How do you connect with food? With land? With the seasons? For many, that has shifted dramatically in the past six months. Walks around the neighborhood, finding nearby outdoor space, planting veggies in the yard (if not full-blown gardens), and frequent home-cooked meals have become large parts of life for many during the pandemic. And there is an activity which combines all of that: foraging.
‘To forage’ simply means: to search widely for food or provisions, to obtain food or provisions from a place.
"You get a lot of bang for your buck, but it’s not an immediate gratification process,” says Megan McCullouch, a forager, artist and proud cook.
McCullouch says she’s always had a very fundamental connection with the land, and six years ago, Douglas fir tips caught her eye. “I thought, those must be edible. And was just blown away by the radical flavor and how different it was than anything I’d ever tasted.”
There is no limit to how simple or complex, commonplace or scarce, near or far one must travel to engage in the search for and gathering of wild edibles. Humans have engaged in the process since ancient times, with a renewed interest in recent years and particular surge while many shelter-in-place and social distance. While not akin to the Covid gardening frenzy, web searches, digital resources and online classes for foraging are up significantly.
Whether concerned about the reliability of a fragile food supply, fearful of exposure at grocery store runs, or simply trying to find a safe way to fill newfound time, foraging might well be your answer. You don’t have to travel far, no special equipment is required, and it costs zero dollars… yet you return home with the freshest, unprocessed food, as well as a sense of accomplishment and grounding (plus a work out!).
Megan's zeal for wild harvested goods is infectious. “Mushrooms make you go crazy; you can’t stop thinking about them.” She has also come to love bay nuts from the California Bay Laurel tree, roasting them like cacao beans to form a rich chocolate for a bar or molten lava flourless cake. She whips up wild green onion mussel and oyster mushroom paella; purslane and Dungeness crab broth dumplings; and acorn crepes with chanterelles, meyer lemon and candy cap mushroom ricotta (a mushroom she says smells like maple syrup and caramelizes for a sweet dessert). Stinging nettles are another forged favorite. “I like to make potato soups and pesto and tea. I get fancy with it and make stinging nettle soufflé sometimes too.” She rarely makes the same dish twice, but that bright green winner often finds itself front and center at her acclaimed foraged dinners.
“I basically take a look at what’s out and about — and get inspired while out with plants and seeing what’s around.” She is always innovating across her menu repertoire, drying, fermenting, preserving and freezing items she harvests at peak freshness. Hazelnuts, huckleberries, pink peppercorn and elderberries are more of her top land finds, complimented by clams and mussels from the bay or ocean. Sea foraging is something she continues to learn from friends and fellow chefs, with whom she has a foragers coalition. “I’m the land lady. We balance each other out.”
Foraging adds value in more ways than one — offering a new point of connection to the environment, new appreciation for the natural world, and new lens on surrounding flora and fauna. Many edible plants are easily identifiable, safely accessible, and abundantly available, meaning foraging poses little risk. “I’ve never had a bad experience,” says McCullouch, who takes friends on foraging hikes and offers the hands-on educational experience to clients.
Through both practice and reading, anyone can learn to recognize a wide array of leaves, nuts, roots and plants. Plus, foraging can actually benefit ecosystems. "Watercress and fennel are invasive and prolific and need to be eaten,” says the chef, who sees the foraging of such items as proactive land management, as well as rewarding. She has been learning about plant identification, seasonality and sustainability for years, enthusiastic about the growing foraging community and broad base of experts across regions.
Wondering where exactly to look or how to get started? Read a book to gain insight. Enroll in a class (likely online, amid these times). Start small by setting out for just a few items. Be respectful in terms of asking permission and not trampling plants. Err on the side of safety and common sense. Take only a small portion of what is available. Collect solely the parts you will use. Prepare foods raw or cooked — and enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer in some of the most unadulterated, nutritious and exciting forms.