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Into the Wild: Foraging in Urban Landscapes

Learn how to get the most from backyards, parks and woodlands by crafting one-of-a-kind cocktails with nature’s bounty.

| April 2016

  • Amy Zavatto uses her experience in mixology to take the senses to the next level in "Forager’s Cocktails." By using ingredients that are locally grown or foraged, Zavatto introduces entirely new takes on old favorites
    Cover courtesy Sterling Publishing
  • Learn the ins and outs of botanical mixology with fresh, natural ingredients.
    Photo by Fotolia/fortyforks

In Forager’s Cocktails(Sterling, 2015), Amy Zavatto travels through farmers markets and speakeasies where the latest trends in mixology are coming from foraged and homegrown ingredients. This guide to imbibing will give you tips on how to forage and preserve the freshest berries, herbs, flowers and more. The following excerpt illustrates the opportunities for foraging within the city limits.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Forager’s Cocktails.

Into the Wild

Living in any urban area, you wouldn’t think you have a lot of opportunity for foraging — and, well, sometimes foraging in a large metropolis simply means finding the one open grocery that has milk for your coffee in the morning.

But as long as there’s sun and rain, dirt and seed, and root, it really is hard to keep a good plant down. I’ve lived in New York City since 1986, when I moved here to go to college, having sprung from a small island town where my mom sometimes sent me to the farm stand around the corner for supper’s side dish. To say I had culture shock when I moved to New York City is an understatement. Here, it wasn’t the woods that were the wilds but the Lower East Side and, at that point in history, unexplored areas of the outer boroughs — where foraging had more to do with cheap drinks, cute boys, and good bands.

About 12 years ago, I bit the bullet and bought a home with my husband in a hilly little neighborhood of Staten Island near that borough’s public ferry. It is an area that’s at once urban but also offers some more space for those of us tired of being stacked up in apartment-building boxes. For the first time in twenty-five years, I had a backyard — and a very overgrown one at that, since my home had been abandoned for many years before we decided to root in and give it some spit and polish. Back then, everything looked like a weed to me. And, to be fair, a lot of it probably technically was. The first wild plant that stood out among the rest, as much for its stubborn, rooted countenance as its incredible smell when I finally wrenched it loose from the earth, was sassafras saplings. It smelled like … bubble gum! And Fruit Loops cereal.  And a little like root beer soda. This dirty, gnarled, funny-looking root of this irksome, incredibly prolific weed turned out to be pretty awesome for cocktails. (You can use the leaves for the secret ingredient in gumbo, too — but that’s a recipe for another time.)

I looked at the world a little differently after that. Spiky leaves springing off dandelions, that suburban arch-nemesis, looked like salad or perhaps something to pop off and pickle. When I went out to eastern Long Island in the summer months, where I grew up, I searched the sandy brush for beach plums, which I knew would make a beautiful garnish, liqueur, or syrup. Wild onions springing from the ground? Martini accompaniments, of course.

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I would be a little leery of foraging. As I watched my suburban next-door neighbor dig a huge hole and with a small front-end loader bury his gigantic plastic, rubber and steel above-ground pool (to avoid hauling it off and paying a landfill fee), I couldn't help but wonder how much toxicity did he add to the soil (in which plants would still grow) and how many hundreds of years would it last? What if sometime in the future, someone gardened (or foraged on) that same land, unaware of its soil's history? And lastly, how often does this sort of thing happen on other suburban land?

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