A Forgotten Feast? Forgetting (and remembering) where our food came from

I ate a dandelion flower in front of a four-year-old girl yesterday. I played it as a dare — she didn’t think I would — but I did, smiling, and the look on her face was of both disgust and shock. Behind her, though I didn’t look away from the laughing girl’s face, I heard her mother whisper to the girl’s father: “Jessi just ate a dandelion.”

Dandelion-catnip-Creeping Charlie.jpg

A happy and healthy dandelion with other edible companions: Catnip (behind) and Creeping Charlie (the purple-flowered ground cover to the right).

I suggested to the girl, as I plucked a delightfully large specimen from it’s home at my feet and handed it to her, that she ought to see if her dad would eat one too. She took the flower and rushed to her father, who played games and pretended to eat it while throwing the flower into the bushes behind him. My husband stood by laughing, little shocked at my choice in snack because he’d grown accustomed to my “wild” tastes (though does not share them), as our friend proceeded to tell his daughter, “Well, Jessi can, but I don’t want to.”

I tease my friends in good fun, but I have an ulterior motive: to show people flowers and plants in the wild aren’t just for looking, but many are for eating.

(People forget, too, that dandelion leaves can be found in pre-packaged salad blends, or are promoted by grocers like the popular Arizona chain, Sprouts Farmer’s Market, or Canadian chain, Metro. So, instead of paying for those weeds, why not just pick them from the yard for free?)

The whole irony of this story is two-fold. First, that the father of my young friend is a farmer, a man who makes his living off the land. Second, that the group of us were out on an excursion to hunt down and collect a morsel that grows in the Minnesota woods this time of year: morel mushrooms.

From foraging to farming: Forgetting from whence it came?

I find it increasingly interesting sad curious how even some farmers, like our friend who refused to eat a flower, have themselves become ingrained into a thought-system of commercial food-ism. That is, that there are things people should eat (like processed cheese product… WTF?), and then, most obviously, things that people shouldn’t eat (like dandelions).

My father used to talk about how his dad, my grandpa, would pluck dandelions from the ground while he worked the land in Arkansas. One time, I saw a man on a beach in California scavenge the water’s edge for sand crabs (aka mole crabs) and, when he grabbed one or two in his fist, washed them in the water and popped them into his mouth, fresh and raw (and lightly salted by the Pacific) like they were nothing but chewy, maybe crunchy, puffs of popcorn to be consumed nonchalantly as one perused the seashore.

I am slowly rediscovering the glory of wild edibles. So are a whole new generation of people like me who are mesmerized by Mother Nature’s not-so-hidden bounty, making websites like EdibleWildFood.com popular resources for those learning the craft of foraging and the history that turned wild foraging into modern day farming.

Last year, I learned about Queen Anne’s Lace, aka wild carrot and the ancestor plant of the modern day root vegetable. Turns out this abundant “pest” plant that grows happily in roadside ditches and blooms beautiful crowns of white flowers has roots that can be harvested and, when young and tender, treated much like a store-bought carrot. The flowers, naturally high in sugar, can be collected and used to make jelly.

QAL_wild-carrot

A hearty harvest of Queen Anne’s Lace, also known as wild carrot.

I mention Queen Anne’s Lace because it is one of the prime examples of how we’ve forgotten where our grocery store veggies originated: in the wild.

After discovering this information, I egged my neighbor to walk with me down the road to pull up some wild carrots. She, like my young dandelion friend, looked at me in awe and wonder, but acquiesced to the little adventure. Unfortunately, we were too late in the season and, though we pulled a few from the ground, the roots were woody and too tough to eat, though they did smell strongly of your everyday, average, store-bought carrot.

I have yet to try Queen Anne’s Lace (plant identification can be tricky), but collected a mighty number of seed bundles last fall and happily sprinkled them along the back edge of our yard, hoping they’d take root and grow into a small crop of hardy, natural, GMO-free, pest-resistant, and weather tolerant root vegetables.

Queen Anne’s Lace is only one example of an “ancient” food that is still readily available to eat in the wild but that is frowned upon as a nutritive source because we’ve gotten so used to eating things only found in grocery stores.

The second irony: Wildly Selective Palates

As I pointed out, I ate the dandelion while out on a jaunt with friends looking for morel mushrooms in the Minnesota woods. It boggles my mind how it’s somehow perfectly acceptable to dig around the wild for an ugly (though delicious) fungus but altogether “gross” to eat a pretty flower found in our everyday yard.

Our hunt for morels was less than productive and my friends, perhaps to pass the time, poked fun at me about how they found patches of burning nettle for me to collect. I’d told them about harvesting nettle months ago as we sat at a bar drinking beers over lunch, and about how it tasted like a woody version of spinach and could be frozen and cooked just the same.

It boggles my mind how it’s perfectly acceptable to dig around the wild for an ugly fungus but altogether “gross” to eat a pretty flower found in our yard.

Nettle patch

One of my beloved patches of burning nettle. Note the cropped tops from last weekend’s harvest.

They still couldn’t believe I ate the stuff and probably would laugh if I told them I have a few patches of nettle in our yard that I have deliberately not pulled; it is, in fact, my collective nettle crop, and I intend to keep them intact indefinitely.

