Why forage? Wild, edible plants, flowers and fruits offer tastes and textures money can’t buy. You won’t find purslane or pawpaws, Juneberries or elderberries in the supermarket. So how and where to find them? You need a guide.
“Northeast Foraging” by Leda Meredith (Timber Press, 2014, $24.95) is a regional foraging book for both beginners and old hands. Part of a series, this one covers Pennsylvania as well as Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware and Rhode Island, as well as Ontario and Quebec. It features more than 120 of the tastiest and easiest-to-find plant varieties, every one photographed in color. Seasonal lists of when and where to find them make the guide particularly valuable.
The author explored woods, meadows, seashore and even urban neighborhoods for wild, edible plants. Along with detailed information about safe identification, she tells how to gather, makes suggestions for preparing and eating plus how to use and preserve them.
The book is organized for seasonal use. Ms. Meredith tells how to forage sustainably and safely, what gear to bring, and what clothes to wear, though that last part comes too late to help me. I have already found out that stinging nettles certainly do. They may make a good soup or side dish, but don’t wear shorts and sandals when you hunt them.
My advice to anyone who would like to “eat out” is to buy a copy of this book. I sure wish I’d had a reference like this when I was growing up.
Back in the day
Foraging was a perk of my childhood, a gift passed along as a natural and cultural thing from my Slovenian parents and grandparents. They didn’t call it foraging, though, if they even knew the word.
I grew up in suburban Mt. Lebanon before “progress” paved over the meadows, fields and woods. Wild food was a given for most of the kids in our neighborhood. We picked all kinds of things, inspected them for bugs and dirt and enjoyed nature’s free snacks on the spot. If we weren’t sure if it was OK to eat or not, we just asked an older, more experienced pal.
One field, close by Cedar Lake, was dense with tiny, wild strawberries, no bigger than a fingernail. Sometimes my mother would send us with a small pail with instructions to fill it, and that night we’d have strawberry pie. Walking through the woods on the way to Markham School, we’d pick the umbrella-shaped leaves of May apples and pretend it was raining; later, we’d take bites of the little fruit. Maybe some roads back then didn’t have sidewalks, but often they were lined with black raspberry bushes. I loved sweet red clover for summer wild flower bouquets, and I might have had bigger bunches if I didn’t munch so many.
When elderberry bushes flowered in spring, we kids would take notice. Then in August, we’d get up early, carry chip baskets (borrowed from Mr. Scarvace, the fruit huckster) and break off sprays of berries. With purple-stained hands and tongues, we’d deliver our booty to the kitchen. Mum would make a pie. Always a pie, never shortcake.
When black walnuts were ready, Daddy would drive us to a farm where he knew the owner. We’d pick up the fallen nuts. By the time we had a couple of buckets full, our hands were stained with black patches from the juice of the walnut hulls. After the nuts dried some, Daddy’s job was to crack the super-hard shells. My brother, Wayne, and I would pick out the nuts while listening to old radio soaps, like “The Great Gildersleeve” and “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Mum might make black-walnut fudge (there is nothing better, ever) or a layer cake with caramel icing.
For all our picking in the woods, Wayne and I were embarrassed when Grandpap came for supper and spent most of his time “weeding” our lawn of tender young dandelions. (What will the neighbors think?) Back home, Grandma would dress the greens with oil and vinegar for salad or cook them down with some bacon grease. Later in the season, Grandpap would make dandelion wine. The grown-ups seemed to like it. A lot.
Once a forager, always a forager
Now, living in Chatham Village on Mount Washington, I still forage. We have some 46 acres of woodlands buffering our 200 townhouses. In June, serviceberry trees planted around the property offer blueberry look-a-likes for muffins and pies. Chatham Woods grows clusters of violets (yellow, white and purple). When they bloom, I’ll pick a bunch to take to a favorite bartender, where I’ll order an Aviation cocktail. He’ll stir together gin, eau de violette and a few other ingredients, then garnish the glass with a freshly picked violet or two.
We have way too many invasive garlic mustard plants. Some people stir-fry them like broccoli rabe with garlic and red-pepper flakes or add to savory corn muffins. I don’t bother. The only time I pick them is to help in the community effort to beat back the annual invasion.
In Ligonier on a snowy ski weekend a few years ago, I was charged with the gathering of salad greens. The host hauled out high rubber boots and suggested that I go pick watercress. The stream is out back, he said. What a thrill to tramp through snow and gather clumps of peppery watercress from an icy mountain stream. In a few months, we’d return to help tap his trees for maple syrup.
I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I sure wish I’d had a foraging book long ago. I’m keeping my copy of “Northeast Foraging” in the glove box of my car. And, in the trunk, I’ll soon put together a basket with paper bags, a small knife, pruning shears, trowel, scissors, cotton gloves and an old shower curtain to act as a tarp.
Now, I just need to keep my eyes peeled.
Marlene Parrish: 412-481-1620 or firstname.lastname@example.org.