Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Down and Dirty Truths About Wild Edibles

I didn’t exactly grow up having the importance of fresh, nutritious foods drilled into my head. For example, when I was in middle school, one of the most popular cafeteria lunches was taco pizza. It didn’t taste anything like tacos or pizza. It was a cardboard disc posing as crust smothered with low-grade ground beef, a thick caramelized layer of some distant cousin to cheese, and a mystery sauce that subtly evoked “ethnic” without deviating too far from the flavor notes that Americans have come to expect. Normally I brought a brownbag lunch to school, but on taco pizza day, I used saved-up quarters and dimes to buy as many taco pizzas as possible. I shamelessly asked my friends if I could eat any taco pizza they hadn’t finished, while struggling and failing to comprehend why they hadn’t devoured every last crumb.

Now that I’m a bit older and wiser, I don’t think taco pizza is so great. In fact, if nutrition is a virtue, then I think taco pizza is every vice ever envisioned in the course of human history, rolled up into one and smoked, chugged, and shot up at the same time.

Fortunately, I had some exposure to fresh foods in my youth. My parents taught me and my brother how to plant and tend a vegetable garden. I was also exposed to killing for food in my early years when my father taught me how to fish. I vividly remember the first time he showed me how to dispatch a brown trout by breaking its neck. I was both horrified and enlightened. At that moment, it dawned on me that those chunks of meat on my plate were once in-tact parts of living, breathing entities, and they were killed for my benefit. I also remember feeling excited yet somewhat puzzled by the fact that it was possible to pull a meal out of a river. After all, a river wasn’t a refrigerator, and up until that time, that’s where I thought meat came from.

As an adult creeping towards my mid-30s, I am finally taking a serious interest in local, fresh, nutritious foods. I wish I could say it was because my body is a temple and what I put into that temple matters. I would be lying if I said that. There is still plenty of room for mayonnaise and MSG in this temple. In part, my eating habits have changed because I live with someone who actually cares about what she puts into her temple. She has inspired me to start looking at food labels when I’m grocery shopping. There is also something of an upper crust social movement happening now around food, and people’s demands for access to wholesome, local foods have resulted in more wholesome, local foods being stocked on store shelves (well at least in the gentrified urban neighborhoods I shop in). Little by little, I am starting to pay more for higher quality, socially responsible foods. It irks me that quality foods cost more, but then I remember that in the U.S., we spend a comparatively tiny percentage of our income on food. Also, there’s no two ways about it - it costs more and is less efficient to produce foods that don’t trash ecosystems and/or torture animals.

Ethical responsibilities aside, there is another reason I am starting to think more about what I put in my body. In the past few years, I have become more and more interested in wild foods. I have committed to learning as much as I can about flora and fauna, and foraging for wild edibles. No, I do not forage all the food I eat. Not even close. After all, I have yet to find a wild mayonnaise spring in all my years foraging. However, with every passing year, more and more of the food I eat is harvested from wild and semi-wild environments, and arrives in my belly via my own labor.

Eating Manwich in a wild setting does not make it a wild food.

The more I learn about wild foods, the more it amazes how far we have moved away from them as a species, and how much knowledge has been lost in just a few short centuries. However, I suppose there’s no great mystery. It is incredibly challenging for me – one person armed with modern tools - to find and harvest enough wild food to meet even a fraction of my daily caloric and nutritional needs.

Couple that with the facts that many people spend 40+ hours a week working at jobs, and the habitats that wild foods exist in are shrinking and/or becoming more polluted/over-exploited with every passing day, it is quite clear why more people don’t gather and hunt their own foods.

However, I am proud to say I have done nobly. I have ingested numerous wild foods and try more with each passing day. In the case of fungi, I have in some way ingested - chicken of the woods, hen of the woods (in the past three years, I have had 50+ lbs. in my freezer at any given time), morels, Dryad’s saddle, honey mushrooms, Berkley’s polypore, aborted entyloma, chanterelles, black trumpets, hedgehogs/sweet teeth, Agaricus spp., Slippery Jacks, gypsies, witches butter, brick caps, turkey tails, chaga, reishi, turkey tails, hericium, boletes, and oysters - just to name some. Then of course there’s plants, fruits, berries, and nuts - stinging nettles, garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, wild violets, dandelions, spring beauty tubers, wild onions, ramps, greenbrier shoots, miner’s lettuce, manzanita flowers, autumn olives, wineberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, serviceberries, cranberries, mulberries, wood sorrel, seaweed, redbud flowers, linden (basswood) leaves, crabapples, pawpaws, walnuts, acorns, wild ginger, plantain, chicory, mullein, pine needles, winter dead nettle, cleavers, milkweed, and watercress. Notice that I am not a native plant snob. I will eat invasives like garlic mustard without a second thought. And let’s not forget the animals - trout, salmon, halibut, earthworms, ants, and deer.

All sounds romantic doesn’t it (well maybe not the worm part)? What could be better than eating foods you found yourself?

Plenty of things.

In my early foraging days, I focused on easy-to-find, easy-to-identify, easy-to-gather, and easy-to-eat wild edibles like chicken of the woods mushroom. There really aren’t any poisonous lookalikes to chicken of the woods, and it is possible to find 100 lbs. growing on a single dead tree. It is meaty and palatable.

Rachael and I can't wait to tear into this chicken of the woods (once it's been cooked of course)

However, as I started to branch out, I realized that many wild edibles are less user friendly. Some of them, well, kind of taste like dirt. Come to think of it, many of wild edibles I have tried over the years have posed something of an affront to my modern, American gustatory sensibilities. They have a bad mouth feel. They are bitter, sharp, pithy, fibrous, tough, slimy, and grimy, just to toss out a few adjectives.

There are other concerns with wild foods. If you are able to confidently identify a specimen based on your field books and experience, it could take you hours to gather enough to constitute a meal. If you are lucky, you can eat what you find raw and with minimal processing. If not, you will have to spend hours, if not days, peeling, scrubbing, leaching, boiling, and grinding. Of course wild foods aren’t treated with preservatives, so many won’t keep for very long, even with refrigeration. Oh yeah, on the off chance you pick the wrong thing, or the right thing at the wrong time of year, or eat too much of the right thing, you could suffer grave toilet woes and/or die. Anything I’m forgetting?

My favorite is when one book tells you a plant or fungus is edible, another says “edibility unknown”, and a third says “poisonous”. Quite the spectrum of outcomes associated with one species. Kind of reminds me of the end of pharmaceutical commercials - this medication was found in clinical trials to relive symptoms of depression for most people, but in rare cases, depression may worsen and you may want to kill yourself. In rarer cases, you may lose the ability to sleeps and will go crazy over the course of weeks before spontaneously bursting into flames.

So back to toilet woes for a moment. It has taken my modern human body some time to get used to and assimilate the nutrients in some wild foods. A few years back, a friend and I went foraging in the spring. In the course of a few hours, we found ramps (spring leeks), wild onions, and watercress. Overjoyed we raced to my kitchen.

“We’ll get more nutrients if we eat them raw. Let’s make a simple salad”, I said. And so we did.

It was awful, but we powered through, each eating the equivalent of a meal-sized restaurant salad. Within five minutes, we were grabbing our tummies and fighting for the bathroom. I felt nauseous for the rest of the day and experienced intermittent stabbing gut pains. In part, our symptoms were probably caused by eating too many raw alliums. Try eating several cloves of raw garlic sometime and you’ll know what I’m talking about. However, I also believe we shocked our systems by introducing too many nutrients at once, and nutrients our bodies weren’t familiar with.

Wild foods pose other difficulties still. You may have to walk many miles and cover acres of rugged terrain to find a particular resource, which may only be visible and/or harvestable for a few days or weeks each year. You may have to crawl through pricker bushes, contend with poison ivy and stinging nettles (ironically, nettles are tasty edibles in their own right), surgically dig amongst torturous root systems and rocks, and fend off attacks by all manner of annoying, buzzing things.

Once, I was deep in a wineberry patch gathering fruit when I felt several fiery stabs in my ankles. It took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. As anyone that gets deep in berry bushes knows, painful sensations aren’t exactly uncommon. Then I saw the hornets and realized what was happening. I jumped up and made a mad dash out of the brambles, careful not to spill the berries I had placed in my baseball cap. I sprinted through the forest for a full half mile while frantically stripping off my hornet-filled clothing. Just shy of fifteen stings, when I thought it was over, a particularly vicious hornet got in one last blow, stinging me dead-center on the forehead. What a prick.

On another occasion my friend and I spent hours gathering thimbleberries only to later discover we were covered in deer ticks. My friend, who is far harrier than I, became so paranoid that he ended up shaving his entire body.

My co-blogger and best friend Matt coined the term “goalies” to help describe the above phenomena. In ice hockey, goalies are the things that make it more difficult for the puck to go in the net. In Nature, goalies are the countless things that make it difficult, annoying, or downright impossible to exploit a wild resource. Goalies can take many forms - spines, stinging compounds, itching compounds, shells, husks, barb wire fences, private property signs, and strip mall development. Regardless of form, they are effective at what they do, and they suck.

Pretty nice haul of wineberries despite those savage goalie pricks.
Despite the difficulties and hazards, there are few things I would rather be doing than learning about, searching for, and eating wild foods. Wild foods haven’t been meddled with by geneticists and taste engineers. Most of the produce that modern people eat has been selectively bred over centuries to favor the attributes of size and sweetness, not nutrient content. It’s amazing to think that most modern humans survive on a handful of ultra-hybridized, hyper-saccharine, low-phytonutrient, high-protein foods.

Moreover, wild edibles intrigue me because they are far more common than most people think, yet largely forgotten. I tend to be drawn to common things, and things that the majority of people aren’t (actually maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them). Sure, there are pockets of people out there foraging for chanterelles and morels, but very few are interested in the things I am. I can assume with confidence that I will never have to compete for space in a patch of stinging nettles. I will never have to take up arms to defend a downed log covered in turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor).

Aboriginal people have sustained themselves on wild foods for millennia, however, most wild foods are brand new to me. My culture has moved so far away of wild foods that for most of my life I didn’t have a clue how many potential resources were out there. There are thousands and thousands of wild edibles on every continent, in all manner of ecosystems, that I know nothing about. In age where so much is known by science, it is exciting to have the opportunity to discover so many “new” things. I once read that more than two-thirds of the Earth’s oceans remain unexplored. However, I’m not interested in exploring the oceans. There’s nothing to see there but plastic.

Wild edibles are all around us, hiding in plain sight, driven largely into obscurity by modern, industrial agriculture. Finding wild edibles doesn’t have to involve scouring forests while fighting off prickish insects. In many cases, wild foods are more abundant in cities and suburbs compared to wilderness areas. The next time you take a walk, find a lawn (preferably one that doesn’t have little flags with skulls and crossbones warning not to walk on it because it’s covered in chemicals). Ask yourself what you are looking at. The word “grass” may come to mind. However, grass species represent just a percentage of the numerous organisms in those green patches we conveniently call “grass”. I would bet anything there is as much oxalis, clover, dandelion, plantain, and violet in that lawn as there are grasses - all of which are edible. Go out and get yourself a good field guide. Join some online forums for foragers and see what other people are picking and eating. Join a local foraging club and take a walk with experts. Don’t try to learn too much too fast. Start with just one plant species and become intimately familiar with it. Learn its leaves, flowers, stems, and roots. Pay attention to it’s different phases as it grows over the course of a season. Learn its Latin name. Do some research and learn how various cultures have used that plant throughout history. If you are feeling confident, go back to that lawn. Harvest a few leaves or flowers from that plant you are now intimately familiar with. Place it in your mouth. Chew. Swallow. Now go to the store and buy yourself something that actually tastes good.

Spring leeks and rock-cooked bacon in the campfire. The bacon tasted awesome.


  1. As always I enjoyed the article Joe. However, be careful to dismiss the oceans. If you have never gone snorkeling in a reef that is even somewhat healthy (few are very healthy), you should do it. Based on this read you might particularly enjoy spearfishing if you want food to be part of the experience. The colors and life you will see will blow your mind in their brightness, movement and variety. You will occasionally find litter in your journeys as you might in the woods and we all know about the Great Pacific garbage patch etc, but please do not dismiss our oceans. Even in their depleted state, as with the land, they are treasure chests of diversity and offer us much adventure, play, beauty, bliss and peace.

    1. Thanks for you comment. My remark was meant to be satirical...a commentary on how, despite the actions of people who care, major environmental problems keep getting worse. I fear that many of the resources we love will be lost in our lifetimes. And for the plastic, I had a recent experience in the Yucatan that sickened me. Very remote beaches were completely covered with plastic...bottles, fishing nets and lines, etc. Hit me hard. Either way, apologies if my remark rubbed you the wrong way. All the best.