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Where the Wild Foods Are

Barbara Bensoussan

When the pantry and fridge are bare, most of us head to nearest supermarket to restock. More adventurous souls, however, head outdoors and pluck — rather than purchase — their dinner.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

sandwichWho says there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

Grocery bills can run pretty high for Jewish families, all the more so if you’re purchasing fresh, organic produce. But what if you could simply take a walk through your neighborhood … and come home with fresh, organic ingredients for supper?

Living off the land — gathering edible plants, fruit and berries, nuts, mushrooms, and even seaweed from the wild — was once a regular part of life for people in rural areas. They’d pick wild blueberries and raspberries in the summertime, gather mushrooms in the forests, and pick herbs like feverfew and chamomile for their medicinal properties. But as we’ve increasingly moved to suburbs and cities, most of us have forgotten that food doesn’t grow on grocery shelves.

More recently, however, foraging has become newly chic. Noma, a tiny 12-table restaurant inCopenhagen, has made a name for itself using foraged food, leading to its #1 ranking — in 2010, 2011, and 2012 — in the prestigious San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants Awards.

Noma’s now-celebrity chef Rene Redzepi himself tramps into local forests and along the Danish coastline in search of ingredients. In fact, Redzepi limits himself to ingredients found only in his region, meaning he’s obliged to eschew the normally ubiquitous olive oil and even standard vegetables like tomatoes. Instead, he introduces new, foraged substitutes: deep-fried moss, nasturtiums, seaweed, beets with “onion ash,” and some decidedly nonkosher offerings like snails and oysters. (The foodies rave, although it takes a truly adventurous and broad-minded palate to attempt dishes like snail mousse, “blueberries surrounded by their natural environment” (meringue and spruce), and buckthorn mousse with carrot sorbet.)

Foraging can be useful even for those of us with less esoteric and highfalutin’ culinary ambitions. For one thing, it’s literally dirt cheap. Euell Gibbons, whose Stalking the Wild Asparagus is one of the earliest manifestos of foraging, began foraging as a way of supplementing his family’s diet during the Depression. As a teenager, Gibbons’ family lived mostly on pinto beans in the Dustbowl region ofTexas, and he would go out and gather wild plants to expand their meager meals. Gibbons later became something of a folk hero, urging his readers to get back in touch with the wonders of nature and the byways of our ancestors.

There’s a science to foraging; in fact, you’d be wise to learn some rudimentary botany lest you make a truly serious mistake. In 1992, college student Chris McCandless, who’d attempted to survive alone in the Alaskan wilderness, was found dead, and some believe he was poisoned by eating toxic seed pods. Certainly no amateur should forage mushrooms without guidance, as many are poisonous or psychotropic. A knowledgeable mentor, unlike a botany book, can point out not only features like shape and color but taste and smell.

As Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “The teaching transaction — This one is good to eat, that one is not — is so fundamental, even primordial, that we’re instinctively reluctant to trust it to any communication medium save … direct personal testimony from, to put it bluntly, survivors.… Our ability to identify plants and fungi with confidence, which after all is one of the most critical skills of our survival, involves far more sensory information that can ever be printed on a page.”

Family First was able to locate one seasoned foraging guide right in the wilds of New York City. “Wildman” Steve Brill, a largely self-taught foraging expert, has been leading tours through Central Park and numerous other venues for the past 30 years. Famously arrested for eating a dandelion and picking plants like cattails and day lilies in the park in 1986 (the New York Daily News headlined him as “The Man Who Ate Manhattan”), he made his peace with the Parks Department by subsequently working for them as a guide. “They couldn’t convict me, because I ate the evidence!” Brill told Family First with a grin. “I served [foraged] salad to the press on the steps of the courthouse. Then I was hired to lead the same tours I’d been arrested for.”


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