This pungent Middle Eastern spice is the berry of a type of rhus tree, of which there are over 150 varieties, including poison ivy. The tree that produces sumac berries is known as Rhus coriaria, but as many rhus trees are highly toxic, I would advise caution on the off chance that you were to stumble across one.

Sumac is native to the Mediterranean and is related to the mango tree. It grows to a height of 3 metres (8 feet), with dense dark green foliage. The spice itself comes from the red berries that festively adorn the tree in clusters around 10 cm long. The berries will transform from a pinkish colour when immature to a deep red when ready for harvesting.

When packaged for sale in a spice shop, sumac will almost always be powdered, its colour a glorious burgundy. The flavour is a hedonistic melange of sweetness, peppery pungency and acidity. Indeed in Roman times, when lemons were unknown in most of Europe, sumac was an important souring agent.

Once the berries are ripe, they are harvested and dried in the sun for 2 - 3 days. They are then ground in special stone mill that separates the aggressively acidic husk from the berry. At this stage salt and oil is often added to sumac as a preservative and colour enhancer.

Sumac has numerous uses in the kitchen. Lamb, chicken or fish that has been rubbed with the spice and some garlic oil is delicious when grilled. It provides a tantalizing depth to a Middle Eastern salad containing tomato, onion and avocado and if you sprinkle a little onto homemade flatbread before cooking, your pre-dinner snack will be lifted towards gastronomic heaven.

(As always, minor points are wrong, but we're not going to get mere facts get in the way of a good story. Sumac facts are AFAIK, and verified by several authorities.)

My housemate always gets cranky when I come home after my monthly weekend off. Not that I come home hung-over, brushing stale confetti out of my hair, insisting that we stop in a seedy neighborhood on the way home "to take the edge off". No, about the worst you can say is that I come home with a lot of dirty clothes, I could use a shower, and the worst place I insist on stopping off is the cheap supermarket to pick up our weekly roast. However he can't quite square the account I give of myself -- Farmer's Market, Chanology meetup with ceremonial afterburger, evening hanging out with the Neelys (fun-loving retired Black couple near the motel) and the Patels (our beloved Gujarati innkeepers, and their tech-besotted, enchanting daughters), nature walking near West Rock, church, bookstore, yarn store -- with how I look so happy. He figures, since I slept in a no-tell motel, with a liquor store nearby, and have a reputation as a bit of an adventuress, I probably spent the night with a crack pipe, an ounce of raw opium and four underaged hustlers.

But he can't say it. So he stews.

He, himself, is a bit of a Caspar Milquetoast. Middle-aged, balding with comb-over, he has a small moustache and wears checkered short-sleeved shirts and works doing some mysterious desk job in a factory making medical equipment. In some ways, he puts on a good front: he's a serious chess player, drives a bitchin' black Monte Carlo, boasts about his grill and hot pepper sauce collection ("I like it hot!"), and owns an impossibly elaborate high-end audio system and flat-screen TV in his man cave. Although we live in deepest exurbia (we've got a neighborhood fox), he hardly ever sees the light of day, preferring to watch TV and play online chess in near-total darkness ("theatrical lighting!" he enthuses). He eats dinner alone, in front of the TV, cutting everything small before mixing everything together: he likes his steak overdone, his chicken skinless, boneless and white-meat only, and has a list of other food taboos (ranging from No Japanese (except Teriyaki), No Aspics, and No Vinaigrette through No Gaspacho and No Vindaloo to No Peas or Noodles that Remind Him Too Much of Mom's Mueller's Egg Noodles) that seem to grow every week. His sound system came from catalogues, and takes immmense pride over having registered and filed warrantees and saved original packing for every single component, lest anything ever break. (I can hear the snickerings of electronics boffins from here.) Because there are (thoroughly middle-class) Black families in the area, he guards his sound equipment like Fafnir guarding the Rheingold -- the neighbors are never to be allowed over. He's enough of a city boy to be proud of having a tractor mower for a postage-stamp lot, and I once caught him trying to manicure my herb garden with a weed-whacker.

Since he can only afford one car, the list of rules about riding in the Monte Carlo is voluminous, from No Picking Me Up on the Green After Hours (there's no one around, and therefore, no witnesses if someone tries to attack him and get his car) to No Putting Groceries in the Back Without Help (Eek! Scratches!) In other words, his possessions possess him, and he's perfectly happy to be in his safe little cage, while I'm out in the garden, throwing my Assegai spear and weather watching, contemplating the possibility of growing mushrooms and Belgian endive in the garage this Winter, or in my workshop, poring over Make Magazine. In public, I'm usually chatting up anyone I can find, while he's trying to keep me from looking like a chatterbox idiot.

Mostly, our worlds never mix. But then..

It's Sunday afternoon, I've been through a great weekend. The Patel daughters had danced with me in a circle under the Summer moon. The Neeleys had shared some iced tea and an epic game of dominoes in their patio wonderland. I'd fed the nearby gaggle of Canadian geese, and said kind words towards the new goslings. The rally went well, everyone greeted me with great love in church. Farmer's Market had crammed my shopping basket to the gills with fabulous finds. All I needed was the Sunday roast chicken...

