An event I often recall when thinking about foraging in my early days, is me choking down a sandwich with what must have been an inch-thick layer of Dandelion greens between some seedy whole grain bread. I forced myself to eat it, and I even tried convincing my then girlfriend of the superb taste. I was lying to myself, and I was lying to myself for one simple thing: the feeling of superiority that some beginner foragers get from eating unique plants in the landscape that others are unaware of. Yes...those early days were a hoot. Days filled with amateur botanizing and shoving random "edible" plants into my mouth, and declaring their goodness.
New religious devotees and beginner foragers share a similar passion in having to tell everyone about their newfound love. Be it god or foraging. And often the case is that people of either devotion seem utterly blind to anything that might not be a good. Foraging is certainly no exception.
Some wild foods just suck.
There is no denying it. We humans have a broad palette of plants that are in fact edible to us, but many of those plants are what I call "eatable" as often they are no better than a grass salad with tree bark dressing. Foraging should be something we aspire to do all the time, if we are truly going to make this a part of our life, and it will never be something you enjoy if you only associate it with nasty tastes.
Over the years of foraging, I think one thing that tends to take place is refining your tastes with wild edibles. You learn how to prepare them so that they taste good, and yet others you never learn to appreciate. In the early days I did what I will refer to as "blanket foraging" which is; Going out and grabbing every single thing that you can, just because the book says you can. Well, that approach just doesn't work for me anymore. One thing I have noticed is that I waste far less food this way. Because I am not preferentially eating the better stuff, while at the same time pretending I'm saving the bad stuff for later. It often ended up in the compost pile. If I don't enjoy something I just pass it up. No need to waste plant lives.
Another thing about foraging for specific plants is that I tend to accumulate more of each food, and typically all of it gets used since it is food that I enjoy. Perhaps my favorite part of this approach is that I get to take in the sights and hear the sounds and I am no longer scurrying about like I am trying to win a prize for the most foods gathered. Foraging isn't a race, and slowing down in life is a good thing sometimes. It is also worth noting that unless you are actually starving you can slow down and collect what you enjoy eating most. And even if you are starving, running around like a maniac is just going to waste calories.
A very interesting thing that I read about two years ago(and for the life of me I cannot remember the book) was that the northern Anishinaabe people had relatively little plant life in their diet, and of the foods that they foraged only about 4 were consumed with any regularity throughout the year. Then just a month ago I was listening to the Meateater Podcast, and the host, Steve Rinella, was in South America talking with an indigenous man. He asked the man if he ate vegetables, and to my utter disbelief, the man stated that no he did not eat much vegetation. I find things like this to be endlessly fascinating, because we are often told nowadays(and for good reason) that we ought to be eating an ungodly amount of plants if we are to be healthy. But here we have a real life example of a modern tribesman, in a very plant rich area of the world, talking about how much he dislikes eating plants. I am happy that this man is out there somewhere. He serves as a shining beacon that you can be a well-fed hunter-gatherer-horticulturalist, and still not bother eating foods you don't fancy.
Foods that I regularly pass up include:
- Sunchokes or Jerusalem Artichokes(starvation food)
- Burdock(carrots with dirt injected into them)
- mulberries(watered down crappy blackberries)
- Pheasant back mushrooms(watermelon rind scented cardboard)
- Highbush Cranberries(yuckberries as I call them)
- Wild Strawberries(too tiny and a waste of time to collect in my opinion, but super delicious)
- Violets(seriously how many calories do you net after tediously collecting a handful of these?)
I know that some of you might read that list and think "heresy", but hear me out. That list represents food that I do not favor collecting, and does not mean that I absolutely never eat it. You can bet your life savings that if I found a patch of plump wild strawberries and there was an ample amount, that I'd be out there collecting with everyone else. My non-collecting of wild strawberries has more to do with the tedium of the task, rather than the flavor. Likewise, I do eat mulberries, every year, I just don't especially enjoy them. Most important of all is that this list represents my dislikes, and it is all just my opinion. I know plenty of good foragers that would disagree with me about that entire list, and I am ok with that. Because they probably think something I enjoy is disgusting(lets not get into my love of sweet flag).
Absolutely none of this is to say that one should not try new foods, or use this blog as an excuse to justify your pickiness. I definitely eat some nasty stuff that others cannot stomach. Sardines being on the top of that list. In fact, most of my favorite foods stink. Get out there and try every wild food you can possibly try. Find out which ones you like, which ones you do not, and which ones are just ok. It's all part of being a forager. Most of us, at least the ones that do it long term, are into trying new foods. And I would encourage all budding wildcrafters to not be skeptical of new and different tasting foods. I have learned to love some tastes that in my youth I would have scorned. I have also learned that it is totally fine to not enjoy every flavor out there. I think the important balance should be that you don't act like your opinion is a fact.
If we foragers want to get more people into this activity(some do, some don't), then I think getting people started on the flavors that they are accustomed to should be at the front of the line. Making wild food not only palatable, but delicious, for prospective foraging buddies is a for sure way of getting them hooked. I marvel year after year at how many people I see dabble in foraging once or twice then quit. I, having the "foragers itch", cannot fathom giving up so easily. But it is easy to see why they give up, because they are eating unfamiliar foods that are undeniably gross. Burdock greens?? Wild lettuce???! Does anyone reading this actually eat that stuff? I'd have given up a long time ago too if that is what I thought wild food tasted like.
So please folks, try new things, but don't be afraid to dislike it if it hasn't grown on you after 5-10 times trying it out. I think that is only fair! And beware those dandelion greens sandwiches!
cooked and in small amounts!