Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wild Food Trends

I've been pondering this post for a few days after a conversation with friends, but this morning I saw a photo of 4 men with 3 wheelbarrows and a trash can filled with morel mushrooms, and it pushed me over the top.  I read that the mushrooms bring $50/pound in upscale natural groceries, and looking at the picture it was pretty clear the men were harvesting money, not food.
The other day I was reading about someone stumbling across a patch of ramps and harvesting most of the bulbs.
baby ramps emerging in spring
Having spent the last 20 years encouraging people to eat the wild fruits and vegetables around them, I have some very mixed feelings.  On the one hand, when wild eats get mainstream recognition it can raise awareness and stoke an interest in learning more.  On the other hand, it can create a trend if the food is considered 'upscale' or rare, sending people into the woods in search of gold with no regard to the delicate environment in which they grow.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if foods like dandelion, chickweed, and lambsquarters became all the rage?  What if the coolest restaurants decided to start serving purslane in a signature dish with a side of steamed stinging nettles and a dollop of ghee?  Maybe an amazing seafood sauce created from the rampant garlic mustard and wild onions?  Why do we only want that which we can destroy?
wild onions are everywhere

I know that I am very fortunate to have access to just the right kind of land to be able to grow all of the trendy wild vegetables.  We were gifted with a few shovels full of ramps several years ago, and they've spread beautifully.  We still only harvest the leaves, allowing the plants lots of time to get themselves situated.  Perhaps we'll never take the bulbs.
The only time I've ever found morels, there were fewer than a dozen, so we left them to spread.  I love all kinds of mushrooms, so can probably survive if I don't ever taste that specific variety.

To my way of thinking, learning about wild foods is sort of the opposite of what happens when an uncommon, short-seasoned delicacy becomes popular.
Instead of creating a pinpoint market for one or two vulnerable plants, why aren't we getting more to the point and enjoying all of the weeds rather than poisoning them in order to grow more soybeans and corn?  Why are we taking the quinoa from the people who have grown and lived on it for centuries when we have lambsquarters with very similar seeds growing wild and free here?
Marketing.  That's why.
young lambsquarters - YUM!

So while my personal social media feeds are filled with all sorts of delicious, nutritious, gorgeous wild food dishes - dandelion cakes, violet jelly, mashed burdock root, etc. - these things aren't getting the same adoring marketing from the media or the chefs that could be making a difference.  Wouldn't it be great to eat at a restaurant that focused on wild vegetables and fruits?  Now there's a trend I could get behind!  Imagine the appetizers, soups, salads, main courses and desserts that they could come up with while keeping costs low.  Imagine it.  Each week in the spring, summer, and fall the menu would reflect the growing season in that region.  In winter, they would serve what was preserved from that season, just as our ancestors did.

It's free food.  Is that the problem?  That it doesn't cost enough?  Whether you believe in climate change or not (and by now, that's sort of a silly question), learning to find nourishment around you is pretty important.  With the droughts that have hit the major food producing states in the last couple of years, we would all do well to look around, learn what is edible, and start trying it on the table.

Just as herbs belong to all of us, so do wild foods.  When an artificial need is created for just a few, they are taken out of the wild food realm, separated from that which wild food educators have been working for years to accomplish.  It doesn't make people more interested in investigating the plants around them, only serves to somehow rarify a few special plants.  Like truffles or ginseng, we create these crushing markets.
violet flowers and leaves are delicious and beautiful in salads, etc.

So... yes, that's a rant, I suppose.  Do me a favor.  Eat a violet today.  While you're weeding the garden, set aside a couple wild onions and use them in dinner tonight.  Saute some garlic mustard with a scrambled egg.  Just do it.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Go check out this episode of Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown: http://www.cnn.com/video/shows/anthony-bourdain-parts-unknown/season-2/copenhagen/index.html

It's totally worth buying the episode on Amazon. The restaurant, Noma, is doing exactly what you suggest.

Anonymous said...

You're not ranting at all. I've gone on a walk with you. And one thing I've learned from you is, don't over harvest certain types of plants. Always leave enough for plants to thrive.
I'm totally thrilled I've discovered wild foods. But I'm happy I have for my own good. People shouldn't deplete nature so they can make money.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you'll be pleased to hear that I'm making dandelion flower fritters this evening!

Tina Sams said...

:-) I am!

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