But for a man in a rowboat fifty feet from shore, all is still on Raleigh's Walnut Creek Greenway.
It's late February, and these are scarce times. Sure, the intrepid forager may turn up some hearty greens and edible roots, but the summer bounty of blackberries, grapes, honeysuckle, and pawpaw is still a season away. Yet even in this sere landscape, my guides—Amanda Matson and Elizabeth Weichel, the duo responsible for the Piedmont Picnic Project—point out evidence of the forageables that will soon arrive.
There are stems of Queen Anne's Lace and pokeweed stems bearing dried berry clusters. They show me chickweed, which is easy to identify and common in yards, and dock, a broadleaf in the sorrel family.
"You can eat it raw, but it's really good as a cooked green similar to spinach," explains Matson. "It tastes better when it's young, but it's not going to hurt you."
She breaks off a piece for me to taste. It's slightly bitter but also sports a touch of sour.
Matson and Weichel came together over a common interest in the intersection of history and food. Weichel is a historian and the author of a book about famous Raleigh residents. Matson's background is community psychology, which connects with Piedmont Picnic's principle aim of making foraging—and related topics like gardening and preserving—accessible to people who don't identify as food nerds. Their enthusiasm and knowledge are magnetic.
"This is a fun little patch when it gets going in spring and summer," says Weichel, gazing with an appreciative smile at a swath of vegetation most people would walk right past. "It's got a ton of stuff going on."
Foraging refers to the act of collecting flowers, foliage, fungi, and fruit for eating. Foraging's popularity—both as an activity undertaken by regular people and as a component of the restaurant industry—makes sense. There are high-level, moral-imperative reasons for collecting and consuming otherwise unused foodstuffs. These tie in to widely held beliefs about how and what we should eat (sustainable food philosophy, eating local, "forest to table").
Foraging, too, is a source of cheap, healthful, free food; at peak season, you really can take home armloads of food after a day's foraging, thereby helping yourself to ingredients, flavors, even nutrients that have been stripped from the industrial food chain. Foraging also fosters self-reliance. To enter into the spirit of the thing, you have to immerse yourself in the now, be present, put down those things you clutch—the coffee, the cellphone, the obituaries—and look.
Dandelion greens may not be the new kale, but foraged edible wilds have joined the food chain in abundance to meet a growing demand for items that, until fairly recently, were considered flora non grata. In addition to the Piedmont Picnic Project, several sources in the Triangle offer classes and walks on foraging and related topics, including Piedmont Wildlife Center in Durham and The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain in Chapel Hill. There are wild-food-themed meet-ups and online groups, too. One might be tempted to call the whole thing trendy.
Jacob Boehm is an area chef whose quest for exquisite local ingredients led him from the casual collecting of wild flowers, like honeysuckle and day lily, to running a catering business whose defining feature is his use of local, often foraged ingredients. As proprietor of Snap Pea Underground, Boehm has pressed farmers to grow things they'd never thought to grow and enlisted the help of foragers in seeking out and harvesting wild, sometimes rare items, like, say, reindeer lichen.
"In addition to the deliciousness and novelty of wild edibles," Boehm says, "there is just something extra special about serving an ingredient which my guests could actually collect for themselves."
Sourcing wild-growing ingredients like purslane, puffball mushrooms, and black walnuts from farms where they would ordinarily go unused, Boehm aims to redefine the dining experience. He likes to stage his events in novel settings. During a 2015 pop-up meal at an area Volkswagen restoration shop, he served a six-course meal amid vintage VW vans and cars. The menu included greenbriar tips, wood sorrel leaves, dog fennel, and red clover, all supplied by Piedmont Picnic, and wild ghoumi berries that would have otherwise ripened where they grew at Hillsborough's Ever Laughter Farm.
There's a touch of iconoclasm (perhaps even performance art) in dispensing with fine-dining norms, be they setting or ingredients. High-end food establishments, after all, cultivate and project an air of climate-controlled efficiency. Nothing is left to chance. Boehm's approach flies in the face of the kind of authenticity many ostentatious places create, where fine dining is equated with exotic ingredients and the rigor of their preparation.
"We think of restaurants as super certified, super clean," Matson says, "and he just served a gourmet meal out of a car repair shop."
Boehm is acutely conscious of how his aesthetic clashes with standard practices, and he makes no secret about what he perceives as the shortcomings of the way we eat now.
"As a society, it seems that we feel that everything wild is poisonous unless proven otherwise—hesitant to eat even a familiar wild dandelion, let alone a wild blackberry," he offers. "While it is true there are more pollutants floating around now than ever before, it's a real shame that our relationship with the natural world has shifted so much."
One positive sign, at least, is the fact that the supply chain for the restaurant industry now includes a link to a variety of wild items. When Boehm wanted local mushrooms but felt unqualified to forage for them, for instance, he found his way to Woodfruit mushroom farm, where Nick Fox forages for wild mushrooms as well as items like sumac, sassafras root, and angelica. Fox maintains a network of foragers who help him, and that appealed to the chef.
"I'm always interested in expanding my use of wild edibles," Boehm says, "so I keep my eyes and ears open for people who collect them."
Foraging and the use of wild edibles may constitute extreme cuisine, but it's not just foodies and frugal gourmets behind the surge in interest. Foraging is fun, social, like a scavenger hunt. Sarah Spagnoli, a Raleigh graphic designer, discovered foraging through Piedmont Picnic Project workshops. For her, the appeal of foraging is simple: free, healthful food.
"I love the idea that we live in an edible word," she says. "Once you realize just how many often-overlooked plants are edible, suddenly every walk, run, or hike turns into a trip to the salad bar."
Nancy Walters and her charges in Raleigh's Girl Scout Troop No. 52 go on foraging outings in Umstead State Park. She wants her girls to be able to identify plants and learn a few simple recipes.
"It's a key survival skill," she says. "It's also just plain fun to go on an outdoor quest, especially when you find what you're looking for or happen upon a great surprise. Last fall, we went out searching for pecans and walnuts and discovered tons of beechnuts—tiny, but tasty. Now the girls always look for beechnuts."
About two years ago, Amy Fox, a nurse in Durham, discovered she liked nothing more than foraging for mushrooms. She was addicted to the hunt, she says, but the local oyster left her bored.
"So I decided to learn how to grow them on my own," she says. "It was not as easy as some would lead you to believe, but after a lot of trial and tribulation, I got good enough that I started having more mushrooms than I needed."
When someone on Facebook's North Carolina Mushroom Group asked to purchase some of Fox's goods, she was pretty excited—even more so when a local chef expressed enthusiasm for using them at his restaurant. In less than a year, Fox Farm & Forage has become an established business, supplying restaurants like Irregardless Cafe and Second Empire with oyster, shiitake, lion's mane, and black poplar mushrooms. She offers an even richer variety, all grown in her subterranean lab, at two local farmers markets.
Creating a controlled environment in her home took some doing. She fitted her basement with concrete flooring and a filtration system, designed by her husband, an engineer, to avoid a house-damaging buildup of spores and dangerous levels of carbon dioxide emitted by the mushrooms. It's also become a full-time commitment. Mushroom farming, Fox is quick to emphasize, is not to be taken on lightly, nor is it your golden goose. Her mushrooms need to be harvested once, sometimes twice a day. Taking a family vacation is no longer an option.
"You can hire a pet sitter," she says. "You can't hire a mushroom farm sitter."
Still, there is no doubt it's all been worth it.
"I love the peace that I get when I'm in front of my laminar flow hood in the lab, or I'm in my fruiting chamber," she says. "I'm always in awe whenever I walk down there."
You don't need a fruiting chamber or laminar flow hood, of course; the great outdoors is still yours to explore. The awe is there for the taking, right? Well, yes and no. The legalities of foraging are about as fuzzy as Piedmont Picnic's kudzu pickles. Officially you're not supposed to take any plant matter out of a public park, and technically it's illegal to eat anything grown on state property. But these things do not get enforced.
"No one cares if you pick nettles," says Matson.
No surprise there, but still, laws regarding harvesting even small amounts of food on state property do exist. When students at North Carolina State University wanted to start a garden on a stretch of land in view of Lake Raleigh, they had to petition the school for permission because, technically, whatever produce grows there belongs to the state government. And on private lands, it's vital to ask permission first. Private landowners, confirms Matson, are often very receptive.
One thing is certain: foraging without a reliable guide or a reputable print source is not recommended. As with any outdoor activity, knowing what you're doing matters, especially when it involves identifying and ingesting potentially toxic foods.
Many people who have made a study of wild foods, Matson and Weichel included, have no formal training. Weichel has a longtime fascination with the intersection of food, culture, and history. Amanda grew up in northeast Ohio with parents who made their own maple syrup, but it was only after moving to the Triangle after college that she began to learn what grows here.
Being seen as guides is something they both take seriously. In their walks and classes, they begin with items that are easy to identify, with few, if any, dangerous look-alikes.
"We feel a responsibility to convey the seriousness of it," says Matson, "to stress cautiousness."
In their workshops, it also becomes clear that Matson and Weichel consider this work to be part of a continuum, not an activity that is temporarily in vogue. While foraging's current cachet feels unprecedented, especially within the context of these local-food-obsessed times, that's the myopic view.
"Many communities have been foraging food for generations—some out of necessity and others as an important part of their unique food traditions and culture," says Matson. "This isn't a new phenomenon."
Maybe it just seems new in this wired, distraction-filled world we find ourselves in, where authentic experience seems in such short supply.
"I think this trend will only continue," suggests Boehm, "and if that encourages a deeper communion between the diner and the natural world in all its edible glory, that's a good thing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Out of the Woods"