Last year, when I was collecting nettle in the yard, our neighbor, who’d we’d just met because we’d just bought our house, thought I had unintentionally found myself in a full field of the burning stuff. She was driving past and stopped, rolled down the window, and yelled, “Don’t touch that stuff! It burns!”

I merely smiled and called back, “I know,” then continued to gather (fully gloved, mind you), much to her amazement.

Even as I began writing this article, I washed and sauteed, along with a handful of morels picked last week, a healthy dose of nettle to enjoy with my breakfast. Usually I dine on sauteed spinach in the morning with my egg (why not vegetables for breakfast?), but, with plenty of free nettle at my fingertips, I’d rather not dish out $7/package for organic spinach and spend the money (time = money, after all) outside getting sun and fresh air, listening to the birds while picking the cream of my nettle crop.

Faulkner-and-nettle-for-breakfast.jpg

My gluten-free breakfast of: fried egg, bacon (badly burnt), fried corn tortilla, and sauteed mix of morel, burning nettle, onion, and garlic. Backed by coffee and a little Faulkner.

As the world talks about food shortages and the rising cost of groceries, it occurs to me that our collective refined tastes as a species is self-detrimental: we have plenty of cheap food for the taking, but we have become too narrow-sighted  and narrow-minded about what we eat to make good use of it.

We gripe and debate about pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, and chemicals sprayed on our commercial foods — and pay a mighty fine dollar to make sure they are free of these annoyances — but neglect the unaltered, hardier, naturally pest- and disease-free (therefore, chemical-free) alternatives in our wild backyards.

And it’s not all about being healthier. The other truth, as many survivalists are well aware: If ever there were a dramatic food shortage or other economic emergency that put your food sources at risk, it’s a good thing to know how to stay alive. Better to harvest nettle, or stand in a bread line? Better to know how to forage, fish, and hunt, or rely on a governmental power to provide for you?

We have plenty of cheap food for the taking, but we have become too narrow-sighted about what we eat to make good use of it.

That thought process might sound drastic, but, as this website puts it, “It’s easy to mock such [end of the world] predictions; after all, “The World” is still here. And yet history is littered with extinct civilizations, “worlds,” if you will.”

I can say that, if something bad happened to our economic system that emptied store shelves and made food too expensive to purchase or too difficult to access, I’d have more to eat than many of my friends — some, even, who live here in the country — and might even be able to sell it to make ends meet.

(Food problems have happened before to our country, as in the Civil War food shortages and severe rationing of WWI and WWII. Don’t be foolish enough to think history couldn’t or won’t repeat itself.)

In short: We have become too domesticated for our own good.

Back to the Wild: Returning to Dirt(y) Living

Similarly, our over-domestication has resulted in fear and laziness. Our homes are over-bleached and too sanitary. (Yes, it is such a thing.) Many of us delight in eating meat but, if it were to come to actually killing or gutting the animal ourselves, we turn squeamish. Had we to do the dirty work ourselves, I don’t doubt many of us would be vegetarian!

I once had the distasteful experience of spending time with a little boy who absolutely loathed dirt to the point where he was afraid to even touch it. I tried getting him to climb a (very) small mound of dirt with me in a park and the child eyed me as if I had asked him to jump off a cliff, and proceeded to stay happily on the “clean” sidewalk.

What will be the ultimate affect upon society when people have been trained to think of dirt as not just unclean but utterly dangerous?

I can’t begin to fathom, but I know it can’t be good.

As for me, I’ve gone from growing up in the city to loving the country. Yes, my pond is dirty, my car is constantly in need of a wash, and all my shoes have mud on them (even my heels). No, my floors aren’t swept, mopped, or cleaned more than once a week despite the dirt and leaves tracked in. Yes, I have indoor animals who, as animals tend to be, aren’t the most sanitary housemates when you actually stop to think about it. I hardly use bleach or bleach-containing products to clean (though I’m loving white vinegar to wash my vegetables and ammonia for the laundry) and I have several little containers of scented hand sanitizer that are, collectively, years old because I hardly ever use them. In fact, I’ve even re-gifted some.

But, I digress…

Re-Finding our (Free) Feast

I leave you with this: That there is so much more food to be found! Compared to dry Southern California, Minnesota is lush with growth and I’m excited to be able to taste the abundance of food made available by Mother Nature, who is generous enough to hand it out at no cost, except for maybe a little walking on our part.

Dryads-saddle-mushroom

Dryad’s Saddle — another pretty edible!

I love taking photos of potential edibles as I’m on the hunt for ones I already know of. Just yesterday (yes, on that same morel hunt) I snapped a shot of a promising and pretty mushroom growing off a dead tree.

Back at home, I’d discover the fungus was called Dryad’s Saddle, another lovely edible ‘shroom! Too bad I didn’t fill my bag up with those morsels instead of coming back empty-handed from a disappointing morel trip.

I plan on continuing my quest to find as many wild foods as I can and sharing my knowledge with as many people who will listen, even if they do think I’m off my rocker.


Do you have a favorite wild edible? Share in the comments!

 

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