Some food just doesn’t get any love. Take wild foods. No, really take them. Cook them up in a stir fry, eat them in a salad, bake them in a quiche. There is no food more ubiquitous, and what they lack in quantity for any single variety, they make up with in diversity. For wild food is everywhere: city, country, suburbs, an island in a mall parking lot, a crack in a sidewalk, a fireplace filled with last year’s ash, and of course, my favorite, the wild-erness that surrounds almost every urban center in the world.
The wilderness is like a grocery store. Or rather, the grocery store models an ideal wilderness filled with plant varieties that take a lot of effort to get on shelves. Think about how much work, how many workers, and how much energy it takes to put just one banana in full display, so we can buy it, take it home, and consume it. Some of you lucky folks might have banana trees year round, but for us in the north, to get a cultivated banana flown in just for us, it’s great and all, but I think its amazing that many folks know exactly what I mean when I say “banana” and don’t know the meaning of ” paw paw “or “nannyberry” or other wild plants that have been quietly growing around us for years without needing to be planted or cultivated or bought.
Why people don’t eat wild foods
So, if the wilderness is a veritable grocery store, why aren’t people eating the groceries? Numerous reasons exist, but my hunch is that underlying all of these is that puritanistic spirit that says the wilderness is somehow evil and full of poisonous things and creepy crawlies and monsters. I’m of course speaking as an American, observing what I see in an American populace. There are so many cultures outside of the states where wild food is just as much a part of the diet as cultivated food. Here are some of the basic reasons why most of us reject these foods without exploring further:
1. The Gross Out Factors :
The gross out factor folks reject newness and variety in their diet because they think it is going to somehow be unpleasant. They also reject newness and variety in almost every other part of their lives. These are the people that have it in their head that they’re picky eaters and so they stick to staple foods that they know they like, like burgers and french fries and gummy bears. These are the same people that reject most vegetables because they don’t have the same flavor as fruit or high sugar refined foods. They are the can people, the box people.
Several years ago our family volunteered at a food pantry, where local farmers donated a lot of the vegetables that they didn’t sell at the farmer’s market. This was food that would have spoiled otherwise and farmers thought they would rather donate it than let it go to waste. What amazed us was how little the fruits and vegetables got picked at the pantry. Boxes and cans went out the door like a fire sale, but we took the fresh fruits and vegetables home and tried to use as many as we could before they spoiled.
This is not an indictment of the poor. This is a greater social problem that entails variety and diversity in the western diet as a whole. Boxes and cans have become synonymous with food, while the real food gets rejected out of hand. People have become too familiar with the microwave meal that they forget that they can cook anything. It doesn’t have to be fancy or a lot of work. If it’s edible, you can eat it. And if you can eat it, you can prepare it.
The same can be said for wild food. Food is to be had, for those who want it. And, as we shall see, some of the most nutritious and delicious food can be found outside the grocery store if we just allow ourselves to expand our diet.
2. The Knowledge Lackers :
Another group just feels that they lack the knowledge to properly identify a plant in the wild. These are the folks that are interested in eating new things, but think that knowledge and experience is hard to come by, and when they look outside, they get cautious because they want to be sure, so sure, so entirely sure that what they are eating is actually the right plant.
And this is noble. We have all heard the stories about a guy and his wife who go out for hike and find plant A and think it’s plant B. And they eat plant A, and they die. (Too bad too, because plant B is delicious.) And no one wants to die by trying to put variety in their diet. I certainly don’t.
But so many wild foods exist out there that have no kissing cousins of death and are easily identifiable. Mustards and mints come to mind. Tons of resources exist that demistify the whole identification process. Below, I suggest a few resources that we like to use:
3. The Unawares :
Some people haven’t even given a thought to munching on a green, let alone the greens at their feet. So many times when harvesting wild foods with friends, I hear them say: “That’s edible?” The question isn’t one of disdain but of shock, as if food couldn’t exist out of the glare of produce aisle lights. The question could also mean, “Are you sure that’s edible?” As if I’ve just eaten plant A, and will soon descend into a quiet’s night sleep … forever. If you’re part of this unaware group, just read some of the resources listed above. They not only help with lack of knowledge, but also open up a whole new world of edible plants to discover and explore.
4. The Convenience Worshippers:
Then there are the folks that find it too hard to go a-hunting and a-gathering. The grocery store is just more convenient, they say. While this is partly true, and I am not trying to discount the ease and usefulness of the grocery store, there is no effort in just being aware of wild foods. And to pick them when you see them is an easy, convenient strategy. In fact, seen this way, wild foods are much more convenient than having to go to the grocery store and wade through the aisles of produce.
In your backyard, there are probably a dozen species right now that are edible. Dandelions, for example, are a nutritious bitter green that are a very common lawn weed. Plantain is another example. Sure, this won’t replace the grocer, but this is not a question replacement but improvement. By eating these species you have just added newness to your diet, and that’s just by going out in your backyard and taking a few minutes to harvest. Who knew that supplementing your diet with wild food could literally take minutes of your day?
(Note: If you’ve used pesticides on your lawn recently, you might not want to harvest right there. Try your neighbor’s organic lawn instead.)
5. The Nature-phobes :
Some people just don’t get outside. More comfortable within the confines of walls, they’re still fearing the wolves might get them if they don’t stick by the campfire. While it’s fine to enjoy the comforts and security of a civilized life, being home-bound and nature-deprived leads to a lack of knowing the context into which we’ve been put, and hence, to true self-awareness.
In part to know one’s self is to know one’s environment. Eating wild food is just a natural extension of knowing one’s environment. One of the ways, we humans learn to know the plants around us is to know their flavors and textures. Identifying an edible plant only by its name defies the other senses that we humans have been blessed with. So take that root out of the ground stick it in your mouth and chew. Does it tastes bitter, salty, like dirt? You bet it does. That’s life, right there. Enjoy.
6. The just not interesteds:
Finally, there are the folks that just don’t care. Diet, let alone a wild supplemented diet, is beneath them. Eat the weeds? No thanks, I’d rather just eat and move on with my life. It’s just eating after all. Eating is just a biological function that gives us enough energy to do life.
While it’s true that eating is biological — there’s no refuting that–what this perspective misses is that eating for a large part of human history has also been sacramental. Meaning, throughout the ages of human history, eating was not just a biological function that fueled life, but also one of the most important parts of doing life. Hunting and gathering had a profound spiritual significance for ancient peoples, so much that they shaped their culture around these acts and the act of eating and preparing the resulting bounty.
Think about how we define culture. Many times we can point to the rituals and the stories of times past. But there is also a strong food dynamic: we have thai food, chinese food, french food, etc. Food is linked with culture in a way other things are not. Cars for example. We can point to a Japanese made car, but the car doesn’t have the same significance or the same unique, ethnic flare that Japanese food does. These cultural foods are a product of the native and naturalized plants that have grown within the various cultures surrounding environments. Wild foods, then, underpin this primal sacramental engagement with food. They define the eat as a connected act. They are the ultimate comfort food.
Section two details the benefits of enriching your diet and increasing diversity with wild plants. Stay tuned.