Laetiporus sulphureus

Laetiporus sulphureus

My mind is not on my work at this time of year. Though conscience dictates that I should be digging holes for the last of the leaf-spattered pots to go in the ground, I am taking every opportunity instead to play hooky. Mother Nature has laid for us the cleverest of treasure hunts and fired the starter’s pistol. It’s autumn my friends! Get foraging!

American sensibilities are often such that the idea of foraging for one’s food, whether substantial or merely supplemental, is considered eccentric at best, downright dangerous at worst. I am fully aware that many of my friends who smile politely when I point to something at their feet and joyfully proclaim “That’s edible!” are silently praying that my grocery budget has stretched to ‘real’ food at the dinner table laid for them inside. It is one thing to harbor the romance of nibbled field greens carefully washed and packed in plastic boxes, quite another to actually gather greens from the field and put them in one’s mouth.

It comes down to mentoring, and I was fortunate – though my education did not occur in childhood. Although my mother made pies with wild blackberries we collected in August, she absolutely refused to cook the crawdads we pulled out of an algae-coated creek, or fry up the bottom dwellers of a nearby cattail-infested swamp generously named “The Fishing Lake.” Overall, my parents were far more concerned with scratching a garden out of California’s unforgiving foothill soils than scouring the hills to look for something else to eat.

But many years later when I started an ethnobotany course in England as part of my archaeology degree, the world of foraging suddenly became very accessible and very exciting. Much work was done traipsing over fields and hillsides identifying modern specimens of plants whose ancient pollen granules populated petrie dishes in florescently lit labs, and whose study by pale graduate students clutching milky cups of tea proved beyond a doubt that Bronze Agers knew how to get their five fruits and vegetables every day.

Thus would I learn to identify many easy edibles by sight: chickweed, sloe, dandelion, hawthorn, allium, purslane to name a few. Soon I went on to mushrooming with a friend of mine who lived in a little cottage in Wales and who ate wild parasols and saffron milk caps whenever she could get them.

mushrooms in hand

Saffron milk caps and parasol mushrooms three seconds away from a chef’s knife and a saute pan.

As we sat stuffing mushroom pasta in glorious forkfuls down our throats, guzzling cheap red wine and marveling over the splendor of the autumn table, it never occurred to me to be concerned for my safety. I was well into foraging at that point, and my friend was very strict about the mushrooms that came to table. But I clearly remember the first time I ever ate a mushroom that I identified by myself, with only my books to help me.

Though I was 100% positive that it was safe, edible and very probably delicious, there was a great weight on my shoulders – the burden of responsibility we subconsciously delegate to those who supply our food: a supermarket, a farmer, a friend who cooks us a casserole. No matter that bagged spinach might sometimes contain E.coli, or stamped eggs, salmonella. When we purchase them, we spend our pennies on perceived peace of mind.

Peace of mind was in short supply on the evening I harvested, IDd, washed, chopped and sautéed a beautiful Chicken of the Woods peppered with wild allium and chickweed, though I knew full well that it was precisely what it purported to be.

It was. I lived. But I remember that curious feeling of anxiety mixed generously with bravado, and try to never discount the understandable concern of others learning to forage for the first time.

I am of course no way advocating that the hapless hiker starts blissfully chomping his or her way down the trail stopped only by gastroenteritis and/or fatal liver failure, but there are many wonderful guidebooks out there to help those who are fascinated by foraging to get out there and do it with a little confidence. One of my recent favorites is Ellen Zachos’ Backyard Foraging, a beautifully illustrated book which enables even the most anxious of supermarket trained suburbanites to start cutting their hostas and digging their daylilies in search of a new way to wow their foodie friends.

Hickory nuts dot the roads right now.

Hickory nuts dot the roads right now.

But as Zachos would no doubt tell you, it’s not about sexy foraging menus in upscale restaurants. Nor is it about one-upping your neighborhood dinner party. It’s about connection with our earth, with our earliest ancestors, and most importantly with our own sense of self-sufficiency. With my nearest grocery store now twenty minutes away, picking a colander full of fresh chick-weed makes a great deal of sense when I’ve run out of spinach and quiche is on the menu – as does supplementing a meager salad bowl with a few dandelion leaves and a handful of purslane.

These days, my only concern about foraging is one of time. Between berries on the trees, mushrooms on the stumps, greens in the paths and nuts on the road, it’ll be April before those pots see a hole in the ground.