Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Study of Wild Foods

Seeking the Path of Practical Ecology 

During nearly every weekend for the past 30+ years, I have been out on the trail, teaching students of all ages how to identity edible wild plants and how to use them for food.  On a recent Saturday, we were exploring a section of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco.  Our class carefully collected bits of lamb’s quarter, wild radish, chickweed, and hedge mustard which we turned into a salad.  We also mixed the flower heads of wild buckwheat with wheat flour and made biscuits. From the oak trees, we collected and processed the acorns, and eventually made acorn pancakes.

I was only a teenager when  I was wondering what I should be doing with my life, and wondering how local indigenous cultures lived.  So I studied botany in high school and college, and understudied with Dr. Leonid Enari at the L.A. County Arboretum. I actively studied mycology with the Los Angeles Mycological Association for years.

I always felt that the knowledge of ethnobotany was a major key to understanding how native cultures survived, and it’s also a key to understanding what we should all be doing today.  This is why I am not a proponent of front lawns.  I prefer to grow fruit trees, vegetables, and wild plants in the front lawn area, so that little patch of green is productive and healthful.  I share the details of what we did with our front lawn (and other ways of “living lightly in the city”)  in the book that Dolores and I  authored, “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City.”  [You can get it on Amazon]

The best way to learn about wild plants is to see them first-hand, in the field, with an expert. Never eat a wild plant that you haven’t positively identified, and remember that there are no shortcuts.  
So what wild foods are available in our yards and fields? 

Recently, during our Wild Food walks, we have been collecting the following for their salads and cooked dishes:  Curly dock, watercress, lamb’s quarter, mustard, wild radish, nettle, nasturtium, and mallow.  Soon we’ll be collecting purslane. Most of these can be prepared raw or cooked, and many are now finding their way into local farmers markets. 

One of  my favorite wild foods is the fruit of the carob tree. There are tens of thousands of carob trees in the Southland, and the ripe brown fruits can be simply wiped clean and eaten. This is the perfect survival food.  It is rich in calcium and B vitamins, it tastes good, you don’t have to cook it, and it lasts for years. 

The Department of Agriculture tells us that some of the most nutritious plants are wild ones.  Dandelion is richer in beta-carotene than carrots.  Purslane is the richest plant source of Omega-3 fatty acids.  Curly dock is one of the richest sources of vitamin A.  Lambs quarter, so common in the urban areas, is a spinach relative that is arguably nature’s best mineral tablet.  Using wild food is not only a way to prepare for the emergencies, but it’s also a way to create free and nutritious meals.


SALAD “Wood Stump Salad”
Salad consisted of equal parts chickweed, wild radish, hedge mustard, and one tomato.  Trader Joe’s Italian dressing

SOUP “Screaming at the Dawn”
Finely chopped greens of wild radish, hedge mustard, mallow, with quinoa seed, were cooked in miso broth.

GREENS “Viking Wake-Me-Up”
Only tender tops of nettles were collected, and they were boiled with no seasoning. They were delicious, like buttered greens. 
EGG DISH “Return to Childhood”
In a cast iron skillet, we cooked wild radish and lambs quarter greens until they were nearly done. Then we added eggs, and cooked like an omelette.

ACORN:   “Tongva Memories”
Processed acorn flour (with tannic acid removed), mixed half and half with wheat flour.  The flour was then formed into small loaves and cooked on soapstone slab.


