Wild Food Foraging: Culinary Revolution or Passing Trend?
Editor's note: This article was updated on March 24.
For many Americans, the term “foraging” may conjure up nearly forgotten imagery from history and anthropology courses of ancient civilizations, Native American cultures, and perhaps even of a few lingering hunting and gathering tribes, like the San. Fewer are probably aware of foragers in their own neighborhoods, from rural Wisconsin and the foothills of the Rockies and Appalachians to urban melting pots like San Francisco (foraging hotbed), Los Angeles, and New York City. Food is growing all around us, from the urban jungle to the mountains and hillsides of America, but the wild food knowledge and skills that our not-so-distant ancestors cherished have all but disappeared.
Reconnecting with the Land
Throughout most of the world, wild food foraging is a way of life that has been handed down generationally. Much of that changed in the U.S. with the growth of post-WWII agribusiness and the fast food boom of the 1950s. In the process, people could eat quickly and cheaply without regard to food sources.
In much of the world, while foraging traditions may have disintegrated, the rate has been slower than in the United States. Before earning his doctorate and developing Wild Food Adventures, John Kallas went on a six-month European vagabond adventure in the 1970s and found that “All over Europe people use wild edible foods that grow around their houses.” Today he explains, “Most of what I eat are the traditional foods of Europeans. . . They are everywhere here, except they are now called ‘weeds’ and people spend billions of dollars every year trying to kill these things.”
Even in the U.S. just a few generations ago, many of the foods we now call ‘weeds’ were considered food. While making use of abundant resources may seem like common sense, particularly in times of economic uncertainty, many of the skills of our not-so-distant ancestors have, as Los Angeles-area survival skills teacher and author Christopher Nyerges states, simply become “an art that we all lost.”
While our ancestors may have viewed today’s ‘weeds’ as yesterday’s food, nowadays, explains author and filmmaker, Willie Whitefeather: “People look at weeds like they look at homeless people.” To North Carolina-based ethnobotanist Marc Williams, “I feel this overall sense that we need to reconnect with nature.” Comparing modern U.S. society with his travels through Central America and Eastern Europe, he laments, “We’ve lost that here [largely due to] the evolution of the industrial complex [which] grants validity to the notion that we’re only supposed to buy from stores.”
There has always been resistance to these changes and concern about food sources among environmentalists and activists, from the writings of Rachel Carson to the television appearances of wild foodist Euell Gibbons, to singers like Joni Mitchell pleading “I don’t care about spots on my apples/Leave me the birds and the bees/Please!” In the modern era, with the expansion of communication technologies, it is perhaps easier than ever for ideas to spread like ‘weeds,’ popping up across the dominant cultural landscape.
What Exactly Are Wild Foods?
Some TV shows occasionally give viewers a glimpse into the forager’s way of life, where milkweed, burdock and clover are viewed not as pests, but as foods, just as they were for our ancestors. Today they are also being used by gourmet chefs across the country who view them as food par excellence. One consistent truth professed by many foragers and foodies is that in the push toward economic development, people have lost sight of where their food comes from and how it is prepared. This gap in knowledge has created a new niche for wild food advocates to fill.
While big bucks are spent eradicating dandelions today, evidence suggests that they were brought to North America on the Mayflower, and have obviously spread like weeds. While considered a nuisance to some, they have medicinal and nutritional qualities and can be used in salads, teas, or wines. Knotweed is also considered a pest, but according to wild foodist Holly Drake, it is a “very tasty plant.” Other plants vary from the familiar – wild asparagus, wild onions, wild berries – to the more obscure – stinging nettles, chickweed, curly dock, mugwort, and the likes.
“Everyone Has a Different Angle”
Many foragers not only feel a sense that we have lost touch with our past and with nature, but they often have other underlying reasons for relearning and teaching this lost skill. As blogger and Denver-area forager Wendy Petty states, “Everyone has a different angle.” While economics are important to her, foraging started as a hobby, marrying her two main interests: food and the outdoors. For others it is about spirituality and ethics, personal empowerment, nutrition, survival, natural medicine, economics or gourmet cooking.
For Denver-area blogger and wild foods teacher Kate Armstrong, who soon plans to begin working with the local homeless population, ethical concerns drive her work. “For me,” she says, “it is a true sin to let food go to waste when people are hungry.” For Whitefeather, a sense of concern for others is part of what it means to be human. “We have to learn to be human beings,” he testifies, adding, “A lot of grown-ups [today] just aren’t.”
For author and advocate Linda Runyon, who has been sharing her knowledge of wild foods since the 1970s and leading thousands on wild food walks since 1982, today “it’s more of a spiritual thing to connect to the Earth.”
