If you have lamented that foraging is the latest institution ruined by hipsters, you’d probably have felt justified to see the woman in the vintage dress and spray-painted silver Dansko clogs in the cemetery this morning. She was picking mulberries from the overgrown tree by the big gingko, and if you took a closer look, you’d have realized she was pushing forty and had way more leg stubble than advisable.
That was me. I was wearing the clogs because they give me a good couple inches more reach, which is handy for getting at those higher-up branches. Also, they make me feel a bit like Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie—always a plus, even when you’re out foraging.
Just like hipster, the very word forage has been plundered and co-opted, affixed to menu items and whipped out to prove one’s food nerd cred. It’s one thing to put fiddlehead ferns in your market basket or on your Instagram feed, and another thing all together to go out and get this stuff. Wild edibles are a labor of love, alluring to outliers who thrive when alone with their own thoughts. Because foraging, it turns out, is only a little bit about food. Here’s the wonderfully blemished truth behind the trendy buzzword.
Let’s agree that ramps and morels are justifiably delectable. Pawpaws are a little more polarizing. Dig deeper into the foraging catalog and your get to obscure stuff that’s technically edible, but far from delicious.
Consider the mulberries. “Although it is wholesome and agreeable when eaten raw, it has never become popular in the United States,” puts The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery, with great tact. Mulberries are not wine-y like blackberries, not sweet and delicate like raspberries, though visually they resemble a slightly alien version of both. Like so many wild foods—knotweed, May apples, crab apples—it takes a generous hand with the sugar to make them appealing. They are slightly sour, a little fruity, and—here’s the clincher—free.
So why was I out there in the first place? This is something I ask myself every time I head out into the woods, or park my car by the college campus where the overripe, squashed fruits of a big American persimmon tree mar the sidewalks for weeks in the early fall. It’s a bit like dumpster diving in nature: not for everyone.
You can’t be in a rush when you’re gathering wild edibles, and this goes for the backwoods as well as the quince tree in your neighbor’s yard. You have to get your senses in the zone, which can take a good 10 to 15 minutes, and once you’re there, it’s hard to want to snap out of it, because you’re so deeply in the moment that re-entering the world of texts and podcasts and Snapchats seems inconsequential. The biggest thing on your mind is snatching the next ripe berry or the next black walnut, and then the next, and the next. It’s a rarefied, trance-like state, as addictive as it is restorative.
You don’t just stride into the Sur La Table at the nearest upscale mall and pony up for a foraging starter kit. Sure, there are helpful tools to have, depending on what you’re looking for, but foremost what’s required is time, patience, and knowledge. A car may or may not be helpful, though I do the majority of my foraging within walking distance of my house. In silver clogs.
Even though you have permission to be gathering these foods—because you got permission, of course—there’s an illicit thrill in collecting food that’s just out there. It at once feels completely wrong and totally right. As a teenager, I had to break into abandoned buildings or shoplift to experience these sensations, and now, as a law-abiding adult, it’s possible to tap right into them again by doing an archaic yet enriching activity…one that, ideally, could result in something interesting to eat. Way to stick it to the man, man.
After half an hour of calm but industrious mulberry-picking, I came home with about two pints of berries. I once saw mulberries at the farmers’ market for three dollars a pint, so to be analytical about it, you could say my rate was $12 an hour. Not too bad, though when you consider the meh flavor of mulberries, not too amazing, either.
But I always think of migrant workers crouching all day in chemical-drenched fields under the hot sun, hustling to cut celery or pluck spinach from the ground. Celery that I will eventually buy on the other side of the continent for $1.99. Food takes time to plant and grow and harvest, but since we’re not the ones doing it, it’s very easy to pitch the rotted bag of baby spinach you bought two weeks ago with such good intentions.
Now add to that equation not only picking the food, but finding it hidden out in the wilderness (urban or otherwise) somewhere. Foraging has made me value more greatly the unseen (and often underpaid) human effort of supplying an entire country with affordable, plentiful food.
I suppose it’s possible to survive solely on foraged foods, but this diet would be a) incredibly slimming, and b) oftentimes not a home run, in culinary terms. Access to cured meats and flavorful cheeses and liters of extra-virgin olive oil—and least of all, our good friend sugar—lifts foraged foods from curiosities to bona-fide meals. In terms of bulk, foragables are a garnish.
The cemetery where I do a lot of my foraging is sprawling and diverse, offering hickory nuts, purslane, chestnuts, the aforementioned mulberries. Let’s say I took refuge there, solo, after your standard zombie apocalypse scenario. The only chance I’d have to survive would be if I became a keen hunter of the ornery groundhogs that infest the cemetery, perhaps by using pointed stick-spears I’d whittle with sharp-edged pieces of flint. The nuts and greens and occasional, seasonal thrill of berries would just be icing on the groundhog steak. Hunting is not foraging.
And yet it represents to us an ideal of abundance, a thing we already have so much of in our lives: the wild mass of broken plastic toys in my daughter’s bedroom, the closets full of sweatshop clothing my husband and I select our daily outfits from, the pantry teeming with Rice Chex and hot cocoa mix and panko breadcrumbs just off the side of our kitchen. It’s the only reality we know, and yet it’s so very far from what our primitive ancestors experienced eons ago. Poking around through trees and logs and lawns—yes, sometimes even lawns, though watch out for dog pee and ChemLawn—is the best way to realign our consciousness to run parallel for a short while to the original human M.O.: move around and look for things to eat; avoid being eaten. That’s it. It’s scarcity recast as abundance, and every now and then, it tastes great. Even the mulberries.
A surprise spotting of oyster mushrooms in the same cemetery capped off the day.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor.