Food that is all-natural, organically grown and pesticide-free isn’t just available in your grocer’s organic foods section. It might be right in your backyard.
Sam Thayer, author of “Forager’s Harvest” and “Nature’s Garden,” said the variety and number of edible plants, berries and nuts growing in the Northland is numerous, though often unbeknownst to the general public.
“Our culture is totally, totally blind to most of it,” said Thayer, of Weyerhaeuser, Wis.
A passionate forager, Thayer collects 200 to 300 different kinds of wild food on an annual basis, which he uses to feed himself and his family. Thayer estimates that just a little less than half of the food he eats is foraged.
Commonly foraged foods, such as mushrooms or berries, are often a novelty. To Thayer, though, foraging is more about quality and variety.
“There’s nothing I collect that is second-rate,” Thayer said.
The food that he collects is, in his opinion, better-tasting and of a better quality than what one would commonly find in the grocery store.
Teresa Marrone, a forager and author of several wild food identification books and cookbooks, said there’s no comparison between foraged and purchased produce, especially when it comes to berries.
“Wild blueberries are almost unrelated to what you get in the store,” said Marrone, of Minneapolis. “They’re so much more intensely flavorful.”
Marrone says that there was a time in her life that she never went to the grocery store. Today, she’s happy to go to the store to get many of the things she needs but still enjoys gathering things from the woods, as much for the taste as for the activity.
Thayer started foraging for one simple, practical reason: He liked to be in the woods. And he was hungry. The more he learned about the plants around him, the more he ate, and he ate well.
Thayer reasoned that many of the best-tasting wild edibles don’t make it to the grocery store because they don’t keep well.
“If something can’t stay fresh and in good condition under refrigeration, there’s no way it will be in the grocery store,” he said.
Some things simply can’t be cultivated, though they’re abundant in the woods. Mike Kempenich is owner of The Gentleman Forager, a company that collects wild mushrooms and sells them to restaurants for use on their menus. He said that he grew up collecting morels with his dad, and wondered why the mushrooms were never found in the store.
“Depending on the species, many mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with certain trees,” said Kempenich, also of Minneapolis. “They can’t be commercially cultivated on a scale that would provide for the industry.”
One of Thayer’s favorite spring vegetables is one that’s not sold in grocery stores: caraway greens. Many people have heard of caraway seeds used as a seasoning, but they haven’t heard of eating the leaves of the vegetable in the spring. They grow wild all over Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota, Thayer said. But the only way you’ll ever have them around here is by collecting them.
“The most exciting thing about foraging, to me, is that you can have all these awesome foods that you can’t buy, or if you tried they would be so expensive it would be ridiculous,” Thayer said.
Others are widely considered tasty but ignored in the wild, such as the hazelnuts that grow wild across the Northland. Serviceberries are abundant and even commonly found in urban yards as landscaping, but don’t get nearly as much attention as blueberries, though Marrone says serviceberries taste even better than blueberries.
Thayer suggests that people who want to get into foraging start by researching a few plants a year. Most people know at least a little about strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, which is a good place to start.
“Don’t think about learning foraging,” Thayer said. “Pick a plant, maybe one you’ve heard of, and go seek it out and learn about it.”
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of foods that are edible and wild, and Thayer said taking just a couple at a time is more practical and fun.
“Nothing out there is impossible to identify. Before you’re familiar with it, it will look totally indistinct,” Thayer said. “But once you know a plant, you’ll have no fear of misidentification.”
He suggested that beginning foragers pick plants they truly enjoy eating. If you’re not a fan of hazelnuts, choose a different edible to learn about and identify. So essentially, don’t forage for the novelty of foraging; forage because you enjoy eating the plant you collect.
Of course, proper identification is very important to avoid illness that can come with eating the wrong wild berries and the like.
“It’s sort of a natural human tendency to be wary of mushrooms,” Kempenich said. “I think it’s built into our DNA. You should educate yourself, and thankfully, there’s a lot of resources to do that. There’s nothing else I can think of that people dare themselves to eat that ultimately could kill you.”
Mushrooms can’t be identified by any single factor: the color, spore color, gill type or cap. In fact, it takes many of those factors to come together for a positive identification. And yet, Kempenich says, the number of incidents of poisoning in the United States, or even the world are few.
With the proper care, mushroom foraging can yield tasty results. Morels are a great example of that.
“They are super delicious. To me, morels are the gateway drug,” Kempenich said with a laugh.
Morels are one of the easier mushrooms to find because they have a strong association with elm trees. When the elm begins to die, the mushroom fruits in order to reproduce, creating what commonly is called a morel. So to find morels, look for dying elms.
Marrone offers lots of tips for foragers, but many of them come down to a simple philosophy of staying safe and being prepared. Collecting wild foods is often labor-intensive.
Marrone recalls picking a bucket-full of gooseberries, and then having to cut the tail end (like a stem) from each and every one of them.
“There’s a lot of work involved. You get ripped up by the woods, eaten by mosquitoes, bit by woodticks,” Marrone said. “You have to spend a lot of time doing this. But that’s what you have to do, and it’s worth it.”
Despite the amount of work involved, the flavor, quality and variety are what make foraging so enjoyable.
In Minnesota, collecting wild fruits, vegetables, nuts and mushrooms for personal use is permitted on state lands. Exceptions include wild ginseng and wild rice, both of which require a permit.
The Wisconsin State Park System also allows collecting of wild fruits, vegetables, nuts and mushrooms for personal consumption. North Dakota state-run parks and recreation areas do not allow the collecting of wild foods, and removing plants from South Dakota state parks and campgrounds also is prohibited, with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website stating that “penalties are stiff” for such. Thayer said he’s been able to collect many wild foods from private land, though, after simply talking to the landowner and gaining permission.