At a time when more and more people are passionate about locally sourced food, gathering your own – whether from your yard, a neighborhood park or wilder places – ranks right up there with growing your own.
During high summer, wild brambles droop with berries, pawpaws fall in the woods and certain weeds run roughshod over a cultivated garden. Riotous abundance aside, those who know how to look can find food just about anywhere, even growing in the cracks of a sidewalk. It turns out that some people are so in touch with nature’s offerings that the very ground beneath their feet can hold a smorgasbord.
Retiree Dan Anderson, a longtime Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society volunteer, puts it like this: “A lot of stuff, you walk on all the time and don’t realize it’s any good” to eat. The unruly corners of his own Castleton-area yard are the best places to find everything from mushrooms to berries to salad greens.
Foraging represents the ultimate in both local food and DIY ethos. In early spring, the Twittersphere is a-tweet with boasts of the firstfound ramps (wild leeks) and, on the culinary scene, people with a flair for finding and preparing wild foods are treated like rock stars.
More than Morels
For do-it-yourselfers, not only does foraged food have the bonus of being free, plucking young leaves from a basswood tree or sautéing a pan of wild-gathered daylily buds seems to feed more than a physical hunger. Herbalist Greg Monzel says that for him, foraging is an essential part of appreciating nature.
Near-Eastsider Monzel was just a boy when his dad and grandpa took him out searching for morels, now and then pointing out some other edible plant as an aside. At 12, he read the Euell Gibbons classic Stalking the Wild Asparagus and his eyes were opened. “I started with berries and moved on from there to ‘trail nibbles’ – things you can pick and eat on a hike,” he says. As an adult he began to study the nutrition and sustenance side of foraging, along with his study of botany as an herbalist. Now, he searches out wild foods regularly – for their medicinal properties as well as edibility.
Meanwhile, young farmer Summer Cooper similarly started out berrying and mushrooming in the country, but her enthusiasm has carried her far since those days. Cooper began selling foraged foods at market alongside her Sunny Creek Farm produce last year, and found that many people were eager to try a taste. (Look for her cultivated and wild offerings at Carmel and Broad Ripple Farmers’ Markets as well as the City Market this summer.)
“There’s a whole world beyond blackberries and morels,” she says. Hints of that world can be found on the menu of local establishments like The Libertine, The Local and Napolese Pizzeria. Shortseason items like ramps, redbud blooms, chanterelles and violets have all been featured at Napolese, where Chef Tyler Herald sometimes works his specials around Cooper’s foraged items. In summer, he might offer a mulberry cobbler or a tossed salad augmented with wild raspberries.
“I try to use anything I can get my hands on and I love getting it fresh,” he says. He appreciates foragers, saying, “I’ve hunted morels before and not been very successful – all I end up with is a couple hours walking in the woods. To me as a chef, I think it’s really cool and I definitely want to support it.”