Wild foods are not as large or uniform as their supermarket counterparts, but they often contain higher nutritional value—and hold up better in the kitchen, according to “Wildman” Steve Brill, author of Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild and Not-So-Wild Places and The Wild Vegan Cookbook.
Many vegetables look bigger in the grocery store because they contain more water, he says. For example, carrots growing in the wild become less soggy when blended or cooked than carrots from a grocery store. “The wild carrot is mostly carrot,” he says. “It’s more fibrous in a salad, but when you cook with it, it doesn’t become mushy.”
Health concerns about commercially produced food increasingly motivate people who are otherwise committed to neatly packaged modern civilization to eat local and organic. Brill says he sees increasing numbers of “foodies,” vegans and raw foodists on his urban foraging tours through Central Park in Manhattan and other East Coast urban public spaces.
In place of mystery-processed foods that contain unrecognizable ingredients, a forager might enjoy huckleberry pie, chickweed pesto or pasta with sautéed morels—often for the same price
as processed go-to meals, albeit with quite a bit more effort.
Others flocking to foraging tours and online foraging social networks worry about a more dire problem than pesticides and GMOs: They fear food won’t be available for purchase immediately following a disaster.
“[Many people] think that they’ll run to the store in an emergency,” says Bill Allen of Washington Preppers, an online forum dedicated to preparing for “TEOTWAWNI”—The End Of The World As We Know It.
But expecting to pick up groceries after an earthquake or economic collapse is unrealistic, according to Allen. “They would clean out everything in a grocery store in about three days if they didn’t have a re-supply,” he says. To prepare for the worst, “Preppers” build themselves a three-month to two-year supply of food, water and other life-sustaining necessities.
While the nationwide network of Preppers primarily focuses on gardening and stocking non-perishables, Allen also teaches his fellow Preppers about edible plants.
Gardening takes months to produce (and sometimes doesn’t—Allen laments that his peach tree is not bearing fruit), but nature perpetually does its own gardening in the wild, Allen says. “If you can pick out different seasons, different crops, you can pick stuff that’s already available.”
Portland blogger Rebecca Lerner, who writes about urban foraging on her blog “First Ways,” challenged herself to spend two weeks eating only foods foraged in the Portland metro area.
After all, the people who lived on the same land before its development were hunter-gatherers. If they could do it, why couldn’t she search between the concrete slabs for what’s left of the sustenance?
“I think it’s really interesting to look at the land, and even though the landscape has shifted so radically, [to] try and see it the same way,” she says.
Lerner’s first attempt in the spring to survive only on foraged food failed—she spent eight hours a day looking for food and often found very little. After five days she stopped because of hunger and exhaustion. Then she tried it again in November that same year.
“I was able to get nuts and fruit, and that made a huge difference,” she says. In the springtime, she had only found greens and a few roots. The second time around, she gathered and stored food in advance, just like her hunter-gatherer predecessors did, and asked friends for help.
Ultimately, though, Lerner says living on foraged food alone would be a difficult, full-time endeavor in the city. Unless, that is, urban foragers advocated for dedicated foraging areas—“Kind of like a community garden,” she says, “except nobody actually does any gardening.”
URBAN FORAGING FOR DUMMIES
There’s a term out there to make digging around in the neighborhood for snacks sound hip—urban foraging. Urban foragers find food in their yard, in public parks, and anywhere else around them that food grows.
“You’re going to find the most diversity and abundance of plant life in what people would call edges of places, where two different types of habitat meet,” says Lerner. Forest areas may have more open space in which food can grow, she says, but urban areas benefit from greater ecological diversity, making them ideal for foraging.
Pesticide use in gardens and public parks means foragers must be discriminating about how healthy plants look, according to Lerner, but public parks increasingly use pesticides in wilderness areas
“Definitely pay attention to how healthy the plants look. You don’t need to have a degree in botany to tell if a plant looks healthy—I certainly don’t—just look,” she says. She particularly
looks out for unusual chemicals and fecal contamination.
While many foods are delicious, even more are dangerous to eat—and there’s no easy rule of thumb for safety. “There’s a saying that ‘if it’s red you’ll be dead’ but that’s not always true in the case of raspberries, strawberries, choke cherries,” says lifelong forager and Browne’s Addition resident Stephanie Link. “The main takeaway is to know with 100 percent certainty what you’re eating. It’s that serious.”
But fear not, 21st century foragers—there’s an app for that. Brill’s “Wild Edibles” smartphone app does exactly what new foragers need: to make sure what they’re foraging is actually food. “You can filter by season and by habitat, and the stuff that is in that habitat in that season is going to be there,” says Brill. “There’s a checklist of features so you don’t poison yourself.” Brill’s app also identifies similar-looking, but potentially poisonous, plants and mushrooms.
