How do you know what you pick is safe to eat?
Ever since I started foraging, I get this question a lot. It can be a good conversation starter about the food system in general. How do any of us know that our food is safe to eat? We have safeguards—inspection agencies, federal departments, research institutions, international standards—but issues still arise (most recently, a flour recall due to E. coli). Extreme storms, war, droughts, pollution, and a host of other natural and human-induced situations can and do impact our global food system.
I’ve discovered, however, that casually chatting about the end of the world as we know it often puts people off (and they begin to slowly back away from me), so I try to suppress my naturally catastrophic nature and concentrate on the positives: health, nutrition, and cost. Most people have a passing interest in at least one of those.
Regardless of where you live in this large country, most of our food travels thousands of kilometres to make it to our tables, and the longer that fruits and vegetables travel, the less nutritious they are. Think about how you feel after a long flight or car ride. Tired, right? I am not, for one moment, suggesting that you are a turnip. All I’m saying is that I want my fruits and veggies energetic, not enervated.
All that travel also makes them less tasty. If you’ve ever picked wild berries or pulled carrots from the ground and eaten them straight away, you know how much better they taste than the grocery store variety. I had the same experience with potatoes when I went to Prince Edward Island. I was blown away by the taste and rambled on about it when I got home to anyone who’d listen. How had I gotten through 30-odd years of life, at that point, and never eaten a truly fresh potato?
Think about the fruits and vegetables in your house right now. Any idea where or how they were grown? How many days do you think it took to transport them from the farms and greenhouses to the grocery store? Was the produce picked in season, or early and allowed to ripen along the way?
Foraging answers these questions. I harvest in places where I know the history. I don’t pick on private property (unless authorized), or from land too close to major roads, or any place I think might be actively or previously contaminated. If I don’t know an area, I try to find out its back story.
It’s also good low-impact exercise—walking, bending, stretching—and the food is free. I laughed out loud the first time I saw dandelion greens—imported!—for sale for $3.99/kg in a grocery store. The humble (and 100% edible) plant that some folks pay landscapers to get rid of was lounging in the produce aisle, among its cousins, kale and rapini. Why would I pay $3.99 for any dark, leafy green when there is a veritable salad bar mere steps from my back door?
Organic growers and farmers’ markets are great to have, but small-scale agriculture is often more labour intensive and can’t achieve the economies of scale that the big producers can. This means, perversely, that local salad greens, grown within 20 kilometres of your own city, and which are superior in nutrition and taste, are more expensive to buy than that wilting bunch of spinach on offer at the supermarket and which was trucked in from California. Foraging helps me reduce my food budget enough so that I can afford to support local growers.
I didn’t wake up one day and decide to start pawing through my local park for that day’s meal. Personally and professionally, I’ve been studying food and food-related issues for years. Some people collect stamps; I collect information. It’s my hobby. There is always something new and nifty to discover. Unfortunately, there is also always something new and nerve-wracking to discover.
So, even though there are people whose job it is to ensure a safe food supply—and thank goodness that there are—I have learned over time to take quite a bit of responsibility for what I ingest, and if I can get free, good-tasting, nutritious food for the price of a walk, even better. That’s why I have a vegetable garden and why I regularly raid my neighbourhood of the freely-growing stuff. There will never be a 100% guarantee for food, or for much else in life (other than the standard death and taxes). Excrement occurs.
It seems to me, however, that, due to any number of societal pressures and issues, world events, or just plain global ennui, there are a number of people who feel helpless in the face of far too many things; as though they have no control over any part of life. That can be so overwhelming that the temptation to freely allow others to make decisions for you is sometimes too great to pass up.
There are, absolutely, certain things in life you can’t control—your dickhead boss, the weather, the distinct possibility that, someday, Justin Trudeau will do the crane yoga pose behind the Queen—but some things you can control, and food, to a large extent, is one of them. Eating wild and homegrown foods puts me in charge.
I may not be able to wave a magic wand and make Vladimir Putin into a nice fellow, or bring back Harold Ramis, or protect every kid who has ever been mistreated, solve climate change, or even get all dog owners to pick up after their pets, but I can bloody well have a say over what I put in my mouth.
- What do you do with them?
I use most wild greens like I do spinach or chard. Most have a stronger, more bitter flavour. Soaking them in cold water for a few minutes and eating them with an acid—lemon juice, vinegar—reduces the bitterness, or I chop them up and use them in cooked dishes like stews, soups, and sauces.
- Really? You eat weeds?
Really. I even feed them to people I love, none of whom, as far as I know, have made me the beneficiary of any large life insurance policies. Most of the greens I picked this week ended up stir fried; others were added to soup and smoothies. I made a batch of wild greens pesto, and used some of it as pizza sauce one night, and froze the rest in ice cube trays for later. Some of the knotweed was peeled, chopped, and frozen for future smoothies; some was used in this Knapple Cake, less than four hours after it was picked.
Of the foraged plants I put in my gob during the last week of April 2017, the farthest they traveled was one kilometre (local park, whose history I know well); the shortest, about 25 steps (back and front yards). They included: Chives / Dandelion / Day Lily / Dock / Fiddleheads / Garlic Mustard / Goutweed / Japanese Knotweed / Trout Lily
Weather notes: It was a snowy 2016-17 winter in Ottawa, followed by an almost record-breaking amount of rain in April. Spots along the area’s three rivers (Ottawa, Rideau, Gatineau), which had been near or in drought conditions last summer, flooded. On Thursday, April 27, the temperature soared to almost 30 C in some spots, followed by a thunder storm and soaking rain that same evening. This may have contributed to an earlier than usual harvest for fiddleheads (in lower lying areas, fiddleheads will still be harvestable for a while yet), which were picked for the first time in the same area last year on May 7. Compared to last year’s first pickings, however, most of the other plants were pretty much on schedule.
If you plan to start foraging, do your research. It is your responsibility to correctly identify plants for consumption. Anyone can have an allergic reaction to any plant, so do your due diligence. If in doubt, don’t put it in your mouth!