are good for seasonings." And just a few paces on he grabs a tall thin plant and says, "This is green brier, or wild asparagus. Man, cook this in a little butter, and it is delicious."
LaSalle is Cajun, and the accent is still obvious. He grew up in New Iberia, La., and spent his summers with his grandparents. They lived on a small farm and knew how to live off the land.
"I grew up in the woods," LaSalle says. "It was rich bottomland, filled with hardwoods, and my grandparents gave me the love of the land I have today. They showed me that nature had value, but not a commercial value, but just because it was beautiful. They taught me lessons on that farm that I still think back to today."
That was the beginning of a path that led LaSalle to a fascination with biology in high school, then on to earn a bachelor of science degree in biology, followed by a master's in biology and a doctorate in zoology.
Back on the trail, LaSalle points out yaupon holly, which he says makes a delicious tea, and he points out something else that is good to eat.
"Look," he says, "there are wild onions, and that is a mulberry, and over there is an elderberry. I make a delicious cordial out of its fruit."
He walks those woods at least once a week, he says, and he knows each plant as an old friend.
His work includes protecting the Pascagoula River and educating people about its beauty and importance.
The Pascagoula River is the last free-flowing river in the lower 48 states, and there are more than 300 species of birds that migrate through the river basin. It is one of the most important flyways in the South.
As part of an educational outreach program, every year LaSalle holds an event called "Buffet on the Bayou" in conjunction with local chef Diane Claughton (this year's event will be held in May), and it is a dining experience the likes of which most people have never had.
It includes local seafood, such as crabs and shrimp, but you might also taste gar fish balls, something LaSalle grew up on, jelly made from kudzu, wild asparagus, turtle soup, stewed marsh peas and more.
"Aw man, last year I caught some mullet off that pier, and smoked them, along with some roe a few of them had," he says. "That was delicious."
LaSalle harvested much of what we saw on our walk through the woods, and man, was it delicious.
Try one of these wild-food-inspired recipes, but opt for items bought in your favorite produce section or farmers market. If you're interested in wild foods, visit LaSalle at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center and plan to attend the "Buffet on the Bayou" in May to learn the safe and proper way to harvest and prepare wild foods.
ONION AND SHRIMP CHOWDER
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped green onions
1 cup chopped yellow onion
4 tablespoons flour
1 pint cream
1 cup raw shrimp (optional)
Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a sauté pan, then add the green onions and yellow onions, and cook for 10 minutes. Add the flour and make a blond roux, don't let it get too brown. Add the shrimp and cook until just done, then add the cream, season, and simmer for 5 minutes. Serve with wild rice.
Asparagus can be simply cooked by adding to a sauce pan, cover with water, simmer until the water is gone, then add a little butter. Serve at once.