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.



Dan Metcalf said...

I'm gonna have join in on one of the wild foods tours soon.

mousiemarc said...

I have had the honor of being a part of John Kallas food walks up here in Portland Oregon. We made a salad with field mustard, lambs quarter, chickweed, Wild pea (some call them everlasting pea), dandelion, bull thistle, and others. I have found ethnobotany to be my favorite "survival" education. It's just good living. I have read most of your book, "Extreme Simplicity". Though my wife won't hear anything about ripping up the front yard. i've planted Salal, Oregon Grape, Choke Cherry, Evergreen and Red Huckleberry, Salman Berry, Thimbleberry, Mints, Strawberry's, Elderberries, bunch Berries, waterleaf, oxalis, Ostrich Fern, Lady Fern, wood fern. Plus plenty of cultivated food sources, and weedy greens. I also own your book on wild edibles. Initially purchased it because it was recommended by samuel Thayer in the back of Foragers harvest. I learned about Cleavers from you (though I still haven't used them). I love learning about this stuff.

mousiemarc said...

The plant pictured isn't that (please don't mind my spelling) nastantium?


christopher Nyerges said...

Yes, the picture shows Nasturtium with flowers

Tim Martinez said...

I planted Black Sage in my parkways between the sidewalk and the street and have been using it as a spice. It requires no water, grows like crazy and has attracted various native birds and pollinators which eat it's seeds.

The Black Sage leaves are especially delicious on fish, and the seeds taste rather like chia seeds! I understand that they are highly nutritious.

christopher Nyerges said...

Tim, the black sage and chia are both Salvias, so the seeds are similar because they are related. I have harvested black sage seeds and used like chia, but you have to do it at just the right time.