When sifting through information, Brill advises using resources developed by researchers who forage and eat wild food themselves. “Almost every foraging book, until I started writing, was by academic botanists who would just do literary searches who didn’t know how to cook and didn’t forage, and so they got everything wrong.”
Figuring out what’s food and what isn’t, which is the key to foraging safely, becomes easier as information for novice foragers proliferates. Now, says Brill, foragers can find a wealth of reliable information from foraging experts online and in print.
HOW TO GET STARTED
First, find out what grows in your area—and when. The Spokane area is home to a long list of mushrooms, huckleberries, watercress, dandelion greens (yes! Those pesky weeds are good for something!), chickweed, honeysuckle—the list goes on. Each food grows during a particular time of year, and the harvesting season may be small. Morel mushrooms, for example, can often only be harvested during the month of May.
Only search for foods you like, says Link. “If you don’t like them, don’t spend a lot of time trying to go find them—[it’s] a lot of work.” She suggests trying out wild foods before foraging for them. In Spokane, wild food vendors camp out at farmer’s markets and the Spokane Public Market.
Once you’ve decided what you’re looking for, find a more experienced person to take you along on a foraging trip. “I would say for someone who wants to start foraging is that if they have something specific that they want to find, that they go with somebody who knows what it is and can positively I.D. it,” says Heather Veeder, Link’s partner and a lifelong forager from Orofino, Idaho.
If you don’t happen to know any botanists or mycologists, try asking your parents or grandparents for guidance. Even though foraging has recently regained popularity, it has long been part of Northwest food culture.
“For us, doing this kind of foraging is just something that we did growing up. My family and I went mushroom hunting every spring, and dandelion hunting,” says Veeder. Foraging with family members as a kid, she learned where to find each kind of food and how to identify species correctly—she even started her very own huckleberry-selling business during the summer.
North of Spokane, Spokane Indian tribal members once subsisted entirely on hunting and gathering. “The supplemental diet was roots, berries and other things like that that the tribes gathered in this area,” says Deb Abrahamson, director of the SHAWL Society advocacy group.
Farmland has encroached on the tribe’s historical foraging areas and uranium mining has made wild food consumption risky, so now wild foods are primarily used for ceremonial purposes, she says.
“I just got back from my aunt’s funeral, and part of what I was cooking into the early morning hours were specific types of berries and camus [root],” says Abrahamson. “But we don’t eat them every day because it’s such a difficulty gathering. The primary area is gone and the area we have to forage has been drastically reduced as a result of the development of farmland.”
A FIELD GUIDE TO MUSHROOMS
Josh Yake, owner of Gourmet Foragables at the Spokane Public Market, says novice mushroom foragers should familiarize themselves with “look-alikes” to the food they seek. “What I did is I started out by conquering one certain type of mushroom,” he says.
Starting with the chanterelle, Yake learned characteristics—and their potentially inedible look-alikes—of one mushroom at a time. “Each mushrooms has unique tricks,” he says. Chanterelles have a solid stem with gills running along the stem, whereas the look-alike’s stem is hollow.
The opposite is true for morels, which have a hollow stem. The closest relative in the area—which is edible, but potentially poisonous if not prepared correctly—has a solid stem.
“Then you’ll want to learn your porcini mushroom, which is also an easy one,” says Yake. “It’s a big hamburger bun cap and it has pores underneath it, as opposed to gills.”
WHERE TO FORAGE
Some of the most abundant wild foods in Spokane might grow in your garden. Yake sells Miner’s lettuce, which many consider a weed, as a specialty food.
“It’s a lot like watercress but a little bit sweeter. Like sugar snap peas but in a leaf. You might not even notice it in the wild because it’s the whole floor,” he says. “Most people see that I’m selling miner’s lettuce in the Spring and they’re like ‘I have three acres of that in my backyard and I can’t get rid of it!’ Miners’s lettuce, to me, is gourmet, even though it’s super abundant.”
Selling what many consider a weed as food serves to educate the food enthusiasts who frequent the Spokane Public Market about what they’re missing. “If nothing else,” says Yake, “it’s just to introduce people to something that is sustainable that might be in their back yard.”
Foragers might freely reveal where they found their lettuce, but pinning down exact locations of other wild foods can be tough.
“People don’t tell people their spots for huckleberries or morels,” says Link. “Even your best friend.”
Linda Foreman, science officer and foray leader for the Spokane Mushroom Club, agrees. “We have designated spots we call foray sites where we go picking every year. We don’t disclose those spots.” The club has had foragers join just to learn—then take advantage of—their foray sites, says Foreman.
The Spokane Mushroom Club, founded in 1965, takes trips to Priest Lake in the Spring and Fall, and Foreman provides guidance to new foragers on what is and isn’t safe to eat.
