by Zora Margolis, photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
There’s nothing quite like walking the dog on an ordinary winter morning in D.C., turning the corner, and seeing dinner growing out of the trunk of a street tree in front of your own house. <instant adrenaline rush> Right at eye level—there—a fresh, meaty clump of oyster mushrooms, the same exact ’shrooms sold at Whole Foods for $8.99 a pound. SCORE! Nearly two pounds of delectable beauties became a hearty wild mushroom bisque that very night.
Other people had probably seen those mushrooms, too, who wouldn’t for a moment have considered eating them—after all, there are many poisonous mushrooms out there that can turn your liver to goo and kill you. Indeed, no one should ever pick and eat a wild mushroom, or any wild plant for that matter, unless they are 100 percent certain they have identified it accurately. But the oyster mushroom is easy to identify, and it has no poisonous lookalikes. (None of the bracket mushrooms—the ones that grow out of dead or dying trees—are poisonous, but not all are edible.)
Eating wild food you’ve gathered yourself is the ultimate locavore experience. For those who enjoy being in nature, as well as cooking with the freshest possible ingredients—not to mention finding tasty, cool stuff for free—foraging is an edible treasure hunt.
The Mid-Atlantic region has a multitude of edible wild plants, mushrooms, berries, and nuts growing throughout the year, in the countryside, nearby mountains, and even in empty lots and small pockets of green in highly populated areas.
Foraging has surged in popularity recently, spurred, in part, by Michael Pollan, who wrote about it in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and Scandinavian chef Rene Redzepi, whose award-winning restaurant Noma (and best-selling cookbook) features dishes made with foraged wild food.
Sometimes, vendors at city farmers markets sell foraged wild food alongside those they’ve grown themselves: ramps (wild leeks) and morel mushrooms in the spring; lambs quarters, nettles, wineberries, and purslane in summer; and chanterelle mushrooms in the fall. How ironic to pay three or four dollars for a small bunch of lamb’s quarters when a shopper can walk past an armful of the same plants, free for the picking, growing along the edge of the road where they’ve parked their car!
To be fair, picking along busy streets is not a great idea because of potential contamination from auto exhaust and dogs—but you get the idea. With a little bit of effort and knowledge, one can find the same wild food for free.
A word to the wise: removing plant materials from National Park Service lands is against the law. Check out the policy at city and county parks before foraging. Picking a blackberry won’t hurt the bush, and harvesting a mushroom won’t harm the mycelium it sprouts from, which is deep underground, but the rules are the rules…And be careful: there are Death Caps and Destroying Angels and Devil’s Weeds out there. Four people recently poisoned themselves accidentally by eating mushrooms they’d picked on their lawns; the Georgetown University Hospital mushroom poisoning center saved their lives. And an Australian chef died after gathering and eating poisonous mushrooms. Clearly, you should know what to look for, and more importantly, what to look out for.
So how does a novice forager go about acquiring the necessary knowledge? Field guides to edible wild plants and mushrooms can be useful, but the best way to learn is to have an expert show you where to look and what to avoid.
On a below-freezing January morning in rural Virginia, a dozen bundled-up would-be foragers gather around Tim MacWelch, a foraging and wilderness survival expert. He is kneeling on the ground, digging up what looks like a small weed with a trowel. Wild carrot—he points out tiny hairs on the stem, one of the ways to distinguish it from its dangerous cousins: fool’s parsley and poison hemlock. The group passes it around and examines it. “Smell the root,” instructs MacWelch. “It smells just like a sweet carrot. Hemlock smells nasty.”
MacWelch runs wild edible plant workshops year round featuring the seasonally available edible plants at his Earth Connection School of Wilderness Survival in Northern Virginia, near the Quantico Marine Base. Personable, good-humored, and deeply knowledgeable about the natural world and the skills Native Americans took for granted, MacWelch grew up on a nearby farm in a multi-generational family of outdoorsmen and hunters. He stops at a bare bush with tiny red berries still clinging to the branches, puts one of the berries in his mouth, and urges the group to do the same. “Carolina rose hips. They taste like fruit leather to me.” A good source of vitamins, too.
Earlier, MacWelch had poured cups of sassafras tea he’d brewed for the group. He stops at a bare sassafras bush and shows the group the distinctive bark, and tells them how to dig up the roots and prepare them. He wants his students to know what to do and what to eat if they find themselves lost in the wild, telling them about each food’s calorie contents (the more the better), vitamins, and minerals.
He trades tips with foodies and cooks about the best ways to prepare wild foods.
Later, MacWelch passes around a sack of cookies his wife has made with wild acorn flour, which the workshop participants wash down with white pine needle tea. Information on upcoming spring and summer workshops can be found on his website. MacWelch, who forages for the prized morel every day, probably won’t share the secret places where he finds them. Most mushroom hunters won’t. But you can go on guided mushroom walks led by experts affiliated with area mycological associations to find your own secret places.
Zora Margolis, a frequent contributor to Flavor, has been an inveterate forager since the early 1970s. She and her husband once gathered more than 40 pounds of chanterelles in the Santa Monica mountains near Malibu.