The Making of Milkweed Soup
By Summer Miller | Photography by Alison Bickel
Taylor Keen and his mother, Octa Keen, stand in stark contrast to one another––his voice booms, he is tall and broad shouldered with thick paw-like hands. She is deliberate and methodical in her movements, soft spoken and so petite she appears fragile. He commands a presence; she commands a sense of wonder. Together they preserve Omaha Indian traditions, including the much-anticipated summer harvest of young buds and leaves from the common milkweed plant. Carefully, over the course of an afternoon, Octa coaxes the flavor of those buds into a simple broth-based seasonal delicacy known to Native people as wa’gtha, and to the rest of us as milkweed soup.
Together, Octa and Taylor drive to a nearby park with grocery bags in hand. She laces her arm through his, and they slowly meander up the path. With each step, Octa’s long black skirt swooshes gently side to side, and her silver buffalo earrings dangle just below her earlobes. Taylor’s long gait is stunted to keep pace with Octa’s delicate, shuffling step. He waits. Octa points him in a particular direction, and he trudges through the dense, tall grass toward milkweed patches deeper in the field.
“If you see one, you are supposed to stop and stand really still. If you are being patient and observant, the other ones will show themselves to you,” Taylor says.
Octa stands on the sidewalk, and plucks the compact, tender buds and young leaves from plants three or four feet tall. They move through the area plucking off the still green clusters, and passing on anything with a tinge of pink or a hint of fragrance, both signs that the plant is too mature to harvest. They quickly fill a shopping bag with small, broccoli-like clusters, explaining that you need about eight large handfuls to make a decent pot of soup.
“My mother was always the instigator,” explains Octa who grew up on the Omaha Indian reservation located about 70 miles north on Highway 75. “She would say, ‘It’s time to go pick the wa’gtha,’ It was plentiful in those days. It was hot and you had to keep up.”
Octa moved off of the reservation when she left for college to study nursing. Even still she returned often, and after she married and had children, they returned when the seasons changed to harvest the plants as a family.
“It was always part of my childhood,” Taylor says. “For me, milkweed soup represents the tastes, smells and the experience of summertime.”
Back at the house, they soak their bounty in a bowl of water two, sometimes three times to coax tiny insects out from the clusters. Sometimes they salt it, sometimes they don’t. Octa swishes the leaves and buds around the water while Taylor scoops the bugs up and takes them back outside. After the insects are released into the wild, Octa separates the leaves from the buds, stacks them one on top of the other, rolls them like a cigar and slices them into ribbons. She then boils the leaves and buds twice, changing the water each time. This releases the bitterness and toxicity, making the plant edible.
She places hunks of salt pork in a soup pot set over medium heat, then adds the parboiled leaves and buds to the pot. She pours in just enough water to submerge the clusters, puts a lid on it and lets it simmer for two hours.
Taylor, a business professor at Creighton University, stands with the eagerness of a child in his mother’s kitchen anxiously awaiting the season’s first taste of milkweed soup.
“This is a delicacy for my people,” he says. “We look forward to it every year.”
When it’s finished, Octa slowly ladles soup into bowls and hands them to all who are present. Taylor’s enthusiasm is palpable. The clusters give the soup body and texture almost like a dumpling might or well-cooked broccoli florets. Taylor is so eager to taste it, he scoops every last spoonful into his mouth while still standing in the kitchen. Satisfied, he smiles, and compliments his mother. Each bite bursts with the summertime flavor of green beans, tradition and the rich, salty flavor of pork.
Note: When foraging, it’s critically important to go with an experienced forager. Common milkweed is used for this soup, but it can be easily confused with other kinds of milkweed that are highly toxic. Responsible foraging should be conducted in a way that maintains or improves plant health and wildlife habitat. Remember, butterflies like milkweed, too.
Summer Miller’s writing has appeared in Eating Well, Grit, Saveur and Every Day with Rachael Ray. Her first book, New Prairie Kitchen: Stories and Seasonal Recipes from Chefs, Farmers and Artisans of the Great Plains, was heralded by Oprah Winfrey’s private chef as “more than a cookbook—it’s a love letter to the heartland.” She writes about food and life at ScaldedMilk.com.