Foraging is an intentional way of cooking and eating for good living. Here’s how I became a forager and five things I’ve learned over 25 years.
When I was in my early twenties, I moved from New York City to a tiny island off the Washington state coast. I lived in a shingled cabin with a wood stove twenty steps from the beach. There, I found myself in a tight-knit community where many people made their living fishing the salmon runs off the island’s rocky shores. (Those potlucks were epic.) A girl with a healthy appetite all my life, I had finally found food.
Discovering Foodsheds, Rural & Urban
My first summer as an islander, I trapped Dungeness crabs for supper and harvested lettuces and baby beets from a small garden. I bicycled to a neighbor’s house to buy eggs and to another’s for tomatoes. I canned jam from blackberries with purple-stained and pricked fingertips.
The nettles I harvested from the woods for soup and pasta were also part of a sometimes painful but profound culinary education. I learned to bake whole wheat loaves from the Tassajara Bread Book (still have the same broken-spined copy). The supermarket supplemented only the ingredients I did not have on hand or within reach.
When I moved to Seattle for my ideal job post-graduate school, I shopped and cooked and ate the same way I had on the island. I cooked seasonally, opportunistically and simply using whole foods from the farmers market and the food coop. I lined the kitchen’s open shelves with jars of grains, dried beans, pasta, nuts and seeds.
After joining a CSA, I learned to let a single vegetable–or two, along with my staples–determine the direction for dinner for me and my husband. It’s a practice I still use for most meals.
Now I live in the country again surrounded by farms and ranches instead of sea water. Whole and local foods are the centerpiece of my cooking. Now with a family of four, the bulk food jars are larger and more plentiful, although store-bought granola bars sneaked in somewhere along the way.
In the basement there is a large chest freezer with local meats and vegetables, dozens of filled and empty canning jars and two food dehydrators. The extra refrigerator stores kimchi, apple cider vinegar and sourdough starter along with our staples of root crops.
The Real Food Journey
I think of my daughters growing up in a culture where they understand food better than I ever did as a young adult. On the day I took these photos of them foraging through garden in late summer, I see how aware they are about what they put in their mouths. (They sample but still loathe kale.) And while there’s no shortage of crackers and popcorn or even a night of hot dogs in our home, they know what real food is and how it should taste.
Most importantly, they are in touch with how whole food makes them feel: nourished, joyful and vital.
So many years later, I’m still on the same journey: to forage near and wide for the best real foods and to use them wisely. Turning them into dinner for my family is one of the most creative, engaging and challenging activities in my life. Though I’m not going to pretend I relish the duty every single day.
The truth is that none of this is romantic or effortless. (I have written that producing food is messy, all-consuming and inconvenient, and while I was referring to farmers, it holds true for food providers of all kinds.)
But because food and eating matter so much–to my family’s health, to this community, to the people who produce the food and the planet, it’s worth it to me. I value good eating, and I love to eat, especially in good company.
This is the way I practice foraging in the place I live. But everyone’s exploration is unique. Here are five things I’ve learned so far that may resonate for you.
How to become a forager
Foraging is all about the small steps anyone can take to buy, cook and eat more real food. To know where that food comes from and how it was raised and by whom.
There are no rules to become a forager. It is not all or nothing. There is no binding contract to become a locavore. It is non-judgmental and holistic. Humanistic, even.
You are the master of your own experience and the CEO of your own kitchen. So, take charge. Eat real. Eat well.
1. Trust yourself in what you already know
I believe that we have given away a lot of authority about what we should eat and all that goes along with it in this information age. It is not a lack of know-how or recipes–or even time–that keeps us from fulfilling our own everyday food fantasies. We all know plenty. What we have a shortage of is trust. Take stock of what you already know to be true for you and for those you feed. That is the seed of all good cooking.
2. Get curious about your foodshed
In nearly every community–food deserts excepted–there are ample sources for food. More than we know or fully appreciate, especially if the grocery store is convenient. Some of my favorite food sources don’t advertise, but they have the freshest and best-quality ingredients. Finding sources of good food is like a treasure hunt in your own community, and the farmers market is a great place to start asking questions. I’m dying to hear what you discover.
3. Be resourceful and be thrifty
We all know that most real food is more expensive than refined and processed foods. So, the closer to home I find an ingredient the more intentional I am about using it. The pastured chicken that makes three meals, the beet greens sautèed, not composted, for quesadillas, the zucchini in the vegetable bin that needs to be used, like, now. Nose to tail, root to top and crust to crumb–use every scrap of what you have and cut your food waste. And your food bill, not to mention your global footprint.
4. Think seasonally and act practically
Every product has a season, so I think of the changing season as a natural cooking guide. Combined with goods from the pantry, freezer and market, the produce of the season is the organizing principle for many meals. Factor in available time, mood and cravings as appropriate. Even in the dead of winter, long-storing squash inspires soup, carrots are the jumping off point for a grain salad and the “fugly” celery root switches up ordinary mashed potatoes. When in doubt, make minestrone!
5. Practice “sufficient abundancy”
What is enough? This family term is a touchstone for me. (And yes, it’s redundant and not grammatical, which is my people’s silly sense of humor.) It suggests a mindset that enough is plenty. I have enough; I am enough. When the refrigerator looks bare, there’s probably more food in there than it appears at first glance. Pour through all your food stocks, trust yourself and consider the possibilities. Making a meal can be like a magic trick that amazes your family, or just you alone.
That was the transformation I had after coming home to this garden following summer vacation last August. The harvest looked so meager after the irrigation system had failed. And yet, with our pickings and a few pantry staples plus a dose of ingenuity, it yielded several sustaining end-of-summer meals.
Foraging works, and it’s free.