If you've eaten out at any locally sourced restaurants lately, you've probably eaten some foraged foods. Whether it's garlic ramps or morels, there has never been more demand for the delicate perfection of foraged food, not to mention the hefty market value of them (morels retail for about $40 per pound). Older than agriculture, the art of foraging for wild edibles is coded deeply in our DNA. Now it's coming full circle on the heels of the latest food trends, pushing diners to explore their neighborhoods and forests like never before in search of a flavor they may have yet to encounter.
And while morel mushrooms and garlic ramps, the darlings of the culinary world, are the much-sought-after wild edibles, we wanted to see if there was more to foraged foods than just the spring frenzy that gives way to summer farming. So I enlisted the help of survivalist Matt Shull of White Pines Wilderness Academy to show me where food was hiding, and if maybe it's been hiding right under my nose (well, in this case, under my feet) all along.
As a lifetime practitioner, Shull's first piece of advice was to spend a year just observing and identifying the plants and cross-referencing them with field guides — at least two, he says.
"Every year, there are professionals who die from eating the wrong thing," Shull warned. "Chris McCandless died because he misidentified a plant according to his guide. It was an error in the field guide," he said of the famous Alaska explorer on whom the book and film Into the Wild was based. That's just one reason why Shull recommends getting at least two reliable field guides and to cross reference them against each other. With that kind of (terrifying) information at hand, Shull wants amateurs not to think of the woods as one big, edible free-for-all, but to view foraging as one part of a much larger relationship to one's own natural environment.
Much of Shull's training works on the "village education" model, the same education model that has underpinned the teachings of the tribal groups like the Miami and Blackfoot Indians. Since one person can't possibly learn all there is to learn by experience, staying alive in a world of foraging means having multiple reliable bodies of knowledge on these plants. And while there are hundreds of field guides on the subject, the expertise required to tell the difference between two nearly-identical plants can sometime require multiple lifetimes of study.
That's why there is so much value particularly in passed-down knowledge of these plants. New guides are always being made, and not always by the people that should be writing them.
"We were consulted for a mushroom hunting field guide, and one of the identifiers they wanted to use was taste," he laughed, because there are some mushrooms and plants that will kill you with a single bite. In other words, if you're going out into the woods to forage, don't just start grabbing things and shoving them in your mouth. (This, by the way, quickly became an uneasy trust exercise as Shull would, in one breath, talk about the drop-dead dangerous poisons and then, in the next, hand me something to eat, which I did unquestioningly. For the record, I am alive, so his knowledge is trustworthy.)
Most importantly, Shull says, is to use one entire year to notice all the growth stages of a plant, which is the most reliable way to identify a plant species.
"You have to really live with the plant and get to know it," he says. "You have to watch it come up in spring, bloom, go to seed, and die back again in winter before you can be absolutely sure about what you're dealing with." It might sound a little new-agey, but when you realize that the carrot family has several deadly-poisonous members (with frighteningly similar leaves in some cases), this piece of advice takes on new gravity.
Over and over again, Shull points out plants along the path that have deadly cousins with leaves that look almost the same. That's why he encourages getting to know plants by family — both the edible and non-edible members — which will help you learn more of the nuanced identifiers that set the individual species apart.
From Shull's perspective, foraging is less about making a gourmet meal so much as finding essential nutrients in nature. One of his most famous and frequently-taught survivalist foods is pine needle "tea," which contains tons of vitamin C and may have helped settlers ward off scurvy. Infusions can be made with a variety of plants, and steeping is an effective way to get the nutritional value out of something not easily eaten (just imagine choking down a mouthful of pine needles).
Of course, that doesn't mean it can't also be delicious. One of Indiana's most invasive species, garlic mustard, tastes delicious with a deeply herby, green garlic burn. You could easily throw some into one of Shull's favorite foraged foods, sauteed stinging nettle.
"That's one you don't have to worry about over-foraging," laughed Shull, as any garlic mustard on a plate is one less plant choking up the natural habitat. "If you cut it all down, you'd be helping the environment."
Pre-agriculture, foraging would have made up a huge portion of a native person's diet, along with bow-hunted proteins. Back then, diets would have been rich in all parts of the "Big Four"— the four plants on which all parts are edible, all year. Those plants are pine, oak, grass and cattail. Even in the winter, the roots of many of these plants — down to the small, spindly roots of some grasses — can be roasted up and turned into a nutritious meal. Even the bark of the trees can be scraped for their sugar-rich cambium layer, the most famous of which is the cambium sugar from the maple tree. You may have been eating a "foraged" food every day for breakfast and not even realized it.
