9 Fundamentals of Foraging for Food

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The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes (Viking Studio, 2010) by Connie Green and Sarah Scott, features more than 40 wild mushrooms, plants, and berries.Grouped by season, the recipes provide step-by-step cooking techniques, explain how to find and prepare each ingredient, and feature several signature dishes from noted chefs.

These aren’t the Ten Commandments, but they are some well-learned guidelines for safety and mindfulness in the wild:

1. Be 100 percent positive of identification. Use at least two field guides and, ideally, find the company of a knowledgeable club or person. Don’t depend upon common names; they vary wildly and imaginatively from region to region. Scientific names are not as daunting as you may think.

I gather a new wild food multiple times to study it well before I am actually comfortable eating it. Don’t rush into identification with wishful anticipation. Slowly, you’ll get to know the plant or mushroom at different stages of its growth. Distinguishing between a cucumber and a zucchini, or a lettuce and a cabbage, is far harder than identifying the wild foods in this book, so we can all do it. It’s also important to be familiar with plants like elderberries that may have delicious and poisonous parts on the same plant something they share with tomatoes and rhubarb.

2. Eat small amounts to start. Everyone seems to be allergic to something. If you haven’t eaten the food, give your body a gentle introduction to it.

3. Have the right equipment, the most important of which is a good sense of direction, a compass, or a GPS, if you’re going far. It’s easy to become engrossed in hunting and forget your path. Rain gear, a knife, baskets, bags to separate your treasures, and good boots are all wise choices that are ultimately personal and specific to the plant or mushroom you seek. Something as simple as dry socks, a towel, or a stocked ice chest waiting at your car can be a beautiful thing.

4. Obviously, avoid gathering wild foods in polluted or sprayed areas. Roadsides can be excellent gathering areas, but I’d suggest gathering on the uphill side to avoid road effluent runoff.

5.Each plant has slightly different gathering parameters. Some invading species like chickweed can and perhaps should be plundered wantonly. Others, like ramps or fiddleheads, must be conservatively harvested. The mushrooms in this book are saprophytic-meaning they grow on decaying matter-or mycorrhizal-those in long-term symbiosis with a tree. In both cases, you can harvest the mushroom without harming the remaining fungal body.

6. Don’t trespass on private land and be aware of gathering policies on public land. Where you do hunt, leave it looking like you were never there. Not only is this polite, but it keeps your spot secret.

7. We share these wild foods with wild creatures. Leave some for them and other people for that matter. The natural abundance of many of these foods can be seductive, but do resist the urge to gather more than you can use. Wasting wild treasures because you couldn’t eat cook, or process them is a sad thing.

8. Fight to preserve the wildlands you gather in.Loss of habitat is the main concern of many of us who forage.Loss of wild resources is invariably loss of habitat. Gathering wild foods will make you passionate about preserving and expanding the habitat that feeds you and the creatures within it.

9. Take children with you. Pass on this love of nature and the tradition of foraging to them. Be forewarned: The little monsters are inevitably better at this than we are.

In the tangled labyrinth of our food system, nature ultimately feeds us all. Yet with these wild foods, the food transportation distance is just the length of our arms. The sheer joy and immediacy of finding our own wild foods are an intoxicating contrast to the convoluted channels that most food flows through on its path into our homes. This is more than just another expensive gourmet adventure. A fat wallet won’t help you here.

The intimacy we have with wild foraging places goes beyond just the solace of nature. These places can fill your belly as well as your heart, just as they did our ancestors’. The beautiful wild foods here can all be gathered sustainably, but they can offer us even more than this. The homelands of these foods give us and, most important, our children a direct kinship with nature. As these places feed us, we foragers return the favor and become good stewards of our gathering lands. The person in a distant office calculating board feet of timber can be quite surprised at the passion of those of us who treasure that special creek with the fine elderberry trees, that stand of firs loaded with great chanterelle patches, or the onion-perfumed glade filled with ramps.

Reprinted with permission from The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes by Connie Green and Sarah Scott, published byViking Studio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.Buy this book from our store:The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes. 

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