Foraging: Not Insane, Useless, or Impossible

Photo: Philip Brewer

From time to time, I've suggested foraging — gathering food from the wild — as a technique for getting by in hard times. Whenever I do, people mock the idea. "It's the twenty-first century! There's no way to get enough food like that." They're missing the point. (See also: Getting by Without a Job part 4 — Get Free Stuff)

Calories Are Cheap

First of all, the point of foraging is not to provide all the calories you need to survive — that would be tough. But, calories are cheap at the grocery store. The problem is turning those cheap calories into a healthy diet.

If you make a diet out of the cheapest calories you can find in the supermarket, you're going to be missing out on nutrition, taste, and variety. And as a way to provide those things, foraging is perfect.

Nature's Food Is Bountiful — and Delicious

Second, they're just flat out wrong. There's a lot of food to be found in the wild, even in relatively urbanized areas. Edible weeds like lambsquarter, dandelion, and purslane grow right in your (or your park's) lawn along with a lot of edible flowers — dandelions again, violets, bee balm, chicory, chives... Larger edible plants like cattails and Jerusalem artichoke grow only a few steps further into the wild.

Of course, if you actually get out into the woods and fields, there's even more.

And it's not just "weird" foods that can be gathered from the wild. It's easy to find perfectly ordinary fruits and nuts — grapes, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, persimmons, hickory nuts, walnuts — growing wild.

My mom was always interested in foraging. I remember any number of meals that she prepared that featured food gathered from the wild, usually inspired by the books of Euell Gibbons.

No article about foraging would be complete without a few warnings. Don't eat mushrooms that you find in the wild unless you've learned about the local mushrooms from someone who's gathered and eaten them for a long time. Avoid gathering food that might have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides. Don't eat plants gathered from right along roadsides. There are a lot of good books on gathering wild foods, and a good book will guide you well enough on any topic except mushrooms.

Unless you're hunting or fishing, you'll only occasionally find your main dish in the wild — but, as I said above, that's not the point. If you've bought the cheapest lettuce you can get from the grocery store, you can make your salad a lot more interesting and nutritious by adding a handful of purslane. Extend your spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, or kale by cooking it up with some garlic mustard. If you can't afford desert, a handful of wild strawberries will serve the purpose.

You can eat really cheaply, if you need to — or if you simply want to, because there are other things you want to spend your money on besides food. And then — when you're eating the cheapest healthy diet you can put together at the grocery store — is when a bit of foraging can make a huge difference in the quality of your diet.

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Meg Favreau's picture

I think a similar argument can be made for gardening. It might not make sense for everyone to have a full garden, but almost anyone can both handle (and get a huge taste benefit from) having a pot or two of fresh herbs growing on the sill.

Philip Brewer's picture

That's especially true the way most people do gardening. It's a great way to get better, healthier food than you can find at the grocery store, and to do so at a pretty low cost (once you pay for your garden tools).

In fact, though, gardening is different, in that it really does offer the opportunity to get a large fraction of your total calories—if you plan your garden to produce the maximum amount of food for the minimum input of money and effort. In Britain during WWII, people who lived in towns could get an allotment—some land in the nearby countryside—on which to grow some of their own food.

If you plant to maximize calorie production (in particular, if you grow potatoes), you can actually produce half or more of the calories that your family needs in a plot that would fit in an ordinary back yard.

Of course, potatoes are so cheap it doesn't make any sense to do so, as things are now.

Guest's picture

Fresh herbs are also one of those things that are ridiculously expensive in the grocery store -- for the cost of a packet of fresh herbs you can typically buy a plant that you can harvest from for the whole season as opposed to using the bit you need at the time and having the rest go moldy in the refrigerator. And if you can put your plants outside, you can usually grow enough to dry, and the flavor is far far superior to the dried herbs you buy in the store. Plus, if you live somewhere warmer than Michigan, most woody herbs are perennial and your $3 plant will provide you with excellent seasoning for years to come. Dollars and cents wise, there are few better bargains than a rosemary, oregano/marjoram, or thyme plant.

Guest's picture

Interesting as I just finished re-reading Euell's three "Stalking" books, they seemed as fresh as when I first read them in the sixties.

Samuel Thayer's books on foraging are well done with nice photos.

My late Dad was a big time gardener. Our family home even had an area that we called "the garden". We canned and pickled and dried many foods, we had pecan trees that supplied a nice fall income for forty years or more.

Fishing is a great way to supplement a diet without spending much money if a person is so inclined..tons of fun as well.

Guest's picture
Tracy Glomski

Last spring, my husband and I noticed a bunch of succulent looking weeds popping up in our garden. He did a little research and correctly identified these as purslane, which we now know is a pleasant addition to salads, and a welcome source of omega-3s.

I also spotted common sow thistle growing in our yard and gave that a try for the first time last summer. The leaves taste best when steamed first, which reduces bitterness.

For the Central U.S., my favorite reference is Wild Seasons: Gathering and Cooking Wild Plants of the Great Plains by Kay Young. I didn't grow up foraging, and that book finally gave me the confidence to try.

Guest's picture
Purchase Wisely

I'm sure you've noticed those fluffy dandelion heads about to go to seed and blow away on the breeze... grab them first! They are free seeds to plant to grow your own greens for salad. The young leaves taste best if you're going to use them raw, you can saute' the older (larger) leaves with some garlic and a bit of olive oil for a lovely side dish - the garlic counteracts the bitterness. Mix the cooked greens, garlic and oil with cooked pasta for a "peasant's supper", the Italians have been doing this since pasta was invented!

Mustard greens taste best if you pick them before the plant flowers, so if you see a batch of wild mustard flowering in a waste space, mentally mark it to take a look next spring before the plants set flowers.

Just please remember only to pick greens farther away from the side of the road than 10 yards - pollutants from auto exhaust can make your wild greens very unhealthy.

Guest's picture

Great post, and exactly on point: foraging is a fun hobby, and a great way to augment one's diet at no cost.

Here in Chicago, many of the public parks have fruit trees: mostly Juneberry and crab apple trees. We enjoy eating the Juneberries off the bush, and we make the crabapples into great sauce. (A mouli is useful for getting out the seeds/cores.) A friend makes wonderful spiced apple butter from the crabapples. Wild raspberries and blackberries are common in semi-wooded areas and are always a treat. When I lived in WA state, there were even "real" apple, cherry, plum and pear trees in parks and on roadsides. These went unharvested except by gleaners.

I am a little wary of foraging greens from urban areas, where there is a high lead concentration in the soil. But I have happily dug dandelions from a suburban back yard.

In addition to pots of herbs, you can also grow salad mixes and tatsoi on your window sill. Again, the point is not to get enough to feed yourself (which is a more ambitious undertaking) but simply to add some extra nutrition, flavor and variety to one's diet. If you're trying to base your diet on rice and beans, for instance, those extra greens and herbs would be very welcome.