As I summited Tray Mountain–the second highest peak on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia–the sun was still warming my face, but a brisk wind signaled that a chilly November night lay ahead.
I was taking part in an overnight backpacking trip with a group from the Atlanta Outdoor Club. It was getting late in the afternoon, so the trip leader and I set about trying to find our campsite for the night. We passed a few options on the way to an overlook, but decided to keep going and explore what lay down below.
We were excited to discover that the space opened up to a wide, flat clearing. As an added bonus, the area was protected from the wind by the huge granite base of the overlook. This would be our home for the night.
As we huddled around the campfire later that evening, a fellow backpacker would point out that the granite was covered with a form of edible mushroom. She explained that it was considered a delicacy in Asian cuisine because it only grows in high altitudes with extremely clean air quality.
Indeed, nearly the entire face of the slab was covered with what I later identified as “rock tripe.” It’s not a mushroom at all, but it is a lichen, formally named Umbilicaria mammulata. Its size is pretty large as far as lichens go, growing up to over 2 feet in diameter. The lichen’s shape and smooth outer surface bears a resemblance to tripe—aka cow’s stomach.
Rock tripe is edible, but it has traditionally been used as a food of last resort during times famine. There are even some accounts of George Washington’s troops consuming it as a means to survive the winter at Valley Forge.
It didn’t look appetizing, but by this point I was too intrigued. I tossed a few pieces of rock tripe in my backpack; there would be some experimenting to do in the kitchen when I returned home.
Cooking with Rock Tripe
The rock tripe had been pretty dry when I harvested it, so I soaked it for a few hours to rehydrate. It went from brittle to a firm, almost leathery texture.
From what I read, rock tripe can be extremely bitter. I boiled it for about ten minutes, drained the water, then boiled it again. I did this for a total of three times until the water became relatively clear.
Next a melted a few tablespoons of butter in a skillet, and sautéed some minced garlic. I then added the drained rock tripe and cooked it until it started to crisp up a bit.
Overall, the taste of the rock tripe was pretty bland. If it wasn’t for the garlic and butter, there would not have been much flavor to speak of at all. The pieces that had crisped up were tasty, otherwise the texture was a little spongy.
I might experiment a little more with its preparation, but, considering it takes many years to grow to an edible size, I’ll probably just be admiring rock tripe in its natural state.
Conclusions on Rock Tripe
Although my kitchen experience has left me less than enthusiastic about future foraging for rock tripe, I did learn a few interesting things:
- Rock tripe is an edible lichen
- It only grows in areas of higher elevation with pure air quality
- Rock tripe can be used as a main food source in survival situations
At least I can breathe deeply the next time I pass by some with the knowledge that I won’t be starving anytime soon.