Foraging for Your Dinner

dandelion

Whole Foods Living
February 16th, 2015

 

I’ve eaten dandelions. Have you?

When I was a tiny tot, my Brownie troop (that’s the step before becoming a Girl Scout) ventured into the wilderness and gathered wild edibles, including those robust yellow weeds that most of us wage a war against each spring as we groom our lawns.

Fast forward thirty years or so, and foraging is again back on my radar.

After e-meeting Alan Muskat, the king of finding and feasting on natural foods found in nature, I knew I had to let you all know about his mission.

In addition to spreading the word about eating healthy, simple foods, he teaches people how to safely go into their backyards and find wild foods to make for dinner via his company, No Taste Like Home, and his hands-on tours dubbed Wild Foods Adventures in Asheville, North Carolina.

Muskat encourages “find dining” and looking for food “off the eaten path.”  So today we’re going to learn a little about foraging and how it’s a healthy whole foods way of living!

Hi Alan! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for my curious Whole Foods Living Readers! Let’s get started.

1. What exactly is foraging? I suppose it’s a little more than picking fresh veggies out of the garden, right?

Yes. Foraging means gathering free food (the word actually means “to pillage”). You could call it “opportunivorism.” In most cases, it’s used to refer to gathering wild food. But you can also “glean” cultivated but unused food, like fruit from a “feral” tree: one that was planted and is now neglected, like an apple or chestnut tree. And then there are trees that have been planted for decoration and no one is eating the fruit. In many cases, that fruit is even considered a nuisance. Their “trash” can be your treasure.

2. I live in a small city, near rural areas. Where can I safely forage for wild edibles?

There is actually more wild food in the city than the country. Chickweed, violet, dandelion, and wild onion are just a few ultra-nutritious greens that thrive in urban environments. You don’t need woods for weeds. However, see next question.

3. I’m an adventuresome eater and have no problem trying new leafy greens or an uncommon berry. But, my biggest concern is eating something that may have been treated with pesticides or some other unnatural chemicals. How do you address that concern among your tour group participants?

Yes, contamination is a much greater concern than mis-identification. And I don’t have a simple answer. A person should avoid golf courses, railroad tracks, pristine lawns, landscaping, roadsides, and cemeteries: in short, anywhere that might be sprayed. You don’t want to be near a building or even in an old orchard (where they used to use arsenic and lead). Sadly, heavy metals stick around for hundreds of years, and with any nuclear leaks like Chernobyl, clouds of radioactive dust spread across the world. Wild food like nettle, lambs quarter, and mushrooms in general just soak them up. That’s why they’re so high in minerals.

There’s really no escape from pollution. We literally reap what we sow. The only solution is to start thinking about our children’s children as much or more than ourselves. Besides, if you’re really worried about chemicals then you need to start by buying only local organic food (not USDA “organic”) and eating out as little as possible.

morels, ©No Taste Like Home

When you start asking questions, you may not be prepared for the answers!

4. So, what are a few health benefits of foraging and incorporating this practice into our daily diets?

The healthiest food is natural food — food that has not been hybridized — because it’s what we evolved to eat. Wild food — i.e., natural food — has been shown to be 10 to 100 times more nutritious. A single leaf of a wild plant each day is better than a multivitamin. It’s not that wild food is so good for you, it’s that anything else is not. A multivitamin can cause more harm than good. Why reinvent the wheel when the best “superfood” is available, free for the taking, right outside your door?

The act of foraging has other benefits, less tangible but even more important. One is spending time out in nature. Vitamin D is measurable, and we get it best from sunshine, but our need for Vitamin “N,” when chronically unmet, can lead to Nature Deficit Disorder. Gary Snyder says “nature is not a place to visit; it is home.” We evolved to live in “the wild,” not in artificially lit and heated little boxes. Comfort and convenience can come at great cost. In the long run, is it really worth it?

These are difficult, uncomfortable questions. But like C.S. Lewis says, “if you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth.”

There’s one more, very tangible health benefit to foraging: it’s more sustainable. We can’t be healthy in a polluted environment. And the most destructive thing we’ve ever done to the environment, without question, has been agriculture. Most of what we call “local food” is hardly that. You can put a golf course in the Amazon and call it “local.” Most of what we have been growing, grain in particular, is not only bad for humans but terrible for the environment. Deserts and dust bowls have both resulted not from factory farming, not from GMOs, but from organic, subsistence agriculture. That’s yet another truth to wake up to.

The only sustainable food is food that thrives where it is grown: food that does fine even if we don’t help it. Food that “grows like a weed.” This is what eating local is really all about.

5. Finally, what’s the strangest wild edible you’ve found on your ventures? A rare mushroom? Something with pointy spines you had to cut off  to make edible?

Jeez, I eat a lot of strange things. This weekend, I’m eating roadkill for The Science Channel. And yes, I eat spiny things too. Milk thistle is basically a wild artichoke covered in spines. It’s so good for you, however, that if you eat a deadly mushroom, an extract of the seeds (made by simply soaking them in alcohol) can save you. Instead of dealing with the spines, I simply put it through a juicer. How’s that for a primitive skill?

Thanks, Alan! I think I feel a little more confident about sampling some of the wild raspberries and mulberries that are plentiful during the summer in my little area of the Midwest.