Fresh, Local, Organic and Free—
What’s Not to Like About Foraged Food?
STORY AND PHOTOS BY DANA NAHAI
It’s the smell of the hot—hot asphalt, hot roofs, hot Atlanta—that drives us out of the house. We navigate the worn sidewalks, investigating our city with curiosity and disbelief as the mid-year temperature begs sweat from our shirts. The branches above us heave with leaf and berry, and our path is wearing the dark stains of the fruit-laden weight.
Rounding the corner, a man turns toward us, pulling his tree-stretched arms to his chest and offering a dripping, purple-stained smile. His obvious embarrassment leads him to simultaneously chew and babble at us.
Giving this stranger my hospitable Southern best, I listen while he desperately tries to explain his posture. Yes, the berries that I’ve been hopelessly lecturing my toddler not to touch are indeed edible—a sweet, delirious edible that is dotting the underside canopy of the entire neighborhood.
“Help yourself,” he encourages. Astonished, I hoist my toddler onto my hip, stretch up to the tree and partake in the chance picnic. I have now joined the modern army of urban foragers. Most people grow into adulthood quite aware of the origin of their food—the grocery store. So little attention is put towards where food arises that we have been steadily sedated into an over-processed and undernourished lassitude of palate and plate.
Long ago we abandoned our relationship with the bitter pungency of nature’s garden as we adapted our tastes towards plants both nutritionally inferior and hyper-sweetened by science and engineering. From our genetic roots as gatherers we have traveled a long distance to the linoleumed aisles of contemporary markets, but now and then there is a primordial itch to break back into the wilds of our past.
Foragers exist in many communities and Atlanta is no exception. With some concise education and common-sense precaution, a world of native foods can be found right outside your own door.
Just like the indigenous Cherokee, you can forage year round in Atlanta, and summer particularly delights. In addition to a cornucopia of berries, fruits and nuts, you can readily find dozens of delicious plants, such as lambs quarters, sorrel, dandelion, clover, wild onions, sassafras and purslane. Chef and naturalist Cindy Halbkat suggests beginning with small amounts of greens to gently introduce your taste buds to the wilder side of food. You can snack as you gather or try adding chopped leaves to a salad mix. Pestos and omelets can be friendly applications for fresh wild plants, and blanching greens or preparing compound butters are excellent adaptations to freeze for future use.
Why care about these presumed weeds growing in grassy corners when there’s plenty of romaine to be had in the supermarket? Because it’s the wild, wild west in untended soil and that translates into plants with downright decadent health benefits. Horticultural enemies such as bugs and fungus have forced wild plants to evolve a strategy for survival in a way that greenhouse-grown kale will never know. As a result, uncultivated plants have higher antioxidant and micronutrient profiles than their propagated counterparts. Undomesticated plants have staved off the evolution of natural predators, so the leaves and roots can provide us more of the nutrients needed to fight some diseases that attack our own bodies. It turns out these wild edibles are the perfect type of plants to help us thrive.
“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” says Atlanta chef and seasoned forager Todd Mussman, as he discusses his own passion for gathering wild foods. Known as the Morel Hunter, he begins scouting mushrooms and other edibles in early spring and continues his gathering through the end of summer. Mussman’s foraged fungi often end up on the specials menu at his restaurant, Muss & Turner’s.
Indigenous foods have taken on an almost cultlike status in recent years as sought-after restaurants have begun displaying the storied plants of our ancestors. Many Atlanta-based chefs are taking note of the native edibles around them, and farmers such as Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organic Farms and Celia Barss of Woodland Gardens Organic Farm report an uptick in chef requests for traditionally wild plants.
You won’t have to travel far to hone your own plant sleuthing skills. For a hands-on education you can encourage your inner botanist with wild food classes taught by naturalists Cindy Halbkat of wildedible.com or Mark Warren of medicinebow.net. Additionally, fill your library with some of the countless online and print references from legendary foragers such as Steve Brill and Sam Thayer.
For a closer look in your own backyard, plan a visit with two of Atlanta’s best known urban foragers: Chris Clinton and Isia Cooper of Crack in the Sidewalk Farmlet. Clinton began taking a hard look around his Atlanta neighborhood in 2009 and found so many quality wild plants that soon he and Cooper were setting up tables at the East Atlanta Village and Grant Park Farmers Markets to share their seasonal collection of foraged goods. They spend each summer weekend educating market-goers about the edible plants locally underfoot.
“Foraging is an innate, natural task,” says Clinton, “and you can think of nature as a big banquet you can walk through that changes with the seasons.” He reminds us that being a hunter and gatherer was the predominant human experience until recent times and that part of us has not evolved past that.
Naturalist Warren suggests beginning your education by learning from someone skilled in identifying edible plants. He consistently instructs his Medicine Bow students to be smart and cautious in their approach. Use common sense; understand the land from where you are gathering and if it has been exposed to excessive contaminants. Avoid collecting edibles from busy roadways or polluted waters. Some plants can have poisonous lookalikes, but many safe ones are right in your backyard and highly recognizable.
Clinton suggests starting with the plants you see every day and soon you will be able to recall the edibles like you would a good friend. Gathering wild food connects and grounds us to the natural world that has long sustained us. “When people make a connection with food it tastes better,” says Chef Mussman. And sometimes it’s even better for you.
Dana Nahai is an Atlanta-based dietitian, blogger, writer, cook and eater of all things good. When not writing and taking pictures, Dana spends her time specializing in dietary wellness counseling, inspired by real food, prepared simply and enjoyed daily. You can find Dana in her Virginia Highland kitchen or at onehauteplate.com.