Foraging for food in the Western Carolinas is growing in popularity, in your back yard, abandoned lots, and deep in the bountiful wilderness that surrounds us.
Written by Brenda Gray | Illustrations by Peter Loewer & Katrina Morgan
“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.” Those of us who are children of the seventies remember those lines from Euell Gibbons in his famous TV commercial for Grape Nuts cereal. Although he was hawking a packaged cereal, whose taste he compared to that of wild hickory nuts, he was seen in these messages looking for wild foods to eat. Pine trees, yes, but he also sought out cattails, wild cranberries and more. With his vast knowledge of edible food found in the wild, Gibbons is credited with the rebirth of foraging as more than just a survival tool, but as a healthy, sustainable way of life. The father of modern foraging authored his best-selling book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” in 1962 and gained many followers down the path back to nature.
Today, with the top chefs incorporating ramps (also known as wild leeks), wild mushrooms and edible flowers into their creations and magazines like Bon Appetit touting the virtues of miners lettuce, it is no wonder that wild foods are becoming main stream. But while foraging for wild food may be a growing trend, it is certainly not a new idea.
“I like to say that B.C. – before Costco — we were all foragers,” says Alan Muskat, famed forager and founder of No Taste Like Home, offering wild foods and foraging education and outings in Asheville. Before the age of agriculture, hunting and gathering techniques had to be employed to survive and sustain life. Once farming methods began to generate large, predictable yields, and especially after frozen foods began to find their way into supermarkets post World War II, we no longer ate in season and forgot many of the lessons that nature teaches us.
Enter the slow-food and eat-local movements. Eating what is in season and grown locally brings the best tastes and reduces the negative environmental impact that trucking produce long distances creates. We are fortunate to live in an area very committed to these ideals. But some wild tastes cannot be cultivated.
On his website (see URL index on p. 96) Muskat describes the idea of foraging this way: “Beyond organic. Closer than local. Wild is the final frontier. No Taste Like Home is not about how to get more. It’s about appreciating what we already have.” And just what do we have? Mushrooms are an obvious answer, with over 3,000 types available according to Muskat. But there are approximately 125 other wild foods commonly found in Western North Carolina. If you know what to look for, you can easily find many types of fruit, nuts, edible flowers, berries, ramps and greens, all free for the taking.
So, how do you know what to look for? You could take to the woods armed with a couple of field guides, but since eating the wrong forest fare could prove detrimental or even fatal, it is best to seek the guidance of an expert.
Charlotte Caplan, president of the Asheville Mushroom Club, offers a severe warning about the dangers of eating wild mushrooms without a positive identification. “There are literally thousands of species of mushrooms, including some that are both deadly poisonous and common, and people end up in the hospital or dead every year, because they ate mushrooms they foolishly assumed were edible,” said Caplan. “Contrary to what most people think, there are no easy rules for differentiating edibles from the rest. You need field guides and a good grounding in identification skills to distinguish different species. People who want to gather wild mushrooms do well to join a mushroom club and learn these skills from experienced mushroom-hunters in the field.”
If your primary interest is mushrooms, the Asheville Mushroom club offers educational meetings and gathering forays. Membership is required to join in the outings, and more information can be found online (see URL index on p. 96)
Or you can join Alan Muskat on an adventure “off the eaten path.” No Taste Like Home offers a variety of different outings, both public and private, catering to group and individual interests. One of the most popular offerings are the public outings taking place mostly on Sundays, April through October. Cost is generally $60 per person for a three-hour program, with an optional dinner prepared with your daily gatherings later that evening at restaurants Zambra, or Table, in Asheville. More information and options can be found on the website.
No Taste Like Home has been featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and is ranked as one of Asheville’s top twelve experiences on exploreasheville.com.
