Foraging is an ancient practice that goes back thousands and thousands of years. Simply put, it is the act of obtaining food directly from the earth: picking wildflowers for your lover, plucking sun kissed blackberries from a bush, or gathering mint from a field.
Humans have made it this far because of our ability to find, gather, select, breed, and cook a wide range of foods. Millennia ago, all of our food was foraged. Then, over time we began to understand the fundamentals of how our food came to be. We discovered that if we took the seeds from a plant that we particularly liked for its taste, appearance, or shelf life, and planted them in the ground that our food would stay in one place. Thus foraging eventually led to the dawn of agriculture.
As a result, we were able to focus our attention away from the constant need to find food to pursue life’s other joys—the arts, philosophy, architecture, education, and falling in love.
These days, we are so far removed from our food sources but foraging is a way for us to reconnect with our surroundings and our environment. When done in a respectful, sustainable manner it promotes the healthy growth of plants and helps fungi to spread, while allowing us to access food in its purest, most unadulterated form.
Foraging develops a passion for preserving wild beauty. I am talking about the type of beauty that John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt saw: the beauty of wild nature. To be able to forage we have to preserve swaths of undeveloped land, where plants, fungi, and animals grow wild. These are places for us to play and explore with our children or to sit down and read a good book undisturbed by the world around us. The act of sustainable and ecologically sound foraging, by consequence, creates a place to go to just get away from it all, and to reconnect with everything at the same time.
More important than what foraging is, is what it is not. Sustainable foraging is not a destructive action. It is not about putting profits and quantity before quality and sustainability. Foraging is not unnatural. It is not inherently more dangerous than any other activity that happens in our daily lives. The act of foraging and its overall importance in our development and growth as a species is not to be overlooked.
The wild foods we forage add a new richness to the meals we prepare at home. They add colors, textures, tastes, and fun to dishes that we simply can’t get from foods bought at a store. When properly harvested, foraged foods allow us to eat without having to debate about conventional versus organic, wonder if what we’re eating is genetically-modified, or ponder where in the world these particular ingredients came from.
As we passed the summer solstice this week, many of us started taking more time to embrace the wild world around us. As we spend more time in the great outdoors reconnecting with nature, we will inevitably be drawn to the sweet sun-kissed temptation of mulberries, saskatoons, and raspberries found in our parks and undisturbed lands.
Before you embark on a forage, whether it be a formal one or a spur of the moment exploration, I implore you to consider a few simple guidelines. Understanding these basic tenets will enable you to feel confident when you go out on your own.
Five Simple Guidelines for Everyday Foragers
Always properly identify a food before you consume it. Use field guides, reliable Internet sources, and a knowledgeable professional to help you if you have any questions. Most plants are easily identified with a little research.
- Understand that each wild food has a specific way it should be harvested. Some foods are actually endangered in specific areas and should be left alone. Some foods grow and reproduce slowly and need to be handled with care. Others are either invasive or not native to an area and can be harvested without reserve or restraint. Learn about the proper way to harvest each food you choose to forage.
- Be mindful of your local laws. Some municipalities outlaw the harvesting of wild foods from public parks and some don’t. It could be a conservation issue or it could be related to aesthetics. Whatever the reasoning, respect the laws in place.
- Learn about the land. You wouldn’t want to forage food from land that has been adversely contaminated. Stay away from industrial areas when foraging for food. Forage in urban areas as long as you know they are clean.
- Know that some foods may not agree with your body. Anything new to you, whether you buy it at the store or forage it in the forest, can cause an adverse reaction. Sample a small bite and wait a day to see how your body reacts. Your parents did this with you when you were a toddler learning how to eat so don’t be shocked or nervous. Also keep in mind that while you can eat some foods raw, there are others that must be cooked.
I encourage you all to enjoy the wild spaces and places around us. Frolic and forage in them. Be respectful to the land and have fun in all your adventures! Share your foraging pictures with me (@TMGastronaut) and Edible Cleveland (@EdibleCleveland) on Instagram.
Jeremy Umansky is the resident Forager & Larder Master for Trentina and The Greenhouse Tavern. You might also see him in the Cuyahoga Valley, collecting species of wild plants and fungi for use in the restaurants. Outside of the restaurants, Jeremy cooks at home for his wife and baby daughter, experiments with fermentation, and writes about culinary preservation, foraging and the natural environment.
Photos provided by Jeremy Umansky.