Ihave always wanted to be the kind of person who ventures into a lush green forest with an empty basket. While some scroll through their Instagram feeds envying other people’s six-pack abs and exotic vacations, I’m wishing I could be one of those foragers harvesting elderflowers for cordial or showing off a massive haul of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. It’s the most practical hobby imaginable: not only are you finding free food, some of which you rarely see in the grocery store (like ramps and fiddleheads, which are very pricey because Whole Foods is paying people to forage them for you), but it’s likely more nutritious because Big Ag hasn’t wrung all the vitamins out of it. Foraging simultaneously appeals to my Parable-of-the-Sower-grade apocalypse anxiety and my fantasy of living in a pretty little cottage in the forest with a well and a vintage hand pump right in my kitchen. At any rate, I want to stop talking about living closer to nature and actually learn something that will allow me to do so.
Local farms and nature reserves often sponsor guided walks, but finding someone to take you on a one-on-one hike is an expensive proposition. Foragers can be very territorial, which doesn’t seem so stingy when you consider that some people over-harvest with no concern for sustainability. And there’s only so much you can learn from a book.
My roommate Rachel and I go on a guided mushroom walk at Ballard Park in Newport, Rhode Island, a beautiful wooded nature reserve that was a working quarry in the 19th century. Our guides, Emily Schmidt and Ryan Bouchard, explain the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi and say they don’t recommend gilled mushrooms for beginners, as there are about a dozen deadly gilled species. (“There was a guy who survived eating a death cap,” Ryan says, “and he said it was really, really good.”) The edibility of most of the mushrooms you’ll see is questionable, so you’ve really got to learn one species at a time.
Nature astonishes us: there is a mycelium growing under the earth in Oregon that is bigger than a whale (it’s the largest known organism on the planet, and likely the oldest), and a tree can be dying for longer than the longest human lifespan. But my biggest takeaway from this walk is that if you want to start foraging by learning your mushrooms, you have to be very, very patient. I decide to start with foods there’s no chance of mis-identifying and learn my way from there.
In his Complete Herbal (first published in England in 1653) the English botanist Nicholas Culpeper informs us that dandelions, “vulgarly called Piss-a-beds,” can help clear liver, gall, and spleen obstructions. “[T]he distilled water is effectual to drink in pestilential fevers, and to wash the sores.” Praise heaven I suffer from none of these ailments, but I still want to forage them for some sort of beverage. Dutch “plant activist” and vegan cookbook author Lisette Kreischer posts a photo of her “dandelion elixir,” luminous yellow in a perfect vintage bottle, and I want that color even more than I’m curious about the taste.
It’s early June, so the dandelions aren’t growing as riotously as they do in the spring. I’m staying with my parents for the month, and I haver about foraging in suburbia because pesticide usage is so common — they say you’re safer foraging in urban areas, ironically — but then I figure if someone’s using pesticides on their lawn then there wouldn’t be dandelions growing. So, one early evening I walk the fifteen minutes to the public library, like I used to when I lived at home in my early thirties. I actually have to search for dandelion flowers, but the next morning they are abundant. How have I not noticed how quickly plants can grow? And in all that time walking to and from the library almost every day, I never noticed the tiny wild raspberries growing under blades of grass on the lawn of our local suffragist’s ancestral home.
Lisette’s Instagram caption offers a method but no measurements or proportions. After simmering on the stove and sitting for twenty-four hours my dandelion collection yields 2 ¾ cups of decoction, to which I add ¾ cup apple cider vinegar and ¼ cup agave (Lisette recommends rice syrup, but I use what I have on hand). My “elixir” comes out worryingly murky (probably because I didn’t pull off the green bits at the base of each flower, the involucres — a word I had to Google for), but it tastes as I imagine it should: like grass, admittedly. But it also tastes like the hour after our return to the family vacation house in the Poconos, chasing my sister through the chest-high grass in the backyard while my grandparents pushed the lawnmowers out to the treeline and back. It tastes like a nine-mile ramble in Tipperary with my best friend, sitting by a stream in a bluebell wood in the dappled sunlight, and eating dandelion heads we plucked from the side of the road.
It’s too much vinegar and not enough sweetener but I drink it anyway, three fingers of murky golden liquid in a drinking glass filled to the top with seltzer and ice. I give my mom a taste and she pulls the same face she makes after a bite of kimchi or a sip of kombucha. One week and I’ve finished the jar.
Two wild cherry trees stand at the bottom of my parents’ yard, here long before the house was built in the early ’90s. On the far side of the five-foot wooden fence lies an unruly tangle of trees and undergrowth, beyond that a field that hasn’t been tilled in years. There’s a fluorescent green hammock I brought back from a trip to Colombia several years ago, strung between an oak and one of the cherry trees.
At least three groundhogs have tunneled under the neighbors’ shed. Their names are Charlie, the big one, and his offspring Frank and Charlie Junior, as christened by my stepdad. I watch from the kitchen window as they waddle across the lawn under the cherry trees. It’s mid-June, and the fruit has begun to drop.
My mom and stepdad have lived in this house since I was twelve, but this is only the second time I’ve harvested the cherries intending to bake anything with them. Most people would say they’re too sour for eating raw. The first time, a few years ago, my niece and I picked them together and baked them into miniature pies using a muffin tin. This time I’ll stew the cherries beforehand and do little lattices on top.