Roadside Diner

How to make salad from Albany Street - a new movement redefines local food

A version of this article was originally published August 30, 2009 in The Boston Globe

On a recent afternoon, biking on a desolate stretch of Albany Street in Cambridge, David Craft pulled over. He’d glimpsed something green in the cracks of the sidewalk, near a parking sign. To most passersby, it would be invisible, or perhaps a reminder of the unwelcome tenacity of weeds. To Craft, it was an ingredient.

He picked a few sprigs and examined them: Reddish stems bore bunches of tiny, rounded, tough green leaves. As he’d suspected, it was purslane, one of the most nutritious wild edibles – not only a fine contribution to that night’s planned dinner, but a healthy snack to boot. His companion expressed misgivings about eating it unwashed, given its less than pristine provenance. Craft was unconcerned, although he conceded that “maybe some dogs pissed on it.” His companion – OK, me – not wanting to appear wimpy, duly munched. It tasted rather like spinach, concentrated into much smaller, thicker leaves.

Craft, a bearded, lanky fellow in his mid-30s, has been an enthusiastic “urban forager” for two years. He forages most every day – except when the ground is frozen – and estimates that from April through October, close to half of his diet derives from scavenged foods.

He’s one of a number of city-dwellers throughout the United States who have recently started finding their nutrients on the sidewalk – and in parks, on neighbors’ lawns, and other urban areas. Blogs, sharing tips and adventures, have inevitably followed. Urban Edibles, a “cooperative network of wild food foragers,” was founded in Portland, Ore., in 2006, and similar projects exist in Los Angeles, Tucson, and elsewhere. And the popularity of guided foraging walks has grown. “Wildman” Steve Brill, perhaps the country’s best-known forager, has been giving tours of Central Park for 27 years, and has noticed a spike in interest.

“In 1982, I had two or three people on my tours,” he says. “Now I have over 70. Over the last two years, the increase has been greater than any other time.”

That foraging would be in the zeitgeist makes sense. Increasingly, people are developing a passion for tasty, healthful food. Many wild plants have more vitamins and minerals than their cultivated counterparts, especially since they are more likely to be eaten fresh. At the same time, the ailing economy and concern for the planet have inspired a return to frugality and simplicity. While farming feels like the revival of a more wholesome society, playing hunter-gatherer (or at least, gatherer) feels like going even farther back to our antediluvian roots. It’s the extreme manifestation of locavore chic: What could be more locavorous than picking food around your neighborhood?

We had started at Craft’s home in Cambridge, where he invited me to help myself to some sourgrass, also known as wood sorrel (most wild plants go by multiple names, he informed me), which was growing abundantly alongside the building. A weed that visually resembles clover – three delicate, heart-shaped leaves – it released a burst of pleasingly sour flavor in my mouth, akin to sour candy without the sugariness or the artificiality.

The plan was to bike over to Jamaica Pond, but we could never get far without Craft veering over to inspect some intriguing patch or tree. On Albany Street, he found not only purslane but also lady’s thumb, another edible weed. In a parking lot near MIT, he spotted quickweed and plantain, the latter of which has medicinal uses. “If I had a cut right now, I would certainly rub that on it,” Craft assured me.

Environmentalists love transforming something ostensibly useless or worse into a boon: recycling garbage into new goods, food scraps into rich soil, manure into biogas. Eating weeds falls into this category of resourceful efficiency: Weeding your lawn can double as a grocery run, gratis. Foragers can also establish symbiotic relationships with nearby community gardens. Russ Cohen, a veteran forager in the area, says gardeners are usually delighted to let foragers take wild edibles – i.e., weeds – from their plots. The typical response, he says: “Are you kidding me? Here’s a bag – fill it up.”

From the parking lot, we made our way to the Charles River, where Craft found jewelweed, a plant with flimsy, droopy yellow flowers and narrow green pods. When you squeeze the pods, they burst open, releasing nuggets that taste like walnuts. A little farther, under the BU Bridge, in a space where ducks and geese congregate by the water’s edge, we stumbled into a bounty of blackberries and milkweed. Most of the blackberries were still pale, but we picked the accessible dark ones. Craft saw a ripe berry deep inside the thicket, surrounded by prickers, but he couldn’t resist.

“It’s such a good-looking blackberry – I’m goin’ in!”

For most practitioners, foraging is a kind of hobby, but what if, due to some apocalyptic event, it became a necessity? Some foragers approach the activity from this “survivalist” perspective. Rebecca Lerner, a Portland, Ore.-based blogger and journalist, conducted an experiment in May: She tried to subsist on only foraged food for one week. By the fourth day, she had been able to find mainly root vegetables, such as burdock and wild carrot. She was also drinking a lot of medicinal teas, made of cleavers, pine needles, and pineapple weed, as well as stinging nettles broth. She was spending many hours a day searching for food.

“I was very hungry,” she recalls.

Eventually, desperate for protein, she decided to forage some eggs. Ant eggs, that is. “They weren’t bad,” she says, describing them as “oval-shaped” and “spongy.” However, she says, securing them was “labor-intensive” because “the ants were fighting me and biting me.”

She considered eating slugs, but ultimately declined, and stopped the experiment on day five. She now says she should have done more research in advance, and should have realized that May is not an especially forager-friendly time in Oregon. She plans to try again in early fall.

Foraging does have a couple of ironic downsides. While often done for environmentalist reasons, it has the potential to do ecological harm, if foragers harvest excessively. And while most wild foods offer health benefits, foraging also poses health risks. Pollutants, of course, are everywhere. That said, the consensus seems to be that, with the exception of obviously hazardous zones like industrial sites, the threat is no greater than at your average grocery store (and is more than offset by the rewards). Perhaps a more serious danger is misidentification: In rare cases, poisonous plants and fungi can even be fatal.

Brill, who works with children, warns them about the various risks. “You could also get diarrhea – that brings the lesson home more than death,” he says.

We never made it to Jamaica Pond, but we did cross the BU Bridge into Boston, and on the Emerald Necklace we found some exquisite mushrooms – porcini, according to Craft – a couple of inches in diameter, luminous brown on top, spongy white underneath. After a few hours of foraging, we’d accumulated enough edibles for a meal.

Back at Craft’s apartment, assisted by his friend Shannon, we cooked a dinner almost exclusively of foraged food (the exceptions were oil and salt). We sauteed the mushrooms with a plant called tansy, a tiny bright-yellow flower with a smell and taste reminiscent of sage. We fried up an assortment of weeds – milkweed, evening primrose flowers, plantain, purslane, quickweed, lambs’ quarters, and lady’s thumb. For seasoning, we used peppergrass, a plant with leaves of perfect circles, whose flavor has a kick to it. The wild greens tasted much like vegetables we’re familiar with, such as kale and Swiss chard, although slightly more bitter and therefore appealingly medicinal. The mushrooms, meanwhile, were simply delicious. In my opinion, they would not have been out of place in a swank Manhattan restaurant.

Craft also made iced tea from mint, goldenrod, and St. John’s wort: It was amber-colored and refreshing, though also a touch bitter (from the goldenrod, he explained). For dessert we ate a compote made of blackberries and mint gathered on our excursion, as well as juneberries, crabapples, and mulberries Craft had collected a couple of weeks earlier and frozen. The result was on the tart side, and, in Craft’s words, had “a bit of a mealy crunch.” But the fact that we had found all of the ingredients for free around town somehow improved the taste.

Source: The Boston Globe

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