Saturday, January 30, 2010


The setting:

We live in a small house at the very end of a long, Vermont dirt road that some friends refuse to drive for much of the year, fearing that they won't be able to drive back out. Perhaps they're right. Even our housemate parks her car about a mile up the road and walks home most winter days.

Our house sits on 25 acres which we share with our aforementioned housemate, a family of three in the basement, another friend who lives in a yurt just past the garden, five cats, a dog, and eight chickens. We heat our house with wood, bake our own bread, preserve our own jam, and have a composting toilet. Nearby is the small, progressive village of Putney.

Sounds pretty granola, doesn't it? In reality it's not as Mother Earth News as it sounds. We're not much into gardening. We don't homestead. We subsist on occasional child-care and teaching work and one full-time job (Thag is a middle school science teacher.) To pay the mortgage, we've rented every extra room in our house (and a patch of land). As any teacher will already know, Thag's job is more or less all-consuming: late nights, early mornings, and most weekends. Because of this, Thag's life is often confined to the indoors, a situation that he swore he would never get himself into. Thag (Ben) works this insane job in order to allow Ooga (Laura) to stay home with baby Yub Yub (Eva) in the time-honored caveman tradition of raising our own child instead of paying someone else to do it. In part, the foraging family project is our way of throwing ourselves a lifeline, an attempt to keep ourselves connected to the outdoor world (the real world) while we are caught in a situation that keeps us working for the pyramid-builders of civilization.

Both Thag and Ooga grew up in suburban Connecticut in a land of cul-de-sac neighborhoods and McMansions. There, dandelions that grow up through the sidewalk are doused in Roundup rather than cherished as dinner. Munching on something picked from the roadside would raise concerned looks from passers-by. Think 'Desperate Housewives' without so much glamour, murder, or adultery.

We're not sure how Thag developed his lifelong desire to live like a caveman. There certainly wasn't anyone around to teach his the wilderness skills that he wanted to learn. Perhaps it had started with teenage rebellion. Perhaps it was the influence of his uncle, a childhood mentor who shared his love of the outdoors. Perhaps it was the lyrical writings of John Muir or the adventure stories of Tom Brown, the tracker. For whatever reason, Thag dreamt of leaving the land of manicured lawns for someplace more wild.

Ooga, on the other hand, dreamt of babies. Lots of babies. Ooga and Thag probably shouldn't have fallen in love considering their divergent interests. If they hadn't, Ooga would probably already be on kid number three with a handsome doctor. Who knows what Thag would be doing. But, against all better judgement, fall in love they did. And there they are still stuck. Joining them in this plight for the past 15 months is an aspiring cave-child. She will surely have dreams of her own. (Will she be . . .gasp . . . Republican? We've vowed to love her anyway!)

For what it's worth, this is the foraging family. Proudly nerdy. Admittedly ideosynchratic. Three human beings trying hard to love each other well, stay focused on our dreams despite the mortgage, and leave this place a little bit better than we found it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Wild Food #1: Hemlock Tea

Fresh twigs chopped into small pieces.


The finished tea steeped for about 20 minutes, covered, then strained.
It is common for the field guides to point out that this tree, Tsuga canadensis, shares the same common name as that uber-poisonous plant that killed Socrates. It would be impossible to mistake the two. Although it is most certainly edible, I throw this plant in with pine needle tea, Pinus strobus in our area, as a plant that we'll tolerate in the interest of our quest, but wouldn't go out of my way to gather. Euell Gibbons describes these plants with amusing diplomacy. He says, "My current taste in food gathering poses no threat of extinction to the white pine," and, "With a squeeze of lemon and a little sugar [the tea] is almost enjoyable and it gives a feeling of great virtue to know that as you drink it, you are fortifying your body with two essential vitamins [Vitamin A and C] in which most modern diets are deficient." A feeling of great virtue indeed. I'm feeling more virtuous already. We entertained similar comments from friends. "Well, that's very . . . piney."