We swing through the parking lot of the Cheap Ethnic Supermarket, past zillions of ethnics of various persuasions, to our favorite parking spot (a little-used strip near the edge of the property, far from other cars and the possibility of cart damage). There was even an empty shopping cart, not a few yards from us, which I planned on taking.

It all happened too fast for me to really say what was going on. I think I said "Oh! A Sumac!" I remember how perfect it looked, with its Dr. Seuss truffula of rich red berries and the bold Douanier Rousseau spears of leaflets against the blue sky. I remember something vague about it being an herb or spice used in the Middle East, there was a poison variety, but it didn't grow here. My hand went out and pulled on one of the spears, my other hand went for the truffula, and then I heard the screaming...

"Don't touch that! Poison sumac! It's the worst thing you can do! I...you can't take that into my car! You can't...even get into my car!" he squealed as he got into his car and sped away.

I realized I was going to have to call a cab, so I went shopping anyway, stocking up on such stuff as soy sausage, bulk yeast and pickling supplies that you can't get at the Whitebread Expensive Supermarket where we usually go. I call the cab, and joke with Cappy the Dispatcher about my plight. She opined that no, she'd never seen or heard of poison sumac here in Connecticut, thought the situation hilarious, cab's coming in twenty minutes.

I vaguely wondered if I was going to be smitten with sore boils, then reflected that there wasn't anything even vaguely greasy or oily about the truffula, which was in my bag. It was time, I thought, to screw my courage to the sticking-place and taste it.

My friends, there are a few times I've tasted something, and angels have sung: double consomme at Maxim's, a kaiseki breakfast tea before dawn in August, honey-baked ham done just right, Green Cup at Mory's. "Lemony" doesn't describe sumac: it's lemon-berry-tart-sweet, as complex as the climax of Beethoven's 9th. I'd put it on chicken, I'd put it on pork. I'd make it into sorbet and eat it while reading Late Symbolic Poetry of the Pasadena School. For five minutes I went into full-blown Hunter S. Thompson manic enthusiasm, buttonholing random strangers, shouting "Wow!" "Sumac!" "Delicious!" until I saw the cab coming.

Upon my coming home, I found I had left my keys in my other bag. Himself was still in hysterics, and nearly slammed the door in my face until I showed him that the worst thing I was bringing into the house was Swiss chard (the truffula was still hidden in my Magic Bag, however). Naturally, I walked straight to the shower, saying nothing about tasting it. Recovering himself somewhat, he went into Instapundit mode, one of his favorite face-saving devices. Oh, yes, he knew about poison sumac all too well -- he'd lived for some months as caretaker to the Robert Frost Farm, and often encountered it in the woods -- even caught some. It was red, just like that. Maybe there is some edible sumac, but it's very, very rare and you'd have to be an expert to tell the two apart. It was just lucky that you'd wiped your hands with that cart disinfectant. Maybe you were immune, but, he wouldn't be surprised if I didn't go to the hospital in a day or two...

I contemplated rubbing the truffula onto his toilet seat, and turned to more reliable sources of information....

He was right on exactly one point: poison sumac is native to New England, and most of America east of the Rockies. However, in cooler climes it's the poison variety that's incredibly rare, to the point that even trained naturalists have trouble finding it. It's native only to deep swampland, and grows in about a foot or so of water and muck -- your chances of casually walking out into the woods, finding a marshy spot and hey presto! coming down with poison sumac are nonexistent. (For one thing, there wouldn't be any trees around -- it grows in that much water.) Maybe if you were duck hunting, your dog might paddle next to one. And, no, it doesn't look at all like the eating kind, having insignificant white fruits that hang down, not up, and small rounded leaves. It is, as advertised, simply full of urushiol, and yes, it is much more virulent than regular poison ivy. There are people who are allergic to edible sumac as well, but they generally can't eat mangoes or cashews either. So let's lay the poison kind aside, and discuss the noble Staghorn, source of my joy.

You can't just up and make tea or syrup with sumac, or boil it into jelly. Sumac juice gets bitter when heated, so your best bet is to cold-steep it, overnight, using more heads than you'd think, broken into cold water, and let stand in the icebox. In the morning squeeze the heads in a colander to get at the last of that ineffable sumac goodness, and give a final polish filter "through a hot-pink bandana", says my source. You can tell if you have it right if you have a deep magenta wine-like beverage -- serve in your best goblets, and enjoy with good company! (The Patel daughters, with ice and lemon, for color, or maybe the Neelys, they can put rum in theirs..)

As for my housemate...anyone know of a good set of balls I could pick up cheap? He seems a little lost on this whole 'manhood' thing....

Su"mac, Su"mach (?), n. [F. sumac, formerly sumach (cf. Sp. zumaque), fr. Ar. summaq.] [Written also shumac.]

1. Bot.

Any plant of the genus Rhus, shrubs or small trees with usually compound leaves and clusters of small flowers. Some of the species are used in tanning, some in dyeing, and some in medicine. One, the Japanese Rhus vernicifera, yields the celebrated Japan varnish, or lacquer.

2.

The powdered leaves, peduncles, and young branches of certain species of the sumac plant, used in tanning and dyeing.

Poison sumac. Bot. See under Poison.

 

© Webster 1913.

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