What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

Purslane-1I've long wondered what it would be like to dedicate a week to eating only wild-foraged foods and this has been my week to give it a try.

The foraging experience is vastly different depending on the season. Early spring is abundant with fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and savory mushrooms. Late summer has an array of ripe fruits and tree nuts. But mid-summer, while lacking in tender greens and beefy fungus, serves up a main course of berries - strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elder berries, and huckleberries. I timed my week-long foraging experience to coincide with this wild-berry buffet. 

I have some broader inquiries to make about the experience but here are some initial observations about the week.

1. It takes time: The first four days of the week all started with a couple hours of picking huckleberries in the mountains around the Spokane. My rule has been to pick only enough for each day, so each day has arrived with nothing in the cupboard. In this sense it's the ultimate slow food. I've enjoyed the quiet time in the mountains for reflection each morning but the time required would make it difficult to fit into my non-sabbatical rhythms.

I could imagine making one day a week a forage day, sampling what nature offers up and intentionally making time to head out into the wilderness.

2. I'm surprised I'm not more hungry: My daughters' softball tournaments later in the week led to afternoon foraging, which meant going long stretches without any food. To my great surpise my cravings have been minor during these long stretches. Early in the week I was cranky and hungry, but with six days under my belt my hunger has subsided. Last night I actually had leftovers from dinner. 

I find this to be true every time fast. The first couple of days are miserable but after getting over that hurdle there is a quiet contentment that comes over my body and mind. At first I rebel against the limitations as a small crisis, but then the crisis passes and the limitations become a path to a strange peace. I suspect that this experience is what compels religious ascetics. 

3. Berries get old after awhile: It seems like a dream come true to eat your fill of huckleberries every day but I'm kind of sick of them at this point. Thankfully I discovered purslane, a nice-tasting wild green that grows abundantly in our garden. There is a poisonous lookalike (spurge) that grows right alongside it so you have to be careful, but it is fantastic in a little stir-fry. It is also renowned for containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable.

I also discovered an old apricot tree on conservation area land in Spokane Valley. I have avoided gleaning from working farms but the apricot tree is wild at this point so it's fair game. Because the tree isn't being watered the fruits are small and the sugars are concentrated. Wow! The best apricots ever.

The purslane and apricots are good examples of the tasty but hidden abundance that surrounds us. 

I've also eaten thimbleberries, serviceberries, and tiny strawberries.

4. There is enough: The first couple of days were filled with urgency. I wondered if I could gather enough each day to sustain me. I even picked strawberries the size of sunflower seeds, thinking that they might be all I would have for the day. I now know, at least this time of year, there is enough. Huckleberries are the perfect example.

Spokane is part of what I'll call the Huckleberry Belt. You go anywhere in the mountain regions of Eastern Washington and Montana and you'll find that huckleberries are a cultural icon. Red-fingered pickers sell them at stands on every corner in tourist towns and high-end boutiques carry lines of huckleberry soaps, make-up, and gourmet candy.

Whole families in this region dedicate summer-weeks for camping and picking berries, filling coolers with them for jams, pies, and the freezer. Everyone has their "secret spot" for picking and no one is too eager to share the details of the location. It's one of those, "I'd tell you where we go for berries but then I'd have to kill you," sort of situations. 

There is a strong culture of scarcity around this legendary berry, primarily because it only grows in the wild. Despite their best efforts, hortculturists have failed to cultivate huckleberries for commercial growing. Like morel and porcini mushrooms, farmers can't grow them and package them for Costco. It's a wild plant and you have to go into the wild to harvest. Go here for more background on this. 

This wildness lends itself to the sense of scarcity that surrounds the berry. If a food doesn't grow in crop rows or through industrial practices, we can't imagine there is enough and so we sneak around to keep others out of our patch or some even pay $80/gallon plus $35 shipping to buy them online.

Well I'm here to bust the myth of scarcity that surrounds the huckleberry. My foraging week has led me to the mountains almost every day and every place I go is packed with berries. Huckleberries are everywhere. They are not scarce, they are abundant and there is enough for everyone in the Inland Northwest to harvest till it hurts - your back and your tummy. (I've learned that it is actually a little uncomfortable if you eat too many.) If you live in Spokane there is no need to drive to the Canadian border to your families secret spot. Just drive 30 minutes to Mount Spokane and hike around a little and you'll find your fill. 

In a cruel irony it is often our fear of scarcity that leads us to degrade natural places to grow crops or harvest timber which leads to actual scarcity. Haiti is an extreme example of this but the truth holds everywhere. Our fear of scarcity is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative posture to a fear of scarcity is to live in wonder of the abundance of what nature offers up. Foraging has helped reinforce this perspective in my life this week.

5. Be careful: For every edible in the wild there is often a poisonous lookalike. Only eat what you know and rely on more than one source of information to identification. For example, my primary ID book says that purslane doesn't have a poisonous lookalike, but all my other references point to spurge as similar to purslane. I'm grateful to the clarification provided by my these sources because in our garden the spurge grows right next to the purslane. So close that sometimes I'll grab a handful of purslane and a spurge plant is mixed up in the harvest. 

I'll follow up with more observations later in the week.