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On Survival Skills

I’ve had several conversations recently with friends and associates about the current thinking on “survival” and self-reliance issues.  Some folks are interested in surviving in the woods with next to nothing.  Some are just interested in taking care of themselves in an emergency.
I had to think back to my earliest interests, where I wanted to go backpacking and carry as little weight as possible. I found an answer by studying the ethnobotany of the local indigenous people, and have studied this fascinating field ever since. I was also studying the methods of modern agriculture, post-green revolution, and its effects on the soil and nutrition.  I also studied how food is stored, processed, and transported in our economic system.  The complexity was somewhat alarming to my teenage mind, and I oft wondered how food ever gets to anyone’s table.  I could see many scenarios where our accepted normal way of life could be easily disrupted.
In a nutshell, that is what put me on the path I’m on today.
I recently had a short meeting with the founder of an organization devoted exclusively to the study and education of survival in all aspect.  Richard White, with his military background, was so intent on this focus that he began regular study groups in the 1960s called the Noah Seminars, where the intent was to share the facts of our world situation and to work to find solutions that could actually be put into practice. 
When reading some of the minutes of those early meetings, they concerned themselves with wilderness survival and physical survival, but their concern was much broader than that. They focused on verifying the geologic and ecological changes in the world, both those man-made and natural. They looked at the economic issue that were even then threatening to undermine our security in the U.S. They examined the health of the individual, the cities, and our poor methods of communication. And perhaps most importantly, they examined how our moral, ethical, and spiritual weaknesses were threats to our survival.
Each of these areas has since been the subject of many books – perhaps hundreds in some cases. 
My meetings with members of the Noah Seminars, and the non-profit that grew out of it [WTI, go to], had an increasingly greater influence on the way that I perceived the world, and the solutions that were both practical and right to pursue.
In fact, to this day, I feel that many of the so-called “survival schools” and survival ideologies are sorely lacking because they focus very narrowly on one very limited aspect of that vast spectrum of what is meant by “survival.”
During my recent brief meeting with founder White, he shared that part of his original stimulus was the fact that the U.S.S.R. had plans to bomb those parts of Los Angeles County where we lived.  Local targets included the nearby aerospace facilities, the communication towers on Mount Wilson, and other strategic targets.  Since he felt then that there was a significant possibility of such a bombing actually occurring, he explained to his students that such an event would mean that you simply couldn’t go to the local store or fast food place for lunch.  The study of wild foods became mandatory, as well as some of the skills of hunting and food procurement.  Today, it has become somewhat “hip and cool” to grow only foods in one’s yard, rather than lawns and ornamentals.  This is a good sign.
Physical fitness was also stressed, since in the event of a bombing scenario, one might have no choice but to evacuate.  That would mean a few days, or longer, of evacuating on foot, carrying all of your needed gear, and folks who were excessively overwe ight or out of shape simply wouldn’t be able to do this.
Another part of the thinking was that, assuming such a scenario actually happened, “law and order” would be non-existent, and various gangs would exert control and authority.  It would be essential to be able to defend oneself and one’s family.  Firearms and martial arts were essential.
These are just a few of the many ways in which we approached survival-thinking and preparedness.  Through non-sectarian spiritual studies, we also explored how our honesty and dishonesty can affect the situation we find ourselves in.  In fact, we studied many of the precepts of all major religions as a way to find those higher “survival tools” of right living that could only serve us well.  These continue to be included in many of the classes and writing that I conduct, as well as in all the classes that WTI  conducts.
Of course, we are not living in the same world situation as we were in the 1960s.  Some things are better, some are worse.  Things always change, and part of a good survival-strategy is to stay abreast of the news, understanding how the political situation can affect us locally and personally.
It is still my belief that the Golden Rule is the best policy, and that the world would be transformed if we all practiced that. Unfortunately, we must recognize that most folks do NOT practice that simple precept, which is why the world is the way it is.  Still, by awareness of the full scope of survival, and by attempting to develop in all these areas, we become fuller human beings.  We become part of the solution.  Our thinking on survival should not be simply about my own personal well-being, but should include our concern and compassion for everyone.
As always, I invite your comments and questions, and welcome you to attend any of the classes we conduct. 
See our Schedule at, or write to School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.

Interview on Czech Television

Recently, I was interview by a journalist from the Czech Republic who saw my appearance on the National Geographic’s “Doomsday Preppers” show.  He wanted to learn about some of the practical skills that I teach to prepare individuals for emergencies and disasters, such as the identification of wild foods, making fire, and methods of being more self-reliant in the home.  I presented all these skills as positive ways to enhance one’s daily life and to improve one’s survival quotient without a focus on fear or panic.
As we were finishing, he asked me something to the effect of  “What was your worst and most painful experience?”  I had to think a minute, and I recalled why I got interested in survival skills in the first place.
The very beginning of my studies involved agriculture (all my mother’s brothers were farmers), and the claim that the U.S. feeds the world.  I can recall the various frightened predictions of famine in the U.S. in the 1970s, based upon the fact that way we deal with land management was worse in the 1970s than it was in the 1930s which led to the Dust Bowl. 
I began to study botany and wild foods partly because I was worried about the larger conditions which might impact myself and my family.  This dovetailed well with my interest in Native American living skills, where the average person knew all the uses of every plant that grew in your area.  The idea of rekindling those bygone skills appealed to me.  If I had to, I wanted to be able to find my food, medicine, tools, weapons, etc., from what nature has provided.
I told the reporter, Michal Kubal of Ceska Televize, that I have gone into the mountains many times with no food, and enjoyed doing it.  But, I told Kubal, my primary goal has been to avoid pain and discomfort and untimely death in the first place.  I’ve enjoyed traveling into the wilderness and knowing that I could take care of myself.  But my motivating interest was the survival of my society, and my country, and the sustainability of the systems that we all depend upon.
Thus, any knowledge of self-reliance and survival builds strength into the community.  Individuals who are knowledgeable and trained in survival tend not to have a victim mentality and tend to be a part of the solution.  That has been my goal, and what I attempt to teach.
The various uses of wild foods that I collected and ate while on a short walk with Michal Kubal were the very foods I’d eat if there were no stores to go to, for whatever reason.  My simple salad consisted of plants that were then in season: wild radish leaves, mustard flowers, lambs quarters, curly dock leaves and some amaranth leaves. All these plants would make a delicious stew if simmered slowly in a miso broth.
I also showed the reporter the many hand-operated tools that would allow life to continue if there was no electricity. In fact, the kitchen tools I showed Kubal were taken from my own kitchen, things like hand-operated can opener, juicer, coffee grinder, grater, etc.  Though I don’t have anything against good electrical kitchen appliance, I have experienced enough black-outs to know that the hand-tools will never go out of style.
We also looked at some of the very simple and inexpensive tools that are commonly available to provide electricity from the sun, which were lamps, radios, battery chargers, etc. 
I don’t know when my segment on Czech Television will air, but I will post it on my website if possible.  My short interview reminded me that these skills are direly needed in a society that is always growing larger, in which we are increasingly dependent on others for everything.  The simple solutions to any disruptions to our society are the focus of my classes, the schedule of which you can see at