The following is an excerpt from “Farmstead Chef” by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist (New Society, 2011). The excerpt is from Chapter 3: Soups.
Even the celebrity chefs are doing it these days, hiring foragers to hit the farmers markets for what’s uber-fresh or unique, or heading to the rooftop gardens to cut the fresh herbs needed for their daily specials. Whole Foods Market now has foragers on their payroll.
But this isn’t what we mean by becoming a local forager. Our definition involves actively searching for your food or provisions, but not just in your backyard kitchen garden. Becoming a local forager is to rediscover which wild foods are abundant where you live: deer, moose, native black walnuts or wild mushrooms in the forests; rabbits, Jerusalem artichokes or ring-necked pheasant on the prairie; or crawfish, bluegill or bass in a lake nearby. It’s about responsibly savoring wild foods that have largely been eclipsed by more modern approaches to agriculture with annual row crops or livestock.
Wild foods tend to epitomize seasonal eating and can be defined by a season consisting of a matter of weeks — sometimes found only when certain weather conditions come together for an abundant harvest. Without a doubt, morel mushrooms are one such early spring delicacy that many landowners around us covet, their location kept secret to all but the closest of family relatives. On the West Coast, there’s the flavorful chanterelle mushrooms.
Wild food foraging goes beyond hunting for nuts, berries and wild edibles. Perhaps it appeals to our more primal urge to eat closer to the land and dine on whole foods as nature intended. It’s not just for the survivalist type, but also for those eager to return to a time and age where knowledge is not based on binary code. Wild foods distill genetic engineering to its essence: nature.
“Trying economic times are the great equalizer, and today people are hungry to take a journey outside the confines of cubicle life, to step off the grid, even if just once in a while, to get back in touch with their natural human roots,” says Georgia Pellegrini, author of Food Heroes and Girl Hunter.
“There’s always one focus when foraging for wild foods: know what you’re eating,” echoes Sam Thayer, born in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he first learned to gather wild food in vacant lots, backyards, city parks and at the edge of town. His approach to wild foods could just as easily define farmsteadtarian eating: mindful meals.
“I call it the ‘banana test,’ since we’re very good at identifying the difference between a banana and an orange,” continues Sam. Today, Sam’s the Huck Finn of wild food foraging and author of The Forager’s Harvest, an ideal companion book to carry into the woods when searching for a supper of fern fiddleheads or milkweed. “Once you become a good forager, you’ll understand that wild foods are, in fact, as different as iceberg lettuce and romaine. I teach participants to question what the plants are before they put them in their mouth.”
Wild foods defy our attempts to cultivate them. The closest thing might be shiitake mushrooms grown in an inoculated log in the woods. Wild food foraging harkens a return to the time of the hunter-gatherer, where intimate local knowledge and a deep understanding of animal behavior or ecology served the foragers well and kept them out of trouble, perhaps by selecting the edible mushrooms, not the poisonous ones. You’ll need plenty of patience and perseverance; it takes time to find these wild delicacies.
If you can lose the Bambi sentimentality, or if you grew up hunting with your parents or family, then hunting deer or other wild game may seem as natural as putting a pole in the pond to see what’s biting. Millions of Americans help keep the deer population in check while putting food on the table for their family all winter long.
“Hunting and gathering, when done ethically, is the last natural and instinctive interplay between humans, the land and animals,” explains Georgia. “Hunting is also about conservation — a way to help sustain animal populations that have overrun their carrying capacity as we eliminate their habitat. Hunting is an act involving all of the senses. It is part of the natural cycle of life. Humans eat animals, animals eat animals and plants, plants feed from the dirt, and we turn to dirt. It’s the last part that some people have a hard time with — where there is the flow of life there is also the flow of death, and they have to acknowledge their own mortality.”
Where we live, just prior to Thanksgiving, it’s “camouflage flu” season. Deer season. Many families count on culling of the deer population during deer season so they can stock their freezer with venison. With a state-issued hunting license for the season, armed and trained with a rifle or shotgun appropriate and legal for what you’re hunting (varies greatly by state), and access to some woods or prairie depending on what you’re looking to bag, you’re good to go. Have a plan, however, for “dressing” your harvest, either with fellow hunters to show you how — or learning about what’s necessary before your skills bring you a kill.
In the city, foraging can take on a more unconventional approach, wild, but in a different sense. Freegans — people who forage through garbage searching for food and other useful castoffs — push back at an economic system based on consumption and waste.
“Despite the media hype that would suggest otherwise, freeganism is not exclusively about Dumpster diving or reclaiming wasted food,” explains Cindy Rosin, a Freegan and school teacher who lives in New York City. “Freegans can be gardeners or wild food foragers as well, not only Dumpster divers.”
“We’re bringing the social aspect and the love back into food gathering and preparation, and that can surround an elaborately prepared meal of organic local vegetables or a curbside binge on expired cookies,” continues Cindy. “Freegans aren’t just fringe-dwelling social dropouts — they’re everyday people who are saying no to capitalism’s abuses — saying there must be a better way if our planet is to survive. Reclaiming some small part of the 50 percent of our food supply that goes to waste is just one way for a conscientious person to refuse to be part of the problem.”
Somewhere between Girl Hunter and Urban Forager, given the precipitous population decline in such cities like Detroit and the food revolution underway there and elsewhere, it may not be that far into the future where a pheasant season is possible between stretches of abandoned city lots and old warehouses.