Although she’s not willing to reveal exact locations, Foreman suggests looking for a particular kind of environment. “Basically, you need to do a little bit of research to find out what mushrooms grow under,” she says. “They have a symbiotic relationship with trees.”
When trees fall down and begin to decompose, she says, mushrooms will surely pop up.
“That’s always a good place because when it rains, the moisture goes all around there—especially cedar trees,” says Veeder. “And then there’s this other factor, if you’ve done it your whole life—you get this feeling. There’s kind of like this sixth sense around it sometimes, like some people just know where the mushrooms grow.”
As a basic rule of thumb for finding morels, Veeder recommends taking a drive to the bottom of the snowline at springtime.
Yake is not convinced that foragers should worry about giving away their lucky spots. He travels all over the region to forage and says he often comes home with 20 pounds of mushrooms after a half-day trip.
“There are a lot of mushrooms that go un-picked,” he says. “Some people are secretive about their spots or whatever, but the mushrooms out there are so abundant—there’s so much untapped forest floor that you can find them anywhere.”
Yake recommends Priest Lake for morel hunting in the spring. In the fall, he finds chanterelles and other mushrooms locally.
“You don’t have to go up into the mountains. You can find them abundant down in the lowlands,” says Yake. He hunts for mushrooms at Dishman Hills Conservation Area in Spokane Valley and in Riverside State Park.
Morels have an additional trick up their sleeve—they spread like wildfire, right after actual wildfires.
“I kind of root for forest fires,” Yake admits. “If you can find a forest fire, morels will fruit abundantly and vigorously the next year. And the next year [after that] you’ll find about half as many as the year before.”
He tracks forest fires each year and continues to visit those sites for years afterward. Two sites he visited last year were Dishman Hills, which were burned in the 2008 Valley View Fire, and the Helena National Forest, which burned last year.
“The ground is still charred black. There were still hot spots. There were spots that were still smoldering hot,” says Yake. But the trip was worth it—there were more morels growing than he could carry out. “Once you got in here you couldn’t even put your basket down or kneel down to pick [morels] without destroying some.”
Yake sells his mushrooms and other wild foods at the Spokane Public Market. “The morel is about twice as valuable as any other wild mushroom,” says Yake. “When I say they’re $40 a pound, people are like ‘holy s—, are you kidding me?’”
Instead, Yake lists the price per ounce, a much more friendly-sounding $2.50. Chantrelles, the local wild mushroom closest in value to morels, sell for $15 to $20 per pound.
“There are all sorts of things that you can forage for, but I kind of draw the line,” he says. “What I like to do is just bring the most choice, the sought after. The huckleberries—I bring the huckleberries and they’re all gone.”
HOW TO FIND MUSHROOMS
Beyond recognizing the shape, color and size of a wild food, finding less conspicuous foragables requires technique and patience.
“So many times we’ll go out and we don’t even find anything that’s a mushroom,” says Veeder. She and Link incorporate foraging into hiking trips, camping and other outdoor recreation. “It’s a good excuse to go into the mountains and go for a drive, and go look around for something, and it’s just a bonus if you found something.”
By always scanning the ground when they’re outdoors, they find berries or other foods around their campsite or along the road on the way to their destination (although they recommend searching at least 50 feet from the roadside to avoid contamination).
“Little tiny strawberry plants are everywhere. There’s a pretty decent blackberry patch a little down south in Idaho along the roadside,” says Link. “If you see people along a dirt road that have parked their car and they’re out with a bucket, get out of your car and go look around a little down the road.”
In the forest, small items like mushrooms can be easily overlooked. To find them, first identify the places they’re most likely to be.
“I always go toward trees that have fallen over and are decomposing,” says Veeder. If you spot one mushroom, scour that area for more.
“I’ll just lay on my stomach, even, and get kind of a frog’s eye view,” says Yake. “They say that when you’re hunting mushrooms, when you find one, just sit there for a while and let your eyes adjust, and do kind of a visual circle, and you’ll probably find another few morels.”
WHAT TO DO WITH A WILD MUSHROOM
“This is what I foraged for around our apartment,” says Veeder, pointing to a photo in her cookbook. “I followed this recipe and made chickweed pesto from what was in our yard.”
Even avid foragers use foraged food as a supplement, not a staple, in their diet. Some foods, like nuts or berries, can be harvested and stored. Link and Veeder keep huckleberries in the freezer through the winter for shakes and pies, and Yake sells them frozen year-round at the market.
Mushrooms, on the other hand, should be eaten right away, prepared simply so as not to overpower their natural flavors. Link suggests serving wild mushrooms sautéed in butter with pasta. “Don’t mess ’em up with any cream or anything,” adds Veeder.
For wild food recipes, Link and Veeder love MaryJane Butters’ library of books, magazines and online resources. Lerner publishes her own recipes—adapted from recipes for non-foraged food, friends’ recipes, and other foraging information on her “First Ways” blog.