Growing up, the farm fields outside of our back door always were full of milkweed and golden rod.
I never thought to eat them.
I made mazes among them. I watched the farmer cut them for his milk cows. I saw red-winged blackbirds and monarch butterflies and ring-neck pheasants fly above them, the latter chased each autumn by hunters whose spent shots sometimes tinkled down on our screen door like little bits of lead hail.
But eat them? No.
These days, though, growing numbers of people are turning to the woods and fields and finding ways to make use of what we once thought of, in a generic sort of way, as “weeds.”
“It’s local. It’s in season. It’s organic. It’s all the buzzwords. But it’s about more than just following the latest trend,” said Adam Haritan of the South Side, who teaches people to harvest wild foods at foragingpittsburgh.com. “This is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to connect to nature, through food. Because we all have to eat.”
The plants available are seemingly endless.
Haritan often makes teas from what he collects. They might contain hawthorne, golden rod, wood sorrel, milkweed, hemlock, white pine, staghorn sumac, white mulberry, chaga mushrooms and more.
Many wild greens can add healthy, flavorful variety to salads and other dishes, Haritan added.
But how do you get started? How do you tell one plant from another, so as not to get sick? How do you know which part of the plant to harvest when because that varies by season? How do you prepare what you collect?
“If you aren’t 150 percent sure what something is, you don’t want to eat it,” said Kevin Feinstein, a foraging instructor in Walnut Creek, Calif., by way of Tennessee who runs feralkevin.com. “But to start gathering wild food, it’s actually pretty easy to get into. The trick is to start with just a few plants that are easy to identify.”
There are lots of resources out there to help, he said, from books to websites, with eattheweeds.com a good one. Finding a veteran forager who will let you tag along as you learn is a good way to go, too, Haritan said.
The reward is worth it, Feinstein said.
“I think a lot of people who get into this are striving for a connection to nature. This really appeals to a lot of them,” he said. “And there’s just something fun about going out and collecting your own food.”
Haritan, who said he’s toyed with catching turtles and would like to try hunting and fishing as other ways to get involved in procuring his own food, agreed.
“When you’ve worked for that deer, you’ve worked for that fish, it means something to you,” he said. “This is the same thing. And these skills are something we all once knew. It would be a shame to see all of that lost.”
I still hope to make something like venison backstraps the centerpiece of most meals. But I’ll be experimenting with a few wild side dishes, too.
Weeds as dinner. Who knew?