The food-foraging movement brings new meaning to the term locally grown.
Whether they’re gathering blackberries from Grandma’s yard or plucking apples off a neighborhood tree, many people have experienced the joy of picking something that’s growing and then eating it. But urban food foraging — looking for wild food in and around the areas where we live — isn’t just a quaint pastime from our grandparents’ era. As Americans become increasingly interested in issues of sustainability, finding wild foods is making a modern-day comeback as a full-fledged movement.
A black fig tart (left) and an apple tart (right) made from foraged fruit at Tartist in Los Angeles.
“Today, food foraging is moving more into the mainstream as individuals are seeking connection with their food sources and chefs are taking up the cause of integrating more wild foods into the way we eat,” says Connie Green, a San Francisco–based forager and co-author of the new cookbook The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes. “I believe this is going to become part of the American way of life that has not been seen in a century.”
Green, who also runs a wild edibles business and supplies top chefs such as Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., with foraged products, says that foraged food is not just about edibility; it’s about deliciousness.
“Consider the wild elderberry,” Green says. “It’s like a turbo grape. Since it had no help from agriculture, in order for the fruit to survive, it had to be extremely intense and full tilt in flavor to entice animals to eat it — and, as a result, to distribute its seeds.”
Mia Andler, an outdoor educational instructor and co-author (with fellow forager Kevin Feinstein) of the upcoming book The Bay Area Forager, says that wild food gathering requires a shift in mindset. “Beginners will go out there and think they’re going to make a huge salad out of wild edibles,” she says. “But often, you can only eat a few bites since the flavors are much stronger.”
Andler is one of a growing group of wild food guides throughout the United States who lead urban food-foraging tours, teaching people how to identify and use the wild plants that grow in their area. “This is really about discovering what’s already there and adding that wild food element to what you eat,” she says.
Andler’s words ring true as she takes me out on a trail in Marin County, Calif., and plucks a leaf from a bay laurel tree for me to taste. My mouth fills with an intense ?bubble-gum-like flavor, and I realize that these trees grow all over the area — I even have some in my backyard — but until now, I’d had no idea that they made for such good snacking.
Born and raised in Helsinki, Finland, Andler moved to the United States when she was 15 and says her roots as a forager come from her Finnish upbringing. “When I would go into nature to hike or play as a kid, I would always bring something back, like leaves for making tea or berries for making jam,” she says. “I started leading these walks because I wanted to share what I had learned growing up.”
Marc Matsumoto, a New York–based food blogger at ?NoRecipes.com, sees urban foraging as a gourmet adventure. Every spring, Matsumoto takes a group of paying customers up to a park in Westchester County, where they spend the morning collecting wild fiddlehead ferns, ramps (a type of wild leek), stinging nettles and morel mushrooms, among other things.