Wild foods found me in my mid-20s. I’ve always been a nature buff—a birdwatcher, hiker, and so on—but it wasn’t until I moved to Seattle and fell in with a crowd of outdoorsy folks who liked to eat well that I recognized the specific charms of foraging. I was hanging around with a bunch of hungry grad students who couldn’t afford fancy restaurants but could pull on a second-hand wet suit and go free-diving for a delicacy like Dungeness crabs in Puget Sound. We had epic crab feeds in those days!
I’ve been foraging ever since, now more than 30 years. At first, it was something to do while camping or hiking in the mountains, but as new wild foods landed on my plate, the foraging itself began to take on more importance until it became the focus. I started designing trips with particular wild foods in mind, especially mushrooms.
I love to learn. For me, foraging is a way to spend time outdoors learning. It teaches you how to read the landscape. You need to know your trees, your wildflowers, your weather patterns. The list goes on. You can never know enough. In the spring when I’m hunting morels or picking fiddleheads I’ll hear the songs of newly arrived birds—hermit thrushes, western tanagers, yellow warblers—and it’s like running into an old friend on the street.
There are endless reasons to forage: exercise, a good meal, time spent in nature, knowledge acquisition. I tell my students that becoming reacquainted with the landscape is chief among them. The natural world needs advocates more than ever; foraging is one path toward that advocacy.
While we’re all descended from successful hunter-gatherers in the deep past, modern civilization has made such skills seemingly less relevant. We can just go to the supermarket, right? Being a forager is a choice, not a necessity. It’s a form of recreation. But it’s also a bridge back to that deep past. And maybe now, it’s more important than ever that we recognize where real food comes from, where clean water comes from—that we recognize what sustains life on Earth.
A Favorite Spring Wild Edible: Finding morels on a consistent basis requires an intimate knowledge of the natural world. I call it ‘nature’s Rubik’s cube.’ But what a fungus it is! Meaty, earthy, loamy—there are plenty of adjectives to describe the ethereal tastiness of morels, yet none of them quite captures their essence.
Ready to head into the field? Study these expert tips before you go.
Abide by the Golden Rule: Never eat anything from the wild unless you’re 100 percent certain what it is. Less than that? Don’t throw it out just yet, Alan Muskat advises—ask about it, and turn it into a learning experience.
Find a Local Expert: The absolute best way to learn is in person, with an experienced guide. Attend guided tours and classes and join local community groups, which now abound both in person and online, to maximize your exposure to what others are finding.
Round Out Your Toolbox: Get a solid set of guidebooks. Alan Bergo highly recommends all of his mentor Sam Thayer’s books on wild plants, and David Arora’s on mushrooms. He also recommends plant identification apps such as iNaturalist and PlantSnap—though he notes that others may not agree—as a tool not to rely upon, but to use in conjunction with guidebooks and expert advice.
Start Small: Learn to identify three plants in your own backyard or area where you live, Tama Matsuoka Wong suggests. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with your home environs, and you’ll be aware of whether or not anything has been sprayed on the plants, legal permissions, and so on (be sure to research these if you’re looking elsewhere). Really get to know those plants, including at different stages of their life cycles and in different preparations, before you move on to others.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.