"The average American has about ten plants in their diet, nowadays," Shull said with a grimace. In just the short hour we spent in the woods, he pointed out over 15 edible plant species that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, everything from the flowers and leaves of the common violet, to the entire dandelion plant — even the roots can be roasted to make a coffee-like beverage.
Watching the plant bloom, die and re-emerge also familiarizes you with how time and maturity shifts the flavor of each plant.
Spring is an especially good time for foraging, as the plants are at their most energetic, green and flavorful stages of growth. Just like baby spinach has a more delicate flavor and mouthfeel, so do the smaller leaves on plants like dandelion, which contain more bitter, latex-like sap as they grow larger. Like the microgreens you buy at the farmers market, things are sweeter in spring. And just like microgreens, sprouts and seedlings pack a big, botanical flavor but without any of the bitterness of a more mature plant.
Even if you're not a greens-eater, you can still participate in a the foraging lifestyle without ever having to pick up your own digging stick. Mulberry trees are one of the earliest to set fruit and one of the easiest to harvest, and mulberries can be made into jams, pies, or replace raspberries in salads.
"The easiest way to harvest them is to spread a sheet out underneath them and find some way to just shake the branches," Shull says. If you've ever parked your car under one in summer, you know that mulberries have a tendency to fall like juicy red rain.
You can also go out and snap up little things like the eponymous buds on redbud trees, which taste slightly sweet, almost like a carrot or violet blossoms to add to your regular lettuce salad.
Between foraging and hunting for wild game, Shull gets a very complete nutritional profile with very little sugar or refined carbohydrates. This is the point in the article where it's worth noting that Shull doesn't have the paunch or ruddy cheeks so many of us non-wild eaters are sporting, myself included. I asked Shull what his thoughts on the Paleo and similar diets were, and if they are really worth what they say they are for your health and well-being. In short, yes.
"We're hunter-gatherers. We have been hunter-gatherers for 99.5 percent of the time we've been on this planet. I think it's naive to think we can just shift our diet entirely without massive complications," complications like an explosion of food allergies, diabetes, obesity, depression, and possibly even autism. Some studies have shown that the bacterial signature, or "gut biome," of hunter-gatherers is entirely different from the flora inside the digestive tracts of people with "modern" diets with a lot of processed foods. Whether or not that has an effect on our overall health hasn't been fully studied, something Shull hopes will change in the future. "Ideal" nutrition, however, has always been studied as a game of the earth's carrying capacity, which Shull things is equally naive.
"Is the ideal diet for one person different than the ideal diet for seven billion other people on one planet? Those things need to be studied separately," he says, hinting that one of the main issues might be that there probably shouldn't be seven billion of us competing for food.
"I realize it's a more difficult diet to adhere to," he says of the hunter-gatherer diet he chooses for himself. "The easiest diet to get everyone to adhere to would be to give everyone a multivitamin and a bowl of rice, and you could probably live your life that way, but that doesn't mean that's how we should live."
It would be an interesting experiment to see how perceptions of food and the U.S. obesity problem would change if more people were forced to interact with the environment that creates their food, the way trading your car for a bike makes you see your neighborhood in a whole new way.
That's what Shull ultimately wants, for people to get back to thinking about and connecting with their environment. That's the hot core at the center of the White Pines ethos: getting people of all ages to stop thinking of food and medicine as something we have to rip away and refine from nature, but rather discovering the ways that your environment can care for you if you invest the time and intention in understanding its mechanics. Beyond the spectator's draw of fun flavors and an excitement similar to that of panning for gold, Shull is teaching people of all ages that there is more to the woods than just songbirds and shade: the keys, perhaps, to a better way of life.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
One of the best things about foraging for food is that it doesn't require any special tools beyond a knife, a bag, and a stick you can whittle yourself. We've heard some foragers prefer to wear a layer of shiny pantyhose over their clothes like skin-tight waders, as it makes it hard for ticks to grab on, but a thorough tick check with a foraging friend afterward will do just as well.
A good knife
You want to be able to cleanly cut plants, so bring a sharp, medium-size knife. Matt wears his in a leather sheath like a necklace, which seems to be the most convenient. It doesn't have to be a fancy hunting knife or anything special, just has to be sharp and sturdy.
A sack for your finds
It doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be comfortable to carry and have a strap to go around one shoulder, and plenty of room for your food. Make sure you don't pack it so full that you start crushing your dinner.
A digging stick
This is one of the oldest tools that humans carried, and it's just a wood stick with a beveled, flat end. It's perfect for digging up the roots of plants with minimal disturbance to the surrounding soil. If you fancy yourself a whittler, grab a sturdy fallen branch and cut one end down to a sloping edge. Then, use the stick by sliding it under the root ball and pressing down on the other end.