Book teaches the home chef how to forage

How far will forager Lisa Rose go to get a fresh salad?

She tells the story of a cross-country drive with her two kids several years back, a trip that included too many stops at chain restaurants.

Coming out of one such establishment — “It might have been in Wyoming” — after yet another unsatisfying meal, she spotted a wild chicory plant growing in a hedgerow along the parking lot. Desperate for greens that didn’t come from a plastic bag, she grabbed some leaves and noshed. And she lived to tell about it.

“Let’s be hypothetical,” she says. “You have a bag of spicy Cheetos chased with a bottle of sugary bug juice. Or you have a handful of leaves your body is craving. What’s going to shorten your life more? I’d kind of rather eat out of an urban lot.”

Don’t try this at home, of course, without doing your homework. Rose, a native of western Michigan, has traveled to Mexico, Central and South America and France to study plants and people, worked for Carl Doumani at his Stags’ Leap Winery in California and at a salad farm in northwest Michigan, and volunteered at Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley — all experiences that helped her learn what’s safe to eat and what isn’t. Now you can learn the same in her new book, “Midwest Foraging: 115 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Burdock to Wild Peach” (Timber Press).

It not only explores what’s out there waiting to be foraged — extensive profiles and photos of the wild food all around us — but makes the connections among nature, what we eat and what we are.

“My goal is to get a lot of people thinking differently,” says Rose, who returned to Michigan in 2001 and has been a food activist, educator and writer in the Grand Rapids area since.

Before plucking a berry or a leaf to snack on, Rose advises, take a close look to be sure that the plant is what you suspect it is. Also pay attention to the land where the plant is growing.

“A gardener is going to soil test. A forager isn’t,” she says, but you can and should investigate the land’s previous use. “Look at records. In Detroit, in Chicago, you’re going to find heavy metals (in soil).”

Another requirement: Don’t trespass. Get permission before you harvest. Sometimes the solution is as simple as establishing a relationship with a farmer at your local farmers market. Rose talks about a farmer friend with whom she collaborates.

“He has more burdock root than he knows what to do with. While his team of interns are tending and picking kale that’s going to fancy restaurants, I’m out in a ditch harvesting nettles. We always kid about that.”

With more people trying their hand at foraging, there is concern that some plants could be wiped out. The onionlike ramp, for example, has become a spring phenomenon on restaurant menus and at farmers markets, to the point that wanton foraging is threatening the vegetable. The lesson: Don’t get greedy.

“I’ve watched the ramps all but disappear in the Grand Rapids parks area,” says Rose, who is working with her local parks department to establish harvesting rules to help protect the crop.

Rose suggests starting your foraging career at home. Step outside and note what’s growing around you. Sketch your neighborhood, so you know where different plants are. Don’t be so concerned about identifying them yet. Study the soil, where the grass grows (and doesn’t). How close are the buildings?

“These things will inform what grows there,” she says. “Take a walk around the block. Do you have creeks? Drainage ditches? See how the water flows. Where is it coming from? If you’re harvesting cattails and nettles downstream from a factory farm, that’s not good.”

Observe the plants along the same route through a season, or at least a few weeks, and see how things change.

“That all takes a while, and it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun,” she says. “But across your journey you’ll pick up plant books, get information at the library or online. There’s always something to learn.”

That said, make sure you’re getting outdoors as much as you’re reading. As Rose says, “You can’t be an armchair forager.”

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