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.

Bird Doors, Garden Questions

I ordered my seeds last week.  Shout out to Comstock Ferre for sending the ones I ordered from them so quickly.  It warms a heart to imagine what will be, and the effort of imagining is somehow easier with the bumpy packets of potential in one’s hot little hands.

No doubt such fantasizing about the coming season infused my thoughts about “he-of-the-bird-doors.” If you’ve read a few of these posts, you may remember that Barbara and I are undertaking a supremely fun art-science exploration of a meadow in Carlisle, MA.  And in the middle of that meadow sits a very old home.  And in one of the outbuildings adjoining that home are a set of doors that used to be in the house.  I think there are eleven of them.  The doors are covered with lists of birds–the first arrivals each year for all the species the writer spotted.  Spring and fall, he noted the various birds.  The two doors below show a small sample from the decades-long record he created.

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It seems no outside concerns intruded on this naturalist’s life, for the lists are as long during war years as during calmer times.  Or perhaps such careful attention was a balm for him.  At any rate, the chronicling of the birds clearly dominated his life;  the list claims the middle of each door, with any other information relegated to the margins, quite literally.  Even at this scale, you can see that those peripheral notes compose a far smaller set.  An occasional snow storm is recorded, a particularly momentous family event, a cause for sorrow.  And also, with the same faithfulness that he gave to the birds, he recorded the arrival each spring of the first asparagus.

I get that.  Asparagus is not my bellwether.  If I had to choose, I guess I’d say that rhubarb is.  Though now we’ve a witch hazel, so perhaps that will be the assuring sign.  Nonetheless, I can certainly see why asparagus would be someone’s.  And so, with a tip of the hat to he-of-the-bird-doors, I offer this promise that spring will, in fact, eventually arrive:

“First asparagus”

Amid the litany of birds,
a single garden note each year,
tucked between his penciled chronicles
of avian attention:
“asparagus, Apr. 28″
or “1st asparagus, May 3rd.”

I picture him peering at
the unkempt bed, brushing away
errant strands of moldering hay
hoping to find dogged, knobbed tips
puckering the untilled loam.
A day hence, or two at most,

faintly purpled stalks will follow,
erect despite the chilly nights.
He well knows how quickly they thicken
to record-worthy readiness,
into the notes of his mellow-
throated rhapsody to spring.

Fireflies Attract

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Earlier this week, my friend Barbara and I headed out to a meadow just before dusk to meet with Sara, a firefly expert, and Michelle, a fellow firefly fan.   Barbara and I are working on an extended project about this place, and she has made many gorgeous pictures of fireflies here, so we thought it’d be great if someone wise in the ways of fireflies could school us about what we were seeing.

We had a terrific  time, although we didn’t see nearly as many fireflies as we had expected to. It was, it turns out, a bit of a seasonal low point–the waning days of summer’s earliest fireflies, and very early in the waxing of the next species, whose time to spread their wings starts soon.  Still, we learned a ton–including the difference between photuris and photinus, and between boy flashes and girl flashes, as well as assorted details about the evolution of firefly glow and about their mating habits.

Equally captivating, to me, is what the fireflies engender.  As we tell folks about our interest in these beautiful bugs, people send us pictures or point us toward other artists also interested in them.  Two great images that came our way last week were from 19th century Japan.  Here’s one of them:

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Many people in Japan, it turns out, have a profound affection for fireflies.  In fact, that ardor rises to the level of a being a general cultural appreciation of them. Sara had been in Japan earlier in the month, giving a talk at a scientific conference.  To her surprise, even lay people attended.  And not only did they listen avidly, they also asked great questions and seemed to fully appreciate the information being presented by the scientists.

In addition to the images that have come our way are recommendations of other pieces–like this haiku by the poet Issa, who lived approximately two hundred years ago:

A giant firefly:
that way, this way, that way, this –
and it passes by.

Michelle also told us about an artist she’s especially fond of, Canadian Michael Flomen. He uses photographic materials and a deep appreciation of light and chemistry (no wonder he likes fireflies!) to make his images–which are utterly literal and entirely abstract at the same time.    Rather than using a camera, he lets the fireflies walk on photo paper, for example, and leave their own trail.  Here are a couple of his collaborations with fireflies:

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These, in turn, remind me of the work of Martin Prothero, who sets out carbon-coated glass plates and lets animals trace their own paths across them.  Here is one:

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Firefly traces, animal tracks, human artworks — fleeting marks of lives being lived well.