The Lost Art of Forgotten Foods
I recently discovered a garden growing right here in Fort Collins that I’d never seen before. I had heard myths, and rumors of it’s existence, but it had always seemed so distant, so elusive, like a childhood dream that you want so much to believe in but are barely able to recall. This garden has been abandoned and neglected longer than I’ve been alive. Actually, attempts have been made without success to eradicate it. But, thankfully, it’s still here, growing food without, and in spite of, the hand of man. Most of the plants growing in this garden cannot be bought at the grocery store, or the farmers markets, even though it’s local.
This garden also grows the widest variety of food types of any garden I’ve ever seen. There are spring greens growing before most farmers are even thinking about planting (I know, I know, farmers are always thinking about planting…), and some of these are tender and good enough to eat into late august, after my garden lettuce has turned to a bitter bolted green. There are edible flowers, with flavors too good to be true. Vegetables ripen all summer long. Berries begin ripening in June and last well into autumn. There are fruits and nuts which fall to the ground by the bushel-full, only to be despised for disturbing our hard earned landscapes. There are beans. There are seeds, and grains, and pollens to be made into flours and breads and cereals. And fresh tubers can be had all the winter long, so long as you can dig the ground, from natures best root cellar. Herbs to be dried for teas and medicines abound, begging somebody to pick them, use them, love them. There are wild animals to be seen. Foxes, deer, squirrels, skunks, hawks, owls and eagles. Tanagers, flickers, robins and hummingbirds. Frogs, toads, turtles and snakes. They all eat freely from this garden, as does my family, and still there is plenty.
We come here together, for nourishment. We go there alone, for solitude.
In researching the history of this garden, it seems to have been here all along, as far back as anyone can remember. No one claims to have planted it. The natives peoples who lived among and travelled this region ate from it. All of their food came from it, as well as the fibers for their clothing. They say the Creator gave it to them as a gift, to shelter them and feed them, to keep them healthy, and to restore their health when they became ill. In return, they have promised to protect it, and not to destroy it.
By the end of the nineteenth century however, most of the natives had been confined to reservations, their lore and history, and means of living in harmony with nature going with them. The settlers despised the natives as savages, would have none of their food. Thus the garden was forgotten.
As cities and farms grew the garden was encroached upon. It shrank to but a fraction of its original size. But it survived.
Then came the great depression, and the people of this region, town and country folk alike, began to go to this garden, seeking its food, mostly out of necessity. Most people had long since forgotten how to recognize and eat the food they found growing in this garden, if they had ever known at all. Thus accounts from this time often describe frustrating attempts to eat this food, with flavors being described as bad, bland, bitter, palatable, or OK. But no one intentionally lives on food that is “palatable,” or “OK.” Eventually the depression went away, and the people forgot the garden. Again.
The same thing happened during world war two, but to a lesser degree. Remarkably, however, the garden is still here today, and you can go to it almost any day of the year and find good food. My family and I come here every chance we get, and we always find much more than food. Each time a new discovery is made. A new plant found or identified. A bug we’ve never seen before. Deer eating the same food that we’re eating. Sunlight slanting through the branches of a tree you’ve seen a thousand times before, making it look new. I feel like a kid again when I’m out here, filled with awe and discovery.
Some of the food growing here you have already heard of. Some of it may be strange and exotic. Some are common plants you see everyday, but never recognized as food. All of it is medicine. When you eat from this garden you are truly fulfilling the Hippocratic oath, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” You begin to feel younger, to want to go outside more. When you leave your house it becomes an adventure, never knowing what you’ll return home with. You’ll become acquainted with nature in a way you never knew was possible. You will trust her. You will feel at home. You will be a part of a tradition as ancient as humanity itself, fulfilling a desire you may not even know you have. This is the forager’s garden, and it’s right outside your door.
Everybody eats, and foraging is the oldest occupation known to man. And, contrary to popular opinion, it is also one of the safest. The biggest fear people have with wild foods is eating a poisonous plant, but this never needs to happen.
There are a few simple guidelines to follow which will ensure you’ll never eat a poisonous plant.
The first is never eat a plant (or anything for that matter) unless you know with absolute certainty what it is, which part of it is food, and how to prepare it. Many of the foods we eat on a regular basis are harmful if these steps are not taken, but that doesn’t stop us from eating them. The most obvious example is rhubarb. The stems are food, the rest of the plant is poisonous. But we eat it anyway, because we know how, and we like it. So know a plant before you eat it, or have it prepared by someone who does. You know the difference between a strawberry and an apple, and when you go to the grocery store you can tell them apart, even if someone switches the labels on them. Know your wild foods just as well, and you’re safe.
