It's exciting to learn the local foods that are mentioned in historical works. The tendrils of the chainey briar (also spelled cheney briar), climb willy-nilly over bushes in the Lowcountry and up the Eastern Seaboard.
Referenced back as far as the early 1700s by European travelers to the colonies, the Indians used the roots as a thickener and also ate the tender stalks and tendrils. The stalks taste much like asparagus and can be cooked the same way.
My cache of chainey briar, gathered by Ben Moise, author of “Ramblings of a Lowcountry Game Warden,” and left on my piazza as a gift, was about the size of a bunch of asparagus. He gave me the stalks, but kept the intertwined tendrils to see if they could be cooked as well. He left the roots for another day.
It was the first time I had cooked chainey brair, in fact the first time I had had more than a furtive sneaked nibble from a bush on Bull's Island.
Delicious raw or cooked, I immediately wanted to plant some. Moise, however, deterred me from doing so, calling it a noxious weed. (It's also called greenbrier; its botanical name is Smilax rotundifolia). As a wild product, it can no longer be sold in Charleston, but in previous years vendors sold bundles of them. But it is certainly edible. Taste before eating, because if it grows too large, it will be bitter.
Cookbook authors John Martin Taylor, Joseph Dabney and The Lee Brothers refer to it in their books, as do I in “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.”
1 bunch slender stalks of chainey briar
Butter or olive oil
Lemon or orange rind, no white pith attached
Rinse and cut off any tough ends of the chainey briar and any long tendrils. Bring a frying pan partially filled with water to a boil. Add the cleaned stalks of chainey briar.
Cook 1 to 3 minutes until slightly wilted but still crisp. Drain quickly and run under cold water to stop the cooking if necessary. Season to taste with salt and pepper, toss in a little butter or olive oil and add grated lemon or orange rind. Serve hot or room temperature. To use in a salad, cut into smaller lengths. Otherwise, eat with fingers, as with asparagus.
Nathalie Dupree is the author of 13 cookbooks, most recently the James Beard award-winning “Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking.” She lives in Charleston and may be reached through Nathaliedupree.com.
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