The Art of Food Foraging 

Digging in the dirt around McCall nets nettle

Like a shaman's cape, her knee-length, earth-toned jacket billowed behind Darcy Williamson as she moved silently through the woods near her McCall home. Even as she zigzagged her way through lodgepole pines, her eyes darting from tree limb to ground to middle distance, she never slowed her pace. She'd already lost her three companions and even I, unburdened with a collection basket and tools, found it hard to keep up.

"I move through a forest pretty quickly," Williamson said as she brushed strands of graying hair behind an ear, "and I don't like to linger in one spot because that tends to cause over-harvesting."

Only when she spotted something edible did she slow down enough for the others to catch up. Often that edible thing was invisible to me until Williamson carefully plucked it from the ground, brushed off the soil and pushed it toward my face.

"Should I try it?" I asked of something ivory-colored and pea-sized.

"If I hand it to you," she said with only the slightest hint of a smile, "I expect you to eat it."

When you're in the woods with a well-known forager like Williamson, you have no choice but to trust her. Thankfully, that small corm--she called it an Indian potato or turkey pea--was sweet and starchy. In fact, nothing she offered me that day was odd-tasting, unpleasant or emergency-room worthy, and soon I was at her heels like a fledgling bird begging for more.

For most of us, the art of foraging fell out of favor a few thousand years ago--thanks to that invention we call agriculture--but not everyone abandoned the impulse to gather. Back in the early '60s, Euell Gibbons grew famous from his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. More recently, urban foragers like Iso Rabins in San Francisco and Sam Thayer in Washington, D.C., have made it hip to hunt city parks and vacant lots for food. Here in Idaho, Williamson has been foraging the forests around McCall since she was old enough to walk.

It all started when a naturalist friend of the family began showing the 2-year-old Williamson woodland plants. At 5, Williamson was treating sick animals with her growing collection of medicinal herbs.

"By the time I was 6, I would go off into the woods to live off the land but never got to stay overnight because my mother would get worried about me," Williamson said. Mom would occasionally have to entice her home with promises of chocolate malts and cheeseburgers.

Now 62, Williamson went on to write 23 books on herbalism and foraging, as well as develop a business called From the Forest that deals in medicinal plants, seeds and preparations. On this day, though, Williamson was looking for lunch and helping the rest of us find it in McCall's still-snow-dotted mountains.

"This is a Brown's peony," she said of a handsome, low-lying plant covered in unopened, burgundy-colored flower buds as she began plucking several marble-sized specimens. "We're going to take some of those. They taste similar to Brussels sprouts."

A short beeline from there, Williamson found a large patch of stinging nettles. She knelt down beside the dark green plant covered in nasty, stinging hairs.

"What we want for food are the shortest, tightest ones," she said. "We want these that are still kind of closed at the top and that snap off real clean like an asparagus."

The young stems gave an audible pop as Williamson broke them off at the base with her bare hands.

"All right, don't stand around," she said to the rest of us. "I've got gloves here for the sissies."

As we trailed Williamson in her zigzag through the woods, we soon found mint, edible lichen and flowers, tubers, bulbs and wild garlic. We even munched on a lodgepole pine appetizer.

"The cambium layer on that pine is very rich in sugar and starch." Williamson said. "And the needles are high in vitamin C and A."

She plucked a few young needles off a branch, then handed them to me with the assurance that "lodgepole is like a smorgasbord on a stick." I dutifully nibbled, expecting nothing more than the taste of Pine-Sol, but again I was surprised by a mildly spicy flavor that was entirely pleasant.

One of our group, Eloris Chisholm, said lodgepole pine needles also make a great tea. She's been working with Williamson for 20 years and said she inherited the foraging bug from her gold mining grandparents.

John Davidson, another in our group, came to wild plant collecting more recently. He lives south of McCall on the Payette River, and when two of Williamson's apprentices pitched a tent on his land a couple of years ago, they mentioned that he had all kinds of edibles on his property.

"I had no idea that all about were plants I could use for food," Davidson said with the same surprised look I was periodically flashing.

After a couple of hours, the five of us had collected a lunch's worth of wild produce at no cost and with none of the usual paper-or-plastic supermarket conundrums. And Williamson's pace had slowed to the point I could ask a non-what's-that question: "Do you think the art of foraging is becoming more popular?"

"I believe so," she said as she chewed thoughtfully on the tender end of a young cattail sprout. "I believe it's going to become more popular still as food costs go up and more toxins and pesticides are found in our food."

Williamson estimated that there are hundreds of edible plants in the McCall area alone, many available year round. The catch is identifying them and, of course, knowing what to avoid.

"There are only a few poisonous plants in Idaho or in any region, for that matter," Williamson said. "So you do the backward thing: You learn the toxic plants. It's a lot easier to learn what's going to poison you than what's going to feed you."

It's also good to take a class and grab a field guide or find an experienced tutor, like Williamson.

The growing interest in foraged foods, Williamson believes, is a positive development and a logical extension of the local food movement. After all, what's more "local" than native and naturalized plants that spontaneously pop up all around you? But she also feels it's increasingly important to teach students environmentally sensitive foraging practices. That's why she doesn't linger in one spot, forages lightly and only picks from abundant plants. When she digs a bulb, she carefully pats the ground back in place to hide the hole. It's not only to preserve the resource, which is reason enough, she said, but to also ensure that a potential increase in foraging doesn't raise the ire of land management agencies like the Forest Service.

David Olson, public affairs officer for the Boise National Forest, said that although the Forest Service doesn't officially encourage foraging, it currently has no regulations prohibiting gathering plants for personal use in Idaho's national forests. There are, however, regulations against harvesting threatened and endangered species. Olson said, knowing what you're picking is not only essential to health but also will keep you out of legal trouble.

Back in Williamson's expansive kitchen, our group prepared lunch with everything we'd foraged--and it wasn't the hardscrabble, survivalist's, wish-I-had-a-steak meal I'd feared it might be. Our foraged lunch was, in fact, stunning: a delicate salad of tender chopped cattail stems, young huckleberry leaves, wild garlic and bright yellow lily flowers, surprisingly delicious steamed nettles (they lose their sting when cooked), nutty-tasting sauteed Brown's peony buds, meaty snowbank mushrooms and a soothing lodgepole pine needle tea.

The nettles were particularly flavorful and research suggests that wild greens are often more nutritious than store-bought greens.

"It puts spinach to shame," Williamson said as I went for another helping. "Greens are expensive when you buy them fresh in the market," she added. "But you can go out in your field or backyard and have some of the best tasting greens on earth."

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