As foragers, we often eat what are commonly considered weeds, and people spray weeds. Don’t harvest any plant that is wilted, or has mutated growth. Look for evidence of spraying on the other plants nearby. If you find a nice curly dock plant growing amongst a bunch of dead or wilted leafy spurge, don’t harvest there, move on. Use your nose too, if an area has been recently sprayed you may not see it, plants take a while to wilt, but often you can smell it. Some places to avoid are railroad tracks and road sides. These are almost always sprayed, and even if you find good looking food growing there, pass up the temptation and move on. It is disheartening to see the amount of poison we dump on the earth these days, but if we realize that most of the plants we try to kill by poisoning are actually good for us, we may just be able to make an impact.
Another rule, know how to eat your food. Some foods, such as fruit, and young tender greens, are fine eaten raw, and even better when eaten right where you find them. Picking your own food is a joy that can’t be bought. Other foods, such as potatoes, or black locust beans, need to be cooked if eaten in significant amounts.
Also, when eating a new food, exercise some restraint the first time. Take a small bite, if it tastes bad for God’s sake spit it out. We have tastebuds for a reason. If it tastes good, eat a little bit, but don’t overdo it, give your body some time to react. (I don’t know of any poisonous food that tastes good, so, if you’re going to disregard rule number one, which is know your food, at least pay attention to this one.) You can eat too much of anything and get sick. So just taste your new food first, and as you taste it, imagine what other foods or flavors would go well with it. There are literally thousands of flavors available, and we eat only a handful of them in our regular diets. With wild food you’ll discover new and exciting flavors you never dreamed of. Some of these you’ll like, and some of them you won’t. But don’t always trust your first taste. There are many factors that contribute to flavor, and many foods that I’ve disliked the first time I tried them are now my favorites.
Another thing to know is when to harvest your food. You don’t buy under-ripe, out of season produce from the supermarket (ha ha), so don’t pick it that way either. Again, this comes from knowing your food. But this gets exciting. Unlike the supermarket, where you can pretty much buy the same food in January as you can in July, foraging has it’s own seasons, each with it’s own unique array of foods. This helps break the monotony in the kitchen, and in your life as well. It is exciting to look forward to next spring, when you’ll be able to harvest cattail pollen. You sure can’t just go to the store and buy a bag of it. Yet.
If you are not already a person who likes to cook, chances are you’ll become one. There are hundreds of foods which can be eaten raw, or with little preparation. Plants in this category include amaranth and lamb’s quarters- good raw when young and tender, and good as cooked greens the rest of the time. Use them just as you would spinach. Some plants make great vegetables with a little more effort, such as peeling an outer layer, or removing from a husk or a pod. Plants in this category include burdock and thistle stalks, ground cherries, etc. And alas, some plants require great commitment on your part to render them ready to eat. Plants in this category include acorns, black walnuts, and the foods which you will use as flours. These foods will literally change your life, simply on account of the amount of time you’ll be spending with them. But, like all things in life, the more time, effort, love and care you put into something, the greater will be the reward you gain from it.
Foraging isn’t going into the woods and ingesting random plants, it’s finding food, almost everywhere you go, and figuring out the best way to eat it. It’s like a where’s Waldo puzzle where almost everyone on the page is Waldo. It’s a sacred adventure in a world of desecration. And it helps to restore our lost connection to nature, in all it’s guises. Far from being and fearful dangerous pastime, it sets you free from fear by making you more aware of your surroundings. You’ll learn more about plants than you ever thought possible. More about the animals that inhabit your favorite haunts, more about the seasons and how they change, more about the wind and the water, the earth and the sky. And more about yourself as well. With each new discovery you’ll be made new. There’s no end of things to learn.
I am by no means an expert. The more I learn about plants the more I realize how little I know. I’m not looking to teach you about wild foods. I’m looking for people who care about where their food comes from. People who are excited to be outside, who don’t mind putting a little, or a lot, of effort into something good. People to pick berries with. People to try new and exciting foods with, foods that I’ve never eaten, or new recipes for old favorites. People who want to learn, and never stop growing. People who will wade into a cattail marsh in November and come out wet and muddy and smiling with a handful of roots. People to spot that hawk circling in the sky, with a snake dangling from it’s claws. People who want to be alive. If that’s you, let’s go.