Rock tripe is a translation of the Canadian French coinage tripe de roche, here meaning ‘rock guts.’ Native peoples first showed white men how to eat this emergency food. French-Canadian voyageurs often scraped this leaf-like, edible lichen directly off the rocks from their canoes, and sometimes carved their initials in the blank rock wall so exposed. The top of the plant is usually black. The underside is lighter in color. Rock tripe is not highly nutritious but does fill the stomach of a starving wretch until he finds his fellows, his fate, or some real food. It also can act on a weary traveler's bowels as a rather too efficacious purgative.
Two genera of lichen, Gyrophora and Umbilicaria, comprise rock tripe. Lichen is a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. The fungus supplies the outer form of the lichen, the alga supplies chlorophyll so photosynthesis can take place. Here’s what explorer Samuel Hearne said about rock tripe in 1795 in A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort :
“There is a black, hard, crumply moss, that grows on the rocks...and sometimes furnishes the natives with a temporary subsistence, when no animal food can be procured. This moss, when boiled, turns to a gummy consistence, and is more clammy in the mouth than sago; it may, by adding either moss or water, be made to almost any consistence. It is so palatable, that all who taste it generally grow fond of it. It is remarkably good and pleasing when used to thicken any kind of broth, but it is generally most esteemed when boiled in fish-liquor.”
Samuel Hearne 1745-1792
How To Eat Rock Tripe: The entire plant is edible. Scrape it off the rock and wash it to remove grit. The plant may be dry and crunchy; soak it in water until it becomes soft. Rock tripes may contain large quantities of bitter substances; soaking or boiling them in several changes of water will remove the bitterness.
There are reports of poisoning from rock tripe, so nibble a very small amount of rock tripe first and wait for a reaction. Or perform the specific field edibility test that you prefer to use in the wild.
American History Note
George Washington’s troops had to eat rock tripe for weeks during the murderous winter of 1777 at Valley Forge.
Etymology of the Word Tripe
The word tripe started life at the back of the butcher shop. It’s tissue from a cow’s first or second stomach used as food. Tripe came into the English wordstock from Norman French after 1066 and all that. The French borrowed it from Provençal tripa and cow-stomach-eating troubadours heard it first in Italy as trippa. English extensions of the sense followed, and tripes meant guts, then tripe was a worthless person, food, or thing.
Seton on Tripe
Illustrator and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946) was a child in Lindsay, Ontario, Canada and received his education in Toronto, graduating from the Ontario College of Art before beginning a perambulating life outdoors chiefly in North America. Partway through his career, Ernie, always a pompous fellow, altered his name so that it resembled one of the stuffy British hyphenated surnames and overnight he became Ernest Seton-Thompson. Ernie was an early advocate of the “hysterical masculinity” school of male upbringing. It was only natural that he should encounter that other slightly crazed perserver of boys' machismo, Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. Seton-Thompson in fact wrote most of the early Boy Scout manuals, detailing how learning to tie knots could make a bold stud of even the puniest little pantywaist. Nevertheless Seton-Thompson was a provocative and lively describer and enjoyer of nature and here he is discussing rock tripe:
“No one truly knows the woods until he can find with certainty a number of wild plants that furnish good food for man in the season when food is scarce; that is, in the winter or early spring.
During summer and autumn there is always an abundance of familiar nuts and berries, so that we may rule them out, and seek only for edible plants and roots that are available when nuts and berries are not.
Rock Tripe. The most wonderful of all is probably the greenish-black rock tripe, found on the bleakest, highest rocks in the northern parts of this continent. There is a wonderful display of it on the cliffs about Mohonk Lake, in the Catskills. Richardson and Franklin, the great northern explorers, lived on it for months.
It must be very carefully cooked or it produces cramps. First gather and wash it as clear as possible of sand and grit, washing it again and again, snipping off the gritty parts of the roots where it held onto the mother rock. Then roast it slowly in a pan till dry and crisp. Next boil it for one hour and serve it either hot or cold. It looks like thick gumbo soup with short, thick pieces of black and green leaves in it. It tastes a little like tapioca with a slight flavoring of licorice. On some it acts as a purge.”
So the next time you wander over rocks on an outdoor trek and you trip over tripe, give a moment’s thought to this lowly rock-hugger of a lichen and its part in our wilderness survival.
© 2007 William Gordon Casselman
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