Urban Foraging for the Modern Hunter-Gatherer

May 7th, 2012 | By | Category: Feature, Misc

Greensboro berry pickingAn increasing weight is being thrown behind local foods, and for good reason: monster corporations control the majority of the human food supply, including patented seeds. We’re at the top of the food chain and it’s about time we reclaimed control, responsibly and with compassion, with an emphasis on organics and the local terroir.

All you need to forage is a sense of curiosity, and perhaps a stylish wicker basket. Grab your date, your kids, your picnic blanket, maybe even a bottle of wine (drunken foraging sounds like a hell of a party to me), and hit the trails. Get outdoors, get into your back yard, find some quiet, and enjoy each others’ company. Most of all, enjoy the flavors of Greensboro as they live and grow.

Just don’t bring a first date. Maybe like a fifth or a sixth date. You don’t want to look like a cheap bastard.

Mulberries in Greensboro

Mulberries

Mulberry trees are the unsung heroes in Greensboro neighborhood trees. You can find at least one on any given street in the suburbs and several in well-shaded parks like Fisher Park and the Arboretum. I don’t know why people aren’t more enthusiastic about consuming mulberries – or at least moreso than blackberries – mulberry trees are generous producers and their branches have no thorns.

Be careful that the mulberries you chow down on are fully ripened. Mature mulberries are dark purple or black, and have no white flesh inside. Unripe mulberries are mildly toxic and will give you a stomachache. Don’t let this scare you off of mulberries, though! Pick them ripe and eat them liberally with a cheese like Wensleydale or Brie. Mulberries can also be enjoyed in pies, cheesecakes, or simply smashed over toast for impromptu jam.

You probably won’t notice it at the time, but you’ll most likely pick far more than you can eat by yourself. We’re human – we are literally hard-wired to be manic, berry-picking machines. How meta of us. No really. Like mulberries were going out of style. 

Blackberries

Blacberries like to grow near water. They’re oh-so fond of the stuff. That’s why the next time you’re walking next to a creek in a park, look very closely to the brush and bushes that grow alongside. See a thorny bush with scant leaves? That’s probably a blackberry bush! Keep the location in mind for blackberry season (summertime) and come back for some more beautiful creek scenery when they’re ripe.

Since you’re basically competing with birds and squirrels for food now (don’t let it get you down) don’t be surprised if most of the ripe berries have already been consumed. You might have better luck in the immediate underbrush of the bush, where berries may have fallen (and you don’t have to stick your fist into thorns.)

Wild onion or allium

If the smell of onions doesn't punch you in the face when you pluck it from the ground, it's not allium.

Wild Onion (Allium)

Almost immediately after daffodil season, I noticed wild onion sprigs popping up like wild hairs in my flower bed. Sure, I pulled many onions out of the ground as a kid for mud pies and the like, but it wasn’t until I developed an interest in urban foraging that the heady, savory aroma of the onions planted ideas in my brain.

How should I do this?, I meditated. Should I caramelize them in olive oil with garlic, and throw them over pasta? Should I melt them discreetly into marinara sauce? Should I get artsy-fartsy and throw them on a Japapnese pizza with raw fish and ponzu sauce? I eventually decided to add them to Mediterranean-style couscous with stewed carrots, chickpeas, and chicken. The onions you harvest may be tiny, but they do add a lot of flavor; not so much that it will overpower your dish, but enough quality to compensate for quantity. The dinner was not only memorable, it inspired my 4 year old to eat with delight.

Beware of imitators, though. An edible wild onion will smell unmistakably of onion; their lookalikes (called Crow’s Poison) smell more like grass but are only slightly toxic.

Edible Dandelion Greens

Dandelion Greens

I remember choosing a book called “Dandelion Wine” (Bradbury) for an American classics paper I had to write in eleventh grade English. I have to admit – I chose the book entirely because of its arresting title. Did people really make dandelion wine? Aren’t dandelions poisonous? You see, I had read an obscure paragraph somewhere about dandelions being dangerous and felt a bit grossed out at the prospect of wines made from ordinary weeds.

Quite the opposite is true, and I do hope that anyone reading this feeling turned off by yard weeds will at least feel challenged in their perception. Dandelion greens do have a bitter bite, but not more than the bitterness of regular arugula (try saying that five times fast.) Dandelion greens are expertly matched in mixed summer salads (try it on top of mesculun mix, if you don’t want to dive right in) with raspberry viniagrette, walnuts, and blue cheese crumbles.

Be absolutely sure, as with all foods, that the dandelions weren’t grown in herbicidal landscapes. Albeit somewhat of a failure on the herbicide’s part, yet don’t assume that it’s free of herbicide just because it exists.

Persimmons

Persimmons

Is there a better urban aroma than walking amongst persimmon trees? Last summer I attended a conference in Uptown, Charlotte and part of my short walk to the Chamber of Commerce building was a blissful stretch under the shade of persimmon trees. Before then, I couldn’t have told you a persimmon from a parsnip, but I did know that those odd pink-tomato looking things smelled far better than the accompanying goose droppings ALL OVER the city sidewalk. (Suck it, Charlotte.)

Not long after, I noticed a persimmon tree growing strong and true next to the playground in Fisher Park. The familiar smell took me back to that street, to that confident yet slightly nervous stroll I took to be around professionals in the industry I love (search engine optimization.) This year, I plan to make the most of the persimmons in the form of honeyed, puff-pastry tarts, and of my confidence when I actually get to speak at the same conference this year!

Kudzu

Kudzu North Carolina

Always in season.

Do invasive species count? Well, it counts as much as if you hate chickens and ate them only out of spite. This is just one way of handling kudzu, a loathed garden pest originally introduced to US soil in 1876 that’s been turning trees into nightmare material ever since. Kudzu has, and will continue to, reap biological warfare on our precious trees, highways, street lamps, and slow-moving children until we say enough is enough.

Also, it helps when one’s enemy is delicious. The seeds and seed pods aren’t edible, but just about every other part of Kudzu can be eaten – and ejoyed. Kudzu can be made into just about anything you want, much like hemp or soy. You name it: salad greens, tea, syrup, soup thickener, flour, rope, fuel… kudzu’s not lookin’ so bad now, huh? For a more detailed look into this multi-purpose plant, click here.

Greensboro Walnuts

Walnuts

I have a love/hate relationship with walnuts. They harvest in the fall, so their tropical, intensely fruity peel is a bittersweet farewell to the intensely humid, tropical temps of summer. One whiff and you’ll be tempted to bite right in like you would an apple – that’s how incredible the smell is.

But what in the hell do you do with a ripe walnut? Start with the outer peel, or the “hull”. Breaking the hull of a walnut isn’t the easiest trick in the world, but a small pocket knife should be all you need.

Wear gloves when you do – some walnut hulls leave a stain that only Dexter himself could remove. Or, if you’ve picked quite a few walnuts, or don’t want to handle a small knife when you’re unsure of yourself, you can put them down on the driveway and run over them with your car. I suppose you could also ask a quarterback-shaped-person to step on them. You’re not out of the water yet, though. To get to the walnut flesh, you have yet another layer to crack through, so get out your hammer. If you haven’t given up on the damned things yet, you may now enjoy your walnut. You freaking deserve it, after all that hard work, for crying out freaking loud.

Photo credits: CharNewcombCrenel, Pikerslanefarm, stvcr

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