By David Hawke -- You can tell that we humans are hard-wired with the need to survive.
As soon as a seasonal opportunity presents itself, we revert to trying to fulfill our basic needs.
I speak of course about foraging, also known as the edible wild.
In the interest of transparency, truth and just plain letting you where I stand on the issue of gathering wild food… I’m 83.6-percent against it. If you are continuing to read past that last sentence, let me embellish that statement.
I’ve been blessed in that my resume indicates my entire career and lifestyle have been working outdoors, and that I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about the natural environment that provides for both my vocation and avocation. At one time, while leading a plant identification hike at a local resort, one of the participants blurted out that she was in awe of my knowledge and assumed that I could survive on my own if lost or living in the woods.
My reply was that yes, I’m comfortable in the woods and would gladly live there, provided of course I could get to a supermarket at least once a week!
The idea that anyone could live comfortably and healthily simply by eating what grows in the local woodlot is a false dream. Agriculture was invented to counter the starvation factor! Yet most of our foods today do indeed have their origins as a species growing wild somewhere in the world.
If you’ve dabbled with the edible wild, you no doubt know that there are numerous books dedicated to the topic, as well as uncountable YouTube videos and websites touting the hobby of gathering nuts and berries. However, are you also aware of the videos and books warning of poisonous plants and their negative effects on human bodies?
Of the perhaps thousands of nature walks that I’ve led, the advice of edibility rarely passes my lips. It’s not that I’m jealously misdirecting attention from a patch of yummy berries, it’s more that I’m anxious my identification and endorsement of edibility will be misunderstood.
Let’s use low-bush blueberry as an example. If I say that blueberries are good to eat and good for you, how do I know that you won’t pass along this new-found nugget of information to your friends interpreted as “Dave says blue berries are good to eat”? There is a deadly difference between blueberries and blue berries.
Each spring sees a wave of foragers sallying forth to parks, nature reserves, local ditches and even private properties in search of fiddleheads, morels, leeks and other legendary ‘free food’. Caution is required on both identification and preparation.
Fiddleheads are the new growth of ferns, a beautiful curving structure that quickly rises and unfurls into a full-sized fern frond. Pretty easy to recognize and fairly abundant. Apparently if prepared with a couple changes of boiling water and then pan-fried with butter, they are edible. However, did you know that only ostrich fern is edible? All the other fern species have carcinogenic characteristics. And without that double change of boiling water, even ostrich fern is rumoured to be not the best thing you provided to your stomach today.
Mushrooms are the epitome of edible wild, with some foragers going to great lengths (including trespass) to seek out fungi to eat. It irks me greatly whenever I point out an exquisite mushroom found growing along a trail side that the first question invariably is: “Can I eat it?” My answer is that all mushrooms are edible, but some only once. Fungi range the entire scale from choice edible to deadly poisonous; and generally speaking, they all look the same. Do you feel lucky today?
Whether something is edible or poisonous leads to the discussion of toxicity. Some people can eat peanuts and enjoy the imported snack, while for others it can be a rushed trip to the emergency room. Some people can eat fish while for others it’s vying for position in the emergency room against some guy who ate peanut butter.
Toxicity is the manner in which our body processes and either accepts or rejects a certain food. Some mushroom species can indeed be eaten and digested just fine, while other mushroom species will react badly if you have a swallow of wine with that gourmet platter of fungus; depending on your personal constitution what is edible for one person may well be toxic to you.
This condition or reaction often shows up when we eat something to which our body is not accustomed. Which is why just about every website worth looking at has the caveat that you should 100-percent identify and then sample lightly any new food you are trying.
The other side of picking wild food is knowing how to prepare it. Several books will simply say that the species is edible. Lost to many of us is the knowledge of what part of the plant is edible: the root, the leaves, the fruit? Rhubarb stems are edible (to some) but the leaves are bad news (for all). Can that basket full of harvested greenery be eaten raw, or only after boiling?
And there is that built-in problem that there are simply too many people thrashing about the underbrush looking for edibles. Leeks were once common in the Gatineau Hills of Quebec… until they were all dug up for sale at local markets. Now leek-picking (if you can even find one) is illegal in that magnificent public forest.
Back to that assumption that I know all about edible wild… when asked if a certain mushroom is edible or not, I encourage that person to do as I do and pick their mushrooms from within the produce aisle of the supermarket!
Dave’s Notebook: This week's blog looks at edible wild... a topic I try to avoid in most cases. But there are those folks who do like to sample Nature's produce department... just, please, do so with 'abundant caution'.
© 2020 David J. Hawke