Hmmm... Two sips was enough for me. Certainly drinkable, no need to spit it out, but it would never be described as yummy. If I were to describe the taste, I'd say it tastes like Christmas smells. In other words it tasted piney! However, if I were in danger of scurvy, I could get it down no problem.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Thag and Ooga:
Check out this wacky site: where you can spend $10 to buy 1.5 oz of tea. What a crazy world.
We are anxious to begin our wild edibles quest, but winter snows are deep. What have we got--pine needle tea, hemlock needles, a few stray wintergreen berries. It hardly seems that the native foragers could have subsisted on the meager edibles available on our winter landscape.

Tonight I (Thag) am off to the library with the cave-baby to see if some of the books on our edibles plants wish list can be had through the inter-library loan system. Cave-moma? Off to play practice.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Books: Talking Leaves

The dearth of foraging in January is a great opportunity for us to plan . . . and to read. We've already got some great books on plant ID (Newcomb's Wildflower Guide and Peterson Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs are two of my favorites.) I hardly go on any growing-season trip without my Newcomb's which I affectionately call "The Duke" because of its homophony to Duke Nuke'em from my childhood days watching the G. I. Joe cartoon. My favorite overall edible plants guide is The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer. Reading it the first time was like a revelation. His chapter on milkweed is the best!! I wish he lived closer so that I could take courses with him.
We got a couple of gift certificates this Christmas to a big chain bookstore, so we went onto their website and foraged for promising titles that might enhance our project. We're looking for cookbooks in particular, because, really, what does one do with a burdock root once you've spent your afternoon digging it up? Then I visited Wild Food Adventure's website. They have awesome in-depth reviews of wild food books. Cheapskates that we are, we figure that we'll inter-library loan a bunch this winter so that we really get the right books by spring.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Edible 100


Last night, after posting, we decided to make the list of the 100 wild edibles we would be eating this year. We are not new to wild edibles, but our previous list was far short of 100. We got out our copy of Samuel Thayer's Forager's Harvest and began to list edible plants by month. Living in Vermont, our prime months are May through October.

We got to 51 rather easily, and with the help of our friends and books steadily climbed to 79. Then things got tough. One of our goals is to truly enhance and supplement our meals so we were trying to avoid too many teas.

Thag added about 10 game animals to the list before I pointed out that neither of us had ever hunted before, we don't own a gun, and our experienced hunting friend caught nothing this year. He scratched the animals off the 100 list and added them to a section we titled Alternates.

We added several rich and tasty plants that we will go on field trips to gather--including wild rice, marsh mallow, and cranberries.

A few additions were originally cultivated but now grow wild--including apples, Japanese knot weed, and day lilies. We must find these items in the woods and not in our friends' yards!

When a single plant offered several different food items, we counted each item separately. So dandelion roots, flowers, and leaves are separate entries.

We are quite proud that the final list only includes five teas.

In addition to the meats, the alternate list includes several edibles we are a little uneasy about (crickets and road kill), things we think will be hard to find (ground nuts), items that are nutritionally null (flower essenses), and one item we tried before but really didn't like (Gill Over the Ground).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A New Year's Resolution

My wife and I are always on the lookout for quirky projects. For example, a few years ago we decided to walk every mile of public road in our town. When I was in college, I had the hubris to attempt to read every book in the library in order. (As you can guess, that project didn't get much past the third shelf.) This new year we wanted to embark on another quirky journey: something that got us outside doing things we were both interested in that we could manage with a toddler and a busy life. Thus the wild food year.

Between my long-standing interest in botany and primitive skills and my wife's supurb culinary talents, we struck upon the idea of a wild food challenge. We will attempt to incorporate 100 wild edible plants into our diet over the coming growing season, gathered from around our home in southern Vermont. It's a sort of 'Splendid Table' meets 'the Flintstones' kind of thing.