The Adventures of an Amateur Forager
In my former Brooklyn backyard: concrete, a broken plastic chair, garbage tumbleweeds.
In my current rural New Jersey backyard:
Things have changed a bit, and that’s putting it lightly. I don’t just have grass, I have limitless farmland upon which to traipse, twirl my skirt (lol just kidding no one wears those out here, have you heard of TICKS?!), and forage. Yes...forage. As in: identify and gather edible plants and fungi, and then eat them. Sounds relatively simple, right?
Well, it isn’t—not if you’re a person even remotely disinclined to being poisoned. The sheer volume of Harmless Things that look like Toxic Things is overwhelming enough to put you off your factory farmed dinner. Which is why fungi are way, way at the bottom of my gathering to-do list. That stuff is varsity-level identification. An herbalist once told me there are old mushroom foragers and there are bold mushroom foragers, and never the twain shall meet. So yeah, point me in the direction of the mildest leafy green, please and thank you.
Despite my very rational disinclinations, curiosity has gotten the better of me, and I have—thanks in large part to my very savvy landlord and the tutorials of Catskills-based naturalist Laura Silverman of The Outside Institute—managed to dip my toe into the deep, dark waters of foraging over the past year. As evidenced by the fact that I am, at present, still alive, it’s been a rousing success!
My first foraging foray was harvesting watercress in front of our farm’s spring house this past March. What is a spring house, you ask? Before the advent of ice delivery and refrigeration, people placed their perishables in cool running water—and to keep that water clear of leaves, twigs, and scavenging animals, they built small structures to enclose a section of the spring. Our little stone sweetie dates back to 1847, when the property was built, but it’s currently boarded up and no one has been inside for decades. Yet the spring still runs, and within it: a bright green carpet of peppery watercress.
My landlord advised me to bring a long knife so I could cut the stems right above the floating roots (I grabbed a bread knife—I’m running a humble operation, here). I also wore gloves to protect from creepy crawlies. All in all, it was a reasonably straightforward experience. The cleaning, though? Notsomuch.
I left the watercress soaking in a bowl of water in my kitchen sink for a few hours, during which dozens of small snails emerged. I intermittently transported them into the yard before I realized it would’ve made much more sense to leave the bowl soaking on the porch so my little mollusca friends could escape directly into nature. Next year! All said, the watercress made a delicious omelette and sandwich ingredient at a time when the local growing season hadn’t begun yielding produce. Especially during quarantine, the ability to walk into the yard and grab fresh veggies was a gift!
Next, and slightly more involved, was harvesting field garlic. The tubular green shoots appear in open fields around the end of April, and you can smell them heating in the sun before you see them—it’s like having a grocery aisle of scallions bursting forth across your lawn. I watched approximately 1000 YouTube videos about how to pull them up (dig deep, wide holes so you can unearth the bulbs about four inches beneath the topsoil), grabbed my trusty Hori Hori knife (a shovel-knife-ruler hybrid, here’s mine), and headed to the back field. It was...labor intensive!
Then I took my haul back to the cottage patio and cleaned the caked-on dirt off the roots. Beneath all that grime was so much flavorful beauty! I used them to top pizza, season salad dressings, and generally in place of onion and garlic in my recipes.
Then, in May, a small patch of wild mint (yes, that is apparently a thing!) sprouted outside my cottage’s kitchen door.
You better believe I plucked a bowlful of leaves and threw them in the dehydrator (I bought mine for forty bucks at the local Walmart) to make some crazy fresh, surprisingly potent tea.
Speaking of refreshing herbal beverages, I did a double-take when an unsuspecting bush bloomed in the side yard this July. I thought it was hibiscus, but my landlord told me it’s a cousin of the flower, called Rose of Sharon.
Like hibiscus, the whole plant is edible, so I grabbed a bunch of the blushing beauties, removed the petals, and dehydrated them to make a mildly grape-flavored Vitamin C-rich tea.
Last but not least, another stealth July miracle: the wineberry. These wild raspberries grow alongside the trail near the farm, and I thought they were a trick at first. How could the swell of daily hikers and bikers breeze by these ripe bejeweled gems without sampling one or twelve?
Alas, there are no poisonous raspberry doppelgangers and these cuties are 100% edible and 1000% yum, so every oblivious trailblazer’s loss was my gain. I spent the better part of an hour picking a large containers’ worth, and they stayed fresh in the fridge for twice the lifespan of farmstand raspberries.
So, after all that, my hard-won foraging advice thus far is: Google furiously, always ask for a second opinion before you eat, and bon appetit!