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Aug 24, 2016 03:29PM

Eating naturally: Historic site naturalist offers cookbook

By Jonathan Turner
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Meg McLaughlin/mmclaughlin@qconline.com
Chuck Wester takes a moment to pose for a photo, holding his cookbook Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 at Watch Tower Lodge in Rock Island.
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Printed and digital copies of this image are available for purchase.  Digital delivery within minutes.  Click here for details.
Meg McLaughlin/mmclaughlin@qconline.com
Chuck Wester takes a moment to pose for a photograph holding his cookbook Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 at Watch Tower Lodge in Rock Island.
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If you're not getting enough dandelions and acorns in your diet, Chuck Wester has a solution for you.

The friendly, 73-year-old naturalist at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island has compiled a brief new cookbook called "Cooking With Nature's Bounty." It contains 32 recipes using ingredients anyone can find in nature, such as dandelion (for bread, coffee, cookies, fries, jelly and pancakes); acorn (for flour, bread, coffee, cookies, muffins and pancakes); and pine needles for tea.

The 14 natural ingredients in the book include various berries, violets and sunflowers.

"I wanted to pick plants that everybody could recognize... like dandelions and violets," the Bettendorf man says, noting he's been cooking with these for more than 20 years. The recipes also feature items that, "whatever you have, you're not going to destroy nature. We have plenty of dandelions," he says. "There's plenty of acorns."

His favorites are violet jelly, dandelion cookies and sunflower cookies.

Wester's book introduction says: "The natural environment is a rich cornucopia of food sources. The unique thing about these natural offerings is that they are found where there is truly a 'sunny smile' in every aisle."

He started putting recipes together five years ago. "I figured I might as well put something down, so people would have it," he says.

"Normally, I don't eat cookies. I just don't like sweets. But I cannot eat just one dandelion or sunflower cookie," Wester says. Fortunately, the dandelion cookies also include eggs, honey, whole-wheat flour, baking powder and cinnamon.

In his summary of dandelions, Wester wrote: "Even though this 'weed' is not a native plant, every part of it is beneficial. It was brought to America by European settlers to provide a longer lasting source of flowers for their bee colonies. The flowers and leaves are rich in potassium and Vitamins A and C. In addition, the milky juice from the stem has been used to eradicate warts."

Why pine needles for tea? Again, for vitamins and to understand how Native Americans lived.

"One of the things I do now on my nature hikes, I show the white pine trees here. I tell kids, if they were in a hurry this morning, and didn't get their shot of vitamin C, they could do what the Native Americans did, and that's pick a handful of the pine needles, put it in hot water, drink it, and there's your vitamin C," Hester says.

"The Native Americans suffered through a lot of the same ailments that we do. One disease that the white man brought that Native Americans didn't suffer from was scurvy," he says. "They had so much vitamin C in their diet, they didn't get scurvy. Vitamin C is in dandelions; vitamin C's in violets."

Of his cookbook, Wester says Native Americans used all these native ingredients some way.

"It's just to acquaint you with the past, to acquaint you with nature and to get people to look more closely at the natural environment than just seeing a plant," he says. "That makes people appreciate the environment more, so they won't be so anxious to destroy it. That's the way the Native Americans were."

"We think we have it rough today, but nothing compared to what they went through," he says.

Native Americans, after leaching tannic acid from acorns, used the nuts for a variety of purposes, including grinding them into a flour for mush or brewing them into a coffee-like beverage.

About five years ago, Wester compiled a similar booklet on natural remedies, reflecting how the Indians treated ailments like colds, burns, ear aches, headaches, indigestion, insect bites and poison ivy.

"They, however, did not have access to the myriad of remedies to us today," he wrote. "They instead relied upon the natural environment as their pharmacy."

"I don't try to say this is to replace modern medicine," Wester says, noting his natural remedies and "Cooking With Nature's Bounty" are ways to save money, and "gives people a chance to connect with nature."

The medicinal book ($2) and cookbook ($3) are available at the Hauberg Indian Museum, 1510 46th Ave., Rock Island.

The Muscatine native — who has worked part-time at Black Hawk Park for 16 years — earned his bachelor's degree in elementary education from Missouri State Teachers College, and a master's in outdoor education from Northern Illinois University.

Wester says when he was growing up, he spent a lot of time outside. "I just grew up with a love of the outdoors — boating, biking, hiking, fishing," he says.

He taught science at Bettendorf Middle School for six years, and then for 29 years at the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency. In the latter job, he was director of the nature center in Scott County Park, and served schools from six counties in Iowa.

At the 208-acre Black Hawk site (which borders the Rock River), he does similar work with students and families from Illinois and Iowa. "I don't consider it work; I consider it fun," Wester says. "It's something I do because I enjoy it. It's not something I have to do."

Wester says he enjoys working with students, and "I enjoy working out of doors. I enjoy working with the people at Black Hawk, and the facility is phenomenal."

Wester's salary and many of the programs are funded by the private, nonprofit Citizens to Preserve Black Hawk Park, from revenue it gets from renting Watch Tower Lodge for weddings and receptions.

Programs also are free to the schools, and if schools can't afford transportation to get there, the Citizens board provides funds to those schools, Wester says.

"Another thing that makes my job unique is every day in nature is always changing. And one day I might be working with kindergartners, and the next I day I'm working with sixth- or seventh-graders."

Over the summer, he does programs for groups such as Scouts, YMCA campers and churches.

Wester will offer a free prairie program at 2 p.m. on Sept. 18, talking about how Illinois originally was covered with 22 million acres of prairie.

Black Hawk Park has a one-acre plot of prairie that's been restored. "I talk about plants and animals that were in the prairie," he says.

Contributor Jonathan Turner is a writer on staff with The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus newspapers.

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