My world has changed. Most of my outdoor life has been with a gun, bow or fishing pole in my hand. I can remember being allowed to go pheasant hunting, alone, before I was 10. Hunting has always been a part of my life.
I always knew there was another side in the Hunter+Gatherer equation, a side I was missing. But I had never taken the time to learn how to properly forage. Sure I would pick blackberries. I definitely scoured burns for some morel mushrooms in the spring. But actually foraging, taking the time to view the plants under my feet, has never been on the top of my list.
But I like to learn, to stretch myself, and gain more skills as the years pass on. I find ways to learn things either form books, the internet or (preferably) from people. My new skill, my focus for years to come, is foraging.
Luckily I have found a trifecta mentor in Hank Shaw. His first book Hunter, Gather, Cook is a primer for all things wild. From his book I learned about sea peas, and those ornamental plums that are in my suburban neighborhood. Hank has his James Beard Award winning website as well www.honest-food.net, frequently I gather information on various “how to” gathering and cooking projects. But I have also had the pleasure of getting to forage with Hank.
Recently Hank and I stopped on a seemingly inconspicuous beach in Northern California. Immediately Hank was pointing out wild edibles. The curly dock, the sorrel, cow parsnip, the California bay, the New Zeeland Spinach were all new plants to me. Sure, I had seen many of them before but I did not know their names and would have never eaten them.
As Hank showed me each plant I would pick a section and taste it. Some tasted good; others made me want to gag. This prompted Hank to tell me “Foraging with chefs is like foraging with babies, all you chefs want to do is stick things in your mouth.” Valuable lesson, just because things are edible, they do not always taste good unprocessed.
We left the beach and proceeded into the hills of Northern California. We scoured the duff for mushrooms before hitting the mother lode, about 10 pounds of March “fall” porcinis. Unreal sized mushrooms with unforgettable flavor. Hank was flushing with glee. I struggled to share the same level of enthusiasm about mushrooms. It was only later that I realized just how special what we had just found was. It was like catching a steelhead on the first cast, it just never happens and when it does you count your blessings and go.
Upon returning to Idaho I began to see the newly sprouting greens around me differently. No longer was I just admiring the green coming back, I was admiring the variety of food all around me. I spotted wild mint growing on the hill next to my work. I gathered curly dock and dandelions from a park along the Boise River. I picked a patch of nettles by the canal near my house. I found salsify on the ignored side of my backyard fence. Lambs quarter in the rose beds, beggar’s purse in the garden.
Later that spring I furthered my skills with Darcy Williamson, from Mavens Haven in McCall Idaho. We teamed up for a foraging and cooking weekend. The deal was I would cook for the group, providing wild game meat from my larder, and we would all gather dinner together.
With Darcy I learned a TON about foraged food in my native Idaho. Plants that I have ignored for years – the flowers with edible bulbs, the wild garlic, the miners lettuce, the fiddlehead ferns and many others – became part of the menu. A menu we cooked on a ridgeline overlooking the Salmon and Snake Rivers.
With Darcy I hiked the elk woods near Riggins with my head looking down for morels, not up for game. It was an odd feeling, my focus so shifted. I was no longer looking out for the “big” score like an elk or a deer, but I was looking for multiple little scores. Each mushroom gave me a temporary moment of happiness, not as large as an elk or a deer but still a very real bump. I felt revitalized with each mushroom I found, every bulb I dug was a present from Mother Earth.
As amazing as foraging was I still found myself looking for game. Turkey season was still open when I went foraging with Darcy, but I purposefully left my gun at home. I had a sinking feeling just bringing access to the ability to hunt would distract me from my true mission – learning edible plants. But anytime I leave my gun behind game presents itself. So, of course, we saw a gobbler not 30 feet off the road while foraging. I smiled, knowing that if I would have brought my gun we could have had turkey for dinner. Instead, I found dinner growing out of the side of a spring, under a fallen pine and buried deep below a flowering bulb. I know what I foraged tasted just as good as any wild turkey.