But while ethics and spirituality are crucially important for some, they are not the sole reasons that people are increasingly taking up this trade. To Nyerges and others there is a self-empowerment aspect: “There is something uniquely satisfying about finding your own food.”
Others sing praises about the nutritional benefits of wild edibles, about the exceptional taste, and the lack of pesticides when juxtaposed to mass-produced crops. While elements of the mainstream media may “demonize wild foods,” as Petty states, she and others also feel that much of the growing interest today has been driven by the independent media, particularly blogs and social media sites. Aside from this, favorable attention has been paid to wild foods by television shows like Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Top Chef and by major newspapers. Another important element to the growing interest in wild edibles is the mounting understanding among chefs that wild food makes for exceptional cuisine.
Petty works with Chef Theo Adley of “The Pinyon” restaurant in Boulder, who creates sensational dishes using the plants she gathers. In Los Angeles, Pascal Baudar plans to start selling the wild foods he forages to local restaurants, understanding that “wild food is actually gourmet food.” And “Wildman” Steve Brill, who has been organizing thousands of foraging tours in the greater New York area since the early '80s, leads restaurants on foraging expeditions.
For others, as Runyon states, “Economics is the name of the game.” Nearly every wild food instructor has experienced a growth in enrollment since the onset of the Great Recession. That was around the time that Holly Drake, who leads foraging walks and cooking classes at her home near the Appalachian Mountains, got started. She explains, “I really like to learn what’s free to eat in nature.” Not only has she learned what’s free to eat, but she has dreamed up gourmet dishes using milkweed, cattails, and other wild plants around her home. For Drake, however, like many deeply involved with wild foods, while saving money may be a great side benefit, deeper overlapping reasons fuel her interests.
Though foragers may not agree on the best reason(s) for becoming involved, almost all seem to agree that wild food foraging is tremendous fun. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” explains James Wieser, a mycologist who leads popular mushroom forays along with his partners at MycoTours. For children the idea of finding their own food is also exciting because this is, as Brill explains, “something novel to them.” Whatever the reasons for becoming involved, the benefits are many, which may be a key factor that has led more and more people to become turned on to the idea of wild food foraging.
A Food Revolution or a Passing Trend?
The subject of whether the growing interest in wild foods is a passing trend or a social movement has been the subject of some debate, particularly within the blogosphere.
While wild food instructors nationwide affirm that enrollment numbers have steadily risen over the past few years, some attribute it to the economy and others believe that this growth has been pushed by media interest (particularly the influx of social media). Others indicate better marketing on their part. The role played by chefs has also not been unnoticed. Sam Thayer, wild foods author from Northwestern Wisconsin, explains that not only is there “greater acceptance” of wild foods among chefs, but while “there might be twice as much interest in foraging than there was 15 years ago . . . there’s 100 times more interest by the media.”
Armstrong sees this all as part of the solution: It is “a really strong indicator of a food revolution.” As a relative newbie, Armstrong states, “I didn’t know it was going to be an occupation. I didn’t know people would be interested.” Now she is not only very active locally, but she travels the U.S. spreading the message that what is does not always have to be. “The worst thing that can happen is for people to feel defeated,” she says. “[The wild foods movement] gives me a lot of hope.”
Barbara Kollander teaches classes in the San Bernardino Mountain region. To her a shift in consciousness is in the works: “I try to be part of the collective consciousness that can change things.” She adds, “Now I meet people where we’re all similar . . . compared to five years ago or 10 years ago.”
A small handful of people, like Runyon, Kallas, Nyerges, and Brill, have been teaching about the benefits of wild foods for decades. While Runyon sees this growing interest as a social movement, Nyerges and Brill are not so sure. Nyerges recalls trends in the past that led to spiked interest, but curiosity soon withered. “I’m seeing people more serious and more concerned than they were in the past,” he says, but he feels that much is based on the individual. Brill, once arrested for eating a dandelion, attributes much of the new interest to the growth of social media. Whether or not there is a food revolution going on, he explains: “Foraging is on the radar now . . . and I don’t see it going away.”
Trend, revolution, or “little revolution” (as Petty calls it), the general consensus among foraging teachers is that even if interest wanes, they will still be doing it.
Times are always changing and the birth of agribusiness in the 20th century could be challenged, at least, by petite revolutions in cities across the country, seeking better-quality food, natural medicine, and a reclaiming of our past.
For More Information:
Almost any wild food teacher will tell you that the best way to learn how and what to forage is to learn from an expert. In absence of having a personal teacher, there is a virtual smorgasbord of YouTube videos, including those with Florida’s Green Deane, who makes claim to being the “most watched forager in the world.”
Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photo of Steve Brill: From his Website
Photo of book cover: From Forager's Harvest Press (Amazon.com)