What are the best times of the year to forage? There are wild foods to be harvested in and around Asheville from May through November. According to Muskat, in spring, there are flowers and greens. In summer and early fall, fruits and mushrooms can be gathered. And autumn brings nuts, roots and animals. However, there is always an interesting mix of edibles to be found. Wild leeks (ramps) and morel mushrooms are gathered in late April, rose of sharon flowers and lambsquarter greens are abundant in midsummer, chickweed and nettle make their way back each fall.
“In short, everything has its season,” says Muskat, “and that’s part of the charm of eating with the seasons. But that also means that you won’t see everything in one visit. Nature is not a green Wal-Mart: not everything is available all the time.” The seven most common mushroom varieties, for example sprout at different times throughout the season.
While the guided forays generally take you into the woods, there are actually many edibles to be found right outside your front door. You want to seek out areas that are not contaminated, where no pesticides are being used. Vacant lots are a great place to look, as they are usually not kept up, so you know they are not being sprayed.
Muskat never goes into the wild for dandelions, for example. He knows that his yard is free of contaminants, and is a great source for the delectable weed. You must be very careful not to collect mushrooms in a contaminated area, however, as they readily absorb toxins. In fact, mushrooms are often used to clean up areas, because they do such a great job at soaking up what is around them.
But foraging isn’t only about gathering edible plants. Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers, so harvesting wild animals and insects is also part of the equation. Animals, we get. We are all familiar with hunting deer and turkeys or fishing for the beautiful and delicious North Carolina Rainbow Trout. But insects?
Yes, insects are a plentiful source of animal protein. And can be quite tasty if prepared properly. Zack Lemman, Chief Entomologist at Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, is a big fan of eating dragonflies. Quite familiar with the insect populations of Western North Carolina, Lemman suggests looking for the buzzing beauties around ponds in the summer. “Optimal foraging theory is that your calorie return should be greater than the output.” For example, if you try to gather dragonflies in December, you will expend more energy than you could possibly take in if you are even lucky enough to find them.
Therefore, Lemman suggests limiting insect gathering to times when temperatures are 75° or greater. That is when insects are most active and available. In winter, it is almost impossible to find enough to be worth the effort.
What’s even more significant is that you want to target insects that are slow, large, hyper abundant, or that aggregate in large numbers. So which bugs fit these criteria? General guidelines include most crickets and grasshoppers and a lot of caterpillars. Butterflies are generally not eaten. Flies are abundant and may be eaten, but they are difficult to catch. A good technique for gathering flying insects is to sweep a net as they swarm through tall grasses and place in a bag.
Harvested insects should be frozen fresh or cooked continued from p.40
right away. Since summer is the best time to find them, be mindful of the heat. Once collected, do not leave them in the car. They will likely steam and die in the bag.
So, how the heck do you cook bugs? At the Audubon Insectarium, you can learn how at Bug Appétit, a thrice-daily cooking demonstration utilizing insects in a variety of tasty recipes. Lemman offered some general principles for incorporating them into your own cuisine.
“Insects are pretty versatile,” said Lemman. “You can grill, bake, fry and boil them.” Here are a few things to keep in mind as you are cooking. If you expose them to a lot of heat quickly they burst, which is fine if you are using them in a sauce or gravy. Slower heating will keep the bodies intact, particularly those with a hard exoskeleton. Soft-bodied insects include caterpillars. Beetles would be considered hard-bodied. To keep a caterpillar soft, you would boil it. To crisp it up, frying is the way to go. If you want to keep your beetles crunchy, bake them, or boil to soften.
“Virtually all animal matter, we season,” said Lemman. And insects are no different. A little salt or sugar is generally added for flavor. “Eat them straight,” he suggests, or add to a dish like soup or pasta that calls for little bits of vegetables, fruit, meats or nuts.”
Still thinking “Euww, I can’t eat bugs”? Lemman likes to remind people that crustaceans are just bugs that live in water, and we eat those.
Ready to get wild? Alan Muskat says it best: “For a taste of the wild life, forage ahead and experience the life of a modern hunter-gatherer firsthand. It’s a unique experience in find dining, a memorable lesson in high-class survival.”