Reminiscences of a serial forager or why you need to stop to look at the world around your feet
We are having a conversation about our breakfasts because we do not know each other well.
“I had eggs with wild onions,” I say.
“Where do you get wild onions?” he asks.
“I picked them out of a park,” I say.
“Really?” he asks, eyes wide as anything.
This is unusual. I don’t do this sort of gleaning too often. It’s not necessarily a bad sort of unusual, but definitely an interesting unusual. This casual conversation leads to me revealing a part of myself that I wasn’t consciously aware of.
I tell my audience of one how to forage in a city. ‘Don’t pick anything you are unsure of. Have someone who knows what they are doing teach you what you can and cannot eat. (My mom was my tutor.) Try to adhere as close to local laws as possible.’
I had watched this patch of wild onions grow in the park for a few months. It was small and bright green with tiny white bulbs bunched close together underground. It would have been easy to mistake it for a bit of untrimmed grass if you didn’t know what to look for. I wonder how many people walk by without a thought. Wild onions smell and taste like an onion should. The way I’ve always eaten them is scrambled in eggs with a bit of butter.
I was still in elementary school when my Mom takes my brother and me behind what will one day be affectionately called “the shitty trailer”. The one with the opossum-sized hole in the bottom. The one that I spent a good portion of my childhood in. The fence there is covered in vines and the occasional orange conical flower.
“This is a honeysuckle,” she said.
She showed us how, once you pulled off the petals, there was a small edible bead of nectar at the end of the stamen. The nectar was sweet and watery, but tasted nothing like honey. This was a real disappointment for a literal-minded child like me. But for a child with a sweet tooth and no pocket change for candy, this was Willy Wonka’s factory. For a nature-loving child prone to daydreaming, this was being let in on a grand secret. For as long as we lived there, I sneaked around the back of the trailer to pick a flower or two every now and then.
I spent school breaks in Bermuda–not in the way a well-off child might, but in the way many children of divorce are shuffled from one parent to another. I spent the school year with my loving American mother and most summer break with my loving Bermudian father. This didn’t stop me from talking about my summer house in the islands. I had to cope with other children the best I could.
My cousins and my brother were the type to have typical childhood adventures–playing cricket and tag, climbing hills and trees. I tried to keep up the best I could, but I was more the type to stare at clouds and pick at blades of grass. I sat on a brick wall and listened to them play, while I combed through leaves and vines for ripe cherries.
I don’t remember who taught me how to pick cherries. I had to wait until they were the darkest shade of red. If you are expecting a fruit that tastes like the one that you can get from the store in bunches or in cans, you would most likely be disappointed. I’m not sure what they taste like, other than themselves. Sweet? Sure. Floral? Maybe. I was just a little girl content to cling to a wall and watch while everyone else got on with the serious business of playing. I wonder if it was my quiet, observant nature that allowed me to find so many cherries or was it my love for wild fruit that made me quiet and observant.
I’ve always eaten fennel from the side of the road. My folks split up just before the time I went to first grade, so my Mom and I lived in Bermuda only while I was a toddler. She pulled the small yellow car over to the side of the road every once in a while. We grabbed a couple of spindly fronds and chewed them to mush before spitting them out.
Fennel is easy enough to buy from the store and the roadside version tastes no different. It is stringy and licorice-y, a little sweet and refreshing.
Fennel grows everywhere, large bushy fields along the side of almost every road. By the time I turned 10, I was old and responsible enough to be trusted to walk myself from the bus stop to my nana’s house. On the way, I ran my hands on every plant and tree on the side of the road and snapped off a piece of fennel.
Maybe Mom wanted something sweet and all we had in the house was sugar. Maybe we were driving down the highway and she spotted some bushes. Maybe it was spring. No matter the reason, we gathered the dark purple berries we found on the side of the road in shirt folds and large Tupperware containers.
Mom baked dewberry crumble while my brother and I played in the front yard. We were banished from the kitchen after having sneaked too many handfuls and cheekfuls of berries and raw dough.
Dewberries look like blackberries and taste like sugar. They aren’t much to write home about. It was far more fun spending our weekends getting stains on our shirts and laughing and joking around than it was to eat, but I was a child and sugar was sugar.
“Do you know why we went on so many walks?” my Mom asked.
“Because it was fun, I guess,” I said.
“Because we were broke and it was a free way to keep y’all entertained,” Mom said.
I remember her pointing out dandelions to me on our walks, telling me I could make a salad from the greens. I could also make tea from the roots, but it was a time-consuming task. She showed me just in case I ever wanted to eat them, in case I ever needed to eat them. She taught me what her grandmother taught her.
“Big Mama showed me how to make dandelion salad, and poke salad, and how to cook wild onions,” she often said.
To think of it now, her face looked the same as mine whenever I told someone how to cook with wild onions. Like we were letting our audience in on the secrets of the universe.
Whenever my Mom wanted dandelion salad, I would fetch the leaves for her. She would wash and chop them and dress them with oil and vinegar. Dandelion greens are bitter and gross. I say this as someone who usually appreciates bitter foods. Dandelion salad tastes just about as interesting as a salad.
Now I am old enough and have enough to pick a few things up from Whole Foods. Maybe not my entire grocery list, but a few specialty items. In the produce section, I see a sign reading ‘Dandelion Greens’ in a font made to look homemade. It is jarring to see the greens all washed and tied up in pretty little bundles. They are being sold for a ridiculous price. I do not know for how much they were sold, but any price above free is ridiculous.
I wonder if people are paying for permission to eat the same weeds that grow freely in their yards. I wonder if no one else cares to stop and look at the world around their feet. I take my time and notice the small, hidden world around me. I am slow and deliberate wherever I go. I am still not sure if my nature makes it easier for me to find edible plants or if knowing that these treats exist has shaped my nature.