My first memory of wild food is from when I was roughly about five or six years old. In the summers my mother used to take me for long walks down our rural country road in southern Indiana. One day she stopped at a patch of knee high plants, cascaded her fingers over the tops of them and caressed them gently. I looked up at her curiously, not exactly sure why she had suddenly decided to give this little patch of weeds so much attention.
“Wild mint,” she said throwing me a smile. She plucked a large leaf and popped it in her mouth. I quickly followed suit. It was amazing. It tasted just like spearmint gum only better. We chewed it more like tobacco than gum, putting a plug of it in between our gums and cheeks and letting the flavor slip out slowly.
A year or two later my dad took my brother and I morel mushroom hunting for the first time. We came home with mixed bag of a couple dozen black and yellow morels. Dad fried them in the old style, egg wash and cracker crumbs and served them alongside a plate of bluegill filets from a neighbor’s farm pond. They were such a treat, like nothing I’d had before.
As it goes, I grew up and became very boring. I moved to Indianapolis and lived in a 500 square foot apartment on the 3rd floor. I worked in IT. I ate food from the grocery store and restaurants and that was it. I often found myself sneaking off to a small part of the city where there was a small patch of woods next to the White River and I would fish for smallmouth bass. Despite the warnings of the river being contaminated I ate them. I was sure that they couldn’t possibly be as bad as the week old commercial seafood stinking up the local supermarket. I remember seeing wild onions all over that little woods by the river and I often wondered what the smallies would have tasted like sautéed with a few of those onions.
Shortly after mom passed away I took a job in a much smaller town that had a lot of urban trails and wooded areas. I was walking the 2 mile trek to work one day and decided to deviate from the path a bit. After all it was mushroom season and, though I hadn’t mushroom hunted in 15 years or so, for some reason I was suddenly dying to find some.
As soon as I got into that small wooded area by the bike path, I could smell onions. I looked and looked but I never found any mushrooms, nor any onions. Instead I found a plant that smelled kind of like onions but didn’t resemble onions that I knew. I dug one up and took it with me. I looked it up on line and eventually settled on the fact that what I had found was a wild ramp, sometimes called a leek.
I hunted for morels often after that but I seldom found any. I did, however, seem to find something else each time… wild onions, wild garlic, watercress, cattails, and so forth. I realized that, even though I apparently wasn’t a very good mushroom hunter, I never had to come home empty handed ever again.
I stared eating wild every chance I got. I discovered that cattail shoots taste a lot (and I mean a lot) like cucumbers. I learned that those big mulberries weighing down the branches in the park are so much better than commercial blackberries that I had to wonder why they were not the ones that were cultivated.
All of these amazing gifts helped me connect to my humanness in a way I had never experienced before. I felt amazingly connected to the Earth through the way wild foods nourished my body, stimulated my senses, and humbled me back into that little boy who loved chewing mint with his mom, and fishing with his old man.
As I researched and my knowledge of wild foods grew, I began to notice them everywhere. I would see purslane and chickweed growing between the cracks of the sidewalk as well as dandelion and wild carrots in my yard. I stumbled across wild garlic on the baseball field. I found Jerusalem artichokes, elderberries and milkweed by the bike path on my way to work. I learned that a ton of asparagus grows along the fence rows just 200 yards from my Dad’s house and that in the month of August you can eat as many free blackberries as you want. It occurred to me that the world is a brilliant organic machine that just can’t stop trying to feed us no matter how much concrete we lay over top of it and that we are connected to it, not separated from it.
I still work in IT and I still live in town but I am more okay with that than I have ever been. As the world get’s smaller and smaller, and food gets cheaper and cheaper but less and less healthy, as weed killer companies develop their latest products, thinking that they can make better corn than ‘ol Mom nature, I can stroll through the park and see the smiles of my wife and my daughters as we all stuff our faces full of genetically unmodified, pesticide free, juicy, red mulberries until our hands and mouths are stained purple and our blood sugar peaks. We can stop for five minutes on a Saturday hike, sit on a stump and eat paw paws right off the tree and experience something that few people ever get to these days and that is truly organic food.