By Cheryl Corson
First we grew heirloom tomatoes. Then we joined a CSA. Some of us got chickens or started indoor winter gardens under lights. What’s next? Eating weeds for dinner, that’s what. Urban foraging is so hot that every workshop within 25 miles of Washington, DC is sold out in advance. What is urban foraging, and why is it so popular now? Is it healthy? Is it really new? Maybe more importantly, does it taste good?
In North America, what we now call foraging used to be called “eating.” Before books and charcuteries, our native predecessors knew how and when to eat plant roots, stems, leaves, seeds, and fruit. Their lives depended on it. They knew where certain plants grew, and what other plants bloomed or fruited at the same time. They knew which migrating birds or fish appeared together with plant bloom cycles, like the fish, shad, running and spawning when the Amelanchier (common name, Shadbush) blooms.
Lewis and Clark documented abundant native edibles on their far-ranging travels. Henry David Thoreau spent much of his short life documenting plants, also called “botanizing,” within walking distance of his Concord, Massachusetts home, leaving us his beautiful recently published manuscript, “Wild Fruits” In which he writes, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” His dream was for every town to establish a wild forest of at least 500 acres so every urban dweller could establish a connection with nature’s bounty.
In 1943, just five years before publication of his revolutionary, “Sexual Behavior of the Human Male,” biologist Alfred Charles Kinsey co-authored, “Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America” with eminent Harvard scholar Merritt Lyndon Fernald. The text, drafted decades before its publication date, boldly begins with the statement that, “Nearly every one has a certain amount of the pagan or gypsy in his nature and occasionally finds satisfaction in living for a time as a primitive man.”
Kinsey and Fernald go on to suggest that “thoughtful people wondering about the food supply of current and future generations are…not amiss to assemble what is known of the now neglected but readily available vegetable-foods, some of which may yet come to be of real economic importance.” They applaud city markets for regularly offering dandelion greens in season after what was then a long period of disrespect. This means that eating local wild greens is not new, but was seen as new nearly a hundred years ago. What happened in between?
Thinking about food and nutrition goes in cycles. One can imagine that with the 20th century discovery of vitamins and calories, and the explosion of industrial agriculture, Kinsey and Fernald’s book may not have become the bible that Euell Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” did 20 years later in 1962. Contemporary writer Michael Pollan has created a cottage industry writing about contemporary and historic American food culture, so let’s get back to the weeds, not get lost in them.
Weeds on the Menu
We’re now in mid-spring and the delectable seasonal foliage of many common weeds is still readily available. I went out in my yard yesterday and filled a basket with dandelion greens, wild sorrel, wild onions, violets, chickweed, henbit, plus chives and baby oregano from the herb garden. I ate the salad I made from these for lunch and feel fine. What I ate for free is being sold as haute cuisine in some new local restaurants, and included in CSA offerings. You can pay top dollar, or with some rudimentary education you can enjoy a free natural salad bar. It’s really not hard to learn how.
Washington, DC’s Hill Center foraging instructor, experimental archeologist, and self-made primitive man, Dr. William Schindler says, “these so-called weeds have more nutritional value than the cultivated crops that have taken their place.” Schindler was initially skeptical of conducting his Hill Center workshop, feeling that there would not be enough plant material within walking distance to collect and people wouldn’t be interested. He was wrong on both counts: the class “sold out in no time,” and participants return to the Hill Center kitchen after a few hours of foraging to clean and cook a delicious meal. Schindler feels the cooking component is vital to people connecting with local wild edibles.
Foraging for 37 years, Schindler points out that it is not a one-time activity. “It’s a way for people to bond with their environment that makes them want to care for it,” he says, continuing, “people start to notice plants on the streets and alleys they walk every day, and going back and back observing them is a way to connect with nature in a meaningful and safe way.”
Schindler, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore co-starred in the National Geographicseries, “The Great Human Race.” The 2016 showaired retracedthe migratory route of our ancestors from the roots of humanity in Africa to the “New World” of North America. Each episode drops him and co-star Cat Bigney into a time and place from our evolutionary past with only the period-correct tools available to our ancestors. “I literally recreated prehistoric life, as we understand it, during some of the most significant technological milestones in our evolutionary past, in the actual locations where they took place… It was if I have been training for this my whole life!
Wild Edible Food Safety and other Resources
After Bill Schindler’s first Hill Center foraging foray, the Washington Post ran an article about the event that received a lot of attention, not all of it positive (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/urban-foraging-class-seeks-tasty-weeds-in-capitol-hill-alleys-and-median-strips/2013/06/01/11716134-ca25-11e2-8da7-d274bc611a47_story.html). Critics pointed out that urban weeds are not exactly pristine and therefore not safe to eat. Reports Schindler, “they said, how dare you suggest people eat like this?” The debate helped clarify his thinking. “When you walk by a place day after day, you know what’s going on there. Assuming proper edible weed washing, you know what you’re getting. When you go to a suburb or the country, that land can be treated with all sorts of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that you know nothing about, so there’s a lot of uncertainty there, if not more than in urban settings.”
Besides Bill Schindler other DC foraging resources are Matthew Cohen, of Matt’s Habitats (https://sites.google.com/a/mattshabitats.com/www/aboutmatt) who also runs sold-out weed walks, and MAPS, the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Group which holds events and posts helpful seasonal articles on their web page, http://www.mapsgroup.org/. Books such as Leda Meredith’s 2014, “Northeast Foraging” and Jo Robinson’s 2013 “Eating on the Wild Side” will help you get started.
Whether you’re interested in foraging to supplement your diet, eat more nutritious foods, or connect with your environment, there’s a wild herb within blocks of your home just waiting to be picked.
Cheryl Corson is a licensed landscape architect and long-time hippie gardener who grew up in Coney Island dreaming of having her own garden. Now she does. Visit: www.cherylcorson.com