Collecting wild edible foods, once simply a means of survival, has become something of an art form over the last decade. Many top chefs now employ teams of freelance foragers to root out the tenderest ramps, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and wild pine shoots to complement seasonal, local menus.
With this stