Mushroom Foraging

Today, Barbara and I went for a mushroom and lichen hunt at and around the meadow with a woman name Kay, a local very, very knowledgeable amateur naturalist.  We found a LOT of mushrooms.  Apparently, the conditions were somewhere between very good and ideal for such a hunt.  Check out a small portion of our find:

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Kay was amazing.  We walked for maybe two hours, and we found 24 kinds of mushrooms, plus nearly a dozen types of lichen, and some slimes.  I’d say that about 1/2 were, in principle, safe for eating.  A few of them she said were hallucinogenic in certain quantities, but deadly in others.  Some of them could be used to make natural dyes.  For someone like me, who always thought of mushrooms as basically the shape that has given its name to a nuclear cloud, it was illuminating to see the gorgeous variety of shapes and sizes and colors that they come in.

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My favorite lichen were Cladonia cristatella, or British Soldiers.  You have to look closely; they are the ones with the red tips on the top of the wooden fence rail.  I e-mailed my brother who lives in Ireland to find out what the common name for Cladonia is there, since I didn’t think that the whole “red coat” reference would go over particularly well that close to England.  Turns out that they call them, yes, British Soldiers.

Barbara made a pic of a bunch of the mushroom laid out on a piece of linen.  I’m sure it’ll be awesome.

Foraging, Part Two

I realize that I forgot to say what we ate the other day. We found (and for the most part tried):

sorrel
pokeweed
grape leaves
milkweed
jewelweed
lambsquarter
wild carrot
evening primrose
honeysuckle
elderberry (the flowers, no berries yet)
wild roses (petals)
curly dock
purple clover
Japanese knotweed
vetch
wild lettuce
tansy
dandelion
ox-eye daisy leaves
fleabane
violet leaves
wood sorrel
peppergrass
burdock
pineapple weed
wild garlic
water lily
white pine
anise hyssop

We skipped a few that needed to be cooked to be safe to eat. But check out that list. All those edible plants. In a fairly small place. In June.

Bountiful as it seems, we probably burned more calories finding them than we consumed. Despite enabling earlier humans to meet many of their nutritional needs prior to the emergence of agriculture, despite its continued importance in the diets of many rural peoples around the world to this day, despite being restaurant-chic in wealthy nations now, it’s not an easy way to eat.

When I posted the last entry, I promised that this time I would share some ideas about why it’s so popular right now. One forager, a guy named Hank Shaw who I heard on NPR a while ago (his cookbook is listed in the last post) said he suspects part of the reason foraging is gaining ground is that some people want to give up a little of their comfort and convenience in eating, that they see foraging as a novel and delicious alternative to consuming mainstream food. He likens the satisfaction to that had in eating a fish you’ve caught yourself: “it’s the effort that you’re tasting.”

I asked a few of my friends why they find it appealing, and their answers were different than that, but not inconsistent with it. Barbara described being filled with a sense of hope at beholding such abundance. Our friend Toni, who is in yoga training, said it was one more indication that what we see depends on perspective: what had been weeds yesterday were great sources of free and healthy food today. And Matt, who’s a Marxist, stressed the fact of foraging being free, with an impromptu and impassioned polemic about reclaiming our food from “the clutches of Big Ag.” Given how hungry we were when we left, I doubt “Big Ag” has much to worry about. Yet.

I want to add a few more possibilities into the mix. I think that foraging reconnects us to the visceral experience of eating, as home gardening and farming do, but maybe even more so. And it gives us access to flavors that are too particular to make it in the marketplace. And also to foods that won’t survive transport in a cargo container. In those ways, Mr. Marxist is right about them being anti-Big Ag.

Which doesn’t make it a totally exemplary experience. Foraging is not for everyone and not for everywhere. David is an urban forager, and he eats stuff he finds in the city, which I find that very, very nervous-making. I think about how many cars and trucks go by, belching exhaust that the plants inhale. That can’t be good for you. And since foraging requires a fair amount of time effort, it is only for those with knowledge and time, or those who can pay for foraged goods. I’m not suggesting that that is inherently bad. But it does mean that foraged goods are getting commodified, and that does seem ironic, to say the least.

Foraging for My Dinner

A few days ago, on Bloomsday to be exact, Barbara and I went foraging in a meadow and adjacent woods in Carlisle with David Craft–an urban forager based in Cambridge–and a few other friends.  I like that we did it on Bloomsday, in the sense of it seeming fitting to spend the day walking and eating and walking and eating.  But mid-June is not an optimal time to forage in Massachusetts.  We ended our trek hungry, albeit with lots on interesting new flavors lingering on our tongues. Not all of them, to be honest, were good. There were definitely some foods that I can only imagine eating in desperation. Some, though, could be really awesome: milkweed was a BIG surprise.

But even though this was a new thing for us, we apparently jumped onto a pretty raucous bandwagon.  Look at all the cookbooks for foragers that have come out in the last three years!

Food For Free, by Richard Mabey, publ by Collins (240 pages); 40th anniversary REPUB of 1972 edition.

Whole Larder Love: Grow Gather Hunt Cook, by Rohan Anderson, publ. by powerHouse Books (240 pages)

The Joy of Foraging: Gary Lincoff’s Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying a World of Wild Food by Gary Lincoff, publ. by Quarry Books (192 pages)

Foraged Flavor: Finding Fabulous Ingredients in Your Backyard or Farmer’s Market, with 88 Recipes, Tama Matsuoka Wong and Eddy Leroux, with a foreword by Daniel Boulud, publ. by Clarkson Potter (224 pages)

Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, by Hank Shaw, publ. by Rodale (336 pages)

The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week) by Robin Mather, publ. by Ten Speed Press (272 pages)

The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes, by Connie Green and Sarah Scott, publ. by Studio Publ. (368 pages)

Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate (The Wild Food Adventure Series, Book 1) by John Callas, publ. by Gibbs Smith (416 pages)

Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, by Samuel Thayer, publ. by Forager’s Harvest Press (512 pages)

Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine, by Jennifer Hahn, publ. by Mountaineers Books (256 pages)

The Wild Vegan Cookbook: A Forager’s Culinary Guide (in the Field or in the Supermarket) to Preparing and Savoring Wild (and Not So Wild) Natural Foods by Steve Brill

That’s just the list of the ones available via amazon here in the US! And we’re LATE to the foraging craze.

Next time, I’ll add some thoughts on why this is so appealing to folks right now. Or at least some guesses.

In the meantime, I think I’ll make some nettle tea and dandelion greens.