Foraging for edible wild foods is exciting, sexy, free. And, it’s big business: from hunting truffle mushrooms that sell for thousands of dollars to the waiting list for reservations at Copenhagen’s Noma, which is considered the world’s greatest restaurant due in part to chef René Redzepi’s fixation with foraging for wild foods. They make up at least five to six menu items each night at Noma, often harvested that same day. Fresh and local = healthy and sustainable, but is it actually safe to eat wild foods?
It wasn’t too long ago that humans had a developed relationship with where our food came from, be it planted in the soil by human hands or gleaned from trees, shrubs and plants in the wild. This is no longer the case. For most of us, the closest we get to our food source (if we’re lucky) is a seller at a local farmers market, or our own backyard gardens. But more often than not, connecting with our food is little more than pressing the right buttons on the microwave—no forest required. But there’s a bounty of edibles pushing up through concrete, possibly just outside your door: dandelion, nettles, mustard, roses and berries are extremely common foods lurking in uncommon places.
And re-establishing a connection with where and how our food grows is important, especially as food-related illnesses continue to rise and the risk of getting sick from food at least once in our lifetime—even mildly—is pretty guaranteed. Every year millions of Americans will wind up with severe food poisoning that can cause major illness and even death. Credit animal products that have been contaminated with fecal bacteria and other pathogens for the frequent outbreaks. And just as bacteria from animals can infect the finished product, it can also infect the plant life in surrounding areas and groundwater. Always avoid gleaning anywhere near a factory farm.
Wild food can pose other risks, too, which is why foraging requires expertise to avoid disaster. A guidebook can help, as many plants look alike, and a poisonous plant or mushroom can be deadly. Of course, another often-overlooked risk is that of trespassing or removing foods from private property, even if the payoff is healthy and tasty. The website fallenfruit.org provides guide maps to urban areas rich in fruit trees and other edibles that may be gleaned from yards without too much of a fuss or hassle. But with a little patience and a discerning eye, foraging can be safe and satisfying.
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Image: Vidya Crawley