Urban foragers gather dinner where they find it

by Susan Svrluga

The Washington Post.

Bill Schindler ran his hand over a patch of violets, ignoring the nearby rat trap and the brown paper bag crumpled around an empty can of beer. He was searching for flowers to eat.

In the alley next to him, a group of people were crouched in the dust, harvesting curly-leaf dock. They had all paid to eat weeds. After signing up for Schindler’s “urban foraging” class at the Hill Center, a community center in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, they spent the morning rooting out scraggly greens from cracks in sidewalks, then cooking them into an elaborate, tasty lunch.

With growing concern about over-processing, pesticides, preservatives, steroids and antibiotics in food, some people are searching out wild food and sources so local that they step on them on the way to catch a train to work.

“There are no wild boar here for me to hunt,” attorney Jenny Hoffpauir said lightly after helping to gather leaves from the rusty base of a traffic light on Pennsylvania Avenue, “but I can get a little purslane.”

Foraging is increasingly mainstream. There are foraging groups and digital maps such as www.fallingfruit.org.

The former chef at Ripple restaurant in Washington’s Cleveland Park district was an advocate of foraging, and his replacement, Marjorie Meek, said several of her cooks bring in things such as greens and nasturtiums from the city’s Rock Creek Park to add to dishes. Still, the thought of truly urban found-food gives her pause. “All the animals and everything, it’s a little …” she said, letting the sentence trail off.

Not to Schindler. “We’re meant to be hunter-gatherers,” he said.

An archaeologist and anthropologist at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he studies early technologies and how people used them to feed themselves.

Schindler grew up hunting, fishing, trapping and searching for edible plants in the woods. Years as a Division I college wrestler, with the sport’s constant emphasis on making weight, kept him focused on food and nutrition.

A decade or so ago, he got serious about transforming the way he and his family eat, so that he could know what was in the food and where it came from. Now he describes cornfields as “genocide” because all the other plant species are wiped out, cooks with animal fats such as tallow and schmaltz, and stays up till 2 a.m. some nights fermenting things.

He has never felt so healthy, he said.

The people who took the class — including a homemaker, an artist, a computer-security analyst and a curator at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington — brought an interest in healthier food, botany and sustainability.

Schindler took it easy on them: He didn’t push larvae, earthworms or crickets. He didn’t even mention the meat available all around (rats).

Instead, he told them how a certain type of dogwood tree would produce fat, golf ball-sized fruits they could pop in their mouths and savor.

He pulled a giant chicken-of-the-woods mushroom from an oak tree on the grounds of the Capitol.

He handed them lemony leaves of wood sorrel to chew.

He pulled pale-green mulberries from a tree and grinned as they gasped at the sweetness.

“You’re just eating summer right now,” he said. Then he wandered over to an alley, plucking mallows and lamb’s-quarters and Asiatic dayflowers.

“Look at this!” he kept saying. “This is so fantastic to eat!”

Elaine Nagey was thinking about her yard near Annapolis, Maryland. These were all the things she was yanking out and throwing away. “I’m realizing I live in a grocery store that no one else knows about,” she said.

Jason Smith walked by with his beagle, Tanner, who stopped to eat some greens. “Why not, if that’s their thing?” he said, looking at the group eating chickweed, their eyes closed to concentrate on the fresh-corn flavor. Not for him, he said. “My dog’s probably about to go to the bathroom on it. But if people want to, I’m all for it.”

Schindler took out his wooden digging stick — modeled after primitive tools — and went after some wild garlic in a weedy tree box.

When he heard sirens, he said, only half-joking, “Are they coming for us?”

Schindler told his students to be cautious and to get to know the plants well — well enough to know, for example, that the seed of the yew will stop your heart, but not the delicious berry around it.

“Look at this!” he called out, showing them a fat-stemmed poke plant. It’s toxic, he said, unless you cook it properly. “But it’s worth it, because it tastes so fantastic.”

Besides, he argues, the risks you know are better than those you don’t — such as what’s in that ready-made food you grab at the store.

On the class’s way back to the Hill Center kitchen to grind sheep sorrel for pesto and feast on the fat bags of food they had found, Louise Cort stopped at a run-down apartment building on a big corner lot.

“Look!” she said with delight. “A whole yard full of weeds!”