Accidental Forager

Sometimes what you can eat is right under your feet.

While visiting my daughter in Northern California I cut parsley, rosemary, thyme and what I thought was sage from her garden to make a bed for the pork tenderloin I was roasting. The sage turned out to be lamb’s ear—edible, but not sage. My son-in-law teased me and called me the accidental forager.

He was right. The only intentional foraging I had ever done was cutting wild garlic in the spring or picking beach plums in August to make jam. I hadn’t realized how popular foraging had become until I read about the celebrity chef/forager René Redzepi and his restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. Since then I’ve discovered many restaurants including Daniel and Altera in Manhattan and the French Laundry in Yountville, California, all have foragers on staff.

Taylor Knapp, chef at First and South in Greenport, includes foraged food on his menu. Knapp worked at Noma where he honed his skills and learned to let every ingredient speak for itself. As a child in Indiana, Knapp used to hunt for mushrooms and persimmons with his grandfather, an experience he recalls fondly. “Foraging is magical because these things are free and delicious,” he says. “Teaching somebody how to forage is like teaching them a magic trick, it’s like finding a treasure.”

Knapp shares his enthusiasm of discovery. “When I found wintergreen for the first time, I was excited. It’s great for infusions. You treat it like a bay leaf, not necessarily eat it raw. It’s delicious.” He also uses garlic mustard, an invasive weed. “Garlic mustard is perfect when it gets nice and big. The roots have this incredible horseradish flavor. The young leaves make a nice pesto, are great as garnishes, and you can use them as a spinach substitute.” Knapp explains why foraging is popular in restaurants, “When chefs place orders for produce, there’s a disconnect. Now chefs and home cooks alike are finding it exciting to find wild foods.” The Food Protection Division of the Suffolk County Department of Health allows foraged vegetables and fruits in restaurants but not foraged mushrooms.

Andy Senesac, PhD weed science specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, cautions against picking wild plants that you find on the roadside or along railroad tracks that might have been treated with pesticide. But he doesn’t deny the abundance of wild comestibles in our area. Senesac made a list of top 10 edible wild plants. They include fruit of prickly pear cactus, beach plum, wood sorrel, wild carrot, dandelion, salsify—known as goatsbeard, Virginia pepperweed, pokeweed, chokeberries, wineberries and wild blackberries, if you can find them. Beach plum has a very distinct ripening period, always at the end of August, and with the beach plums, every third year they have a heavy crop, and then they go two years of a low-yield crop.

A forager of mushrooms for 40 years, Tom Morgan, wholesale representative for the Lenz Winery, likes to forage because it’s fun and free. He started using mushroom guides but is secure enough in his experience to identify what is edible. He forages for chanterelles (which go well with seafood because of their fruity aroma—a favorite recipe is for lobster with black chanterelles and butter), oyster mushrooms (which grow on trees or out of rotting tree stumps), crimini mushrooms and chicken mushrooms. He suggests starting with oyster mushrooms because they are abundant and easy to identify, but Morgan recommends using a good guidebook before ingesting anything.

At the vineyard, Morgan brought out three baggies of dried mushrooms. One sniff of the rich, earthy mushrooms brought to mind primeval forests. He dries most of the mushrooms he collects overnight in his electric oven set at 170 degrees, leaving the door slightly open, and rehydrates them in port or dry sherry. He’s a gourmet cook and believes mushrooms enhance any meal. Morgan follows a strict etiquette of not taking more than he can use and leaving the foraged area as he found it. “Preservation of wild lands is a benefit of foraging.”

“The antidote for a bad plant usually grows near the other,” says Smith. “So, sweet fern grows near to poison ivy, and sweet fern is an antidote to poison ivy.” Shavonne Smith echoes many Shinnecocks’ thinking, saying, “Eating edible weeds is a good way to get rid of invasive plants.” But the Shinnecock, like all the foragers I spoke with, never take the last of anything. It’s a sign of respect to the natural world on which their very lives have depended.

So from East End foragers to white tablecloth destinations in Manhattan, wild edible food has become part of our lives again. And I am no longer an accidental forager

Joanne Pateman lives in Southampton with her husband, Michael. They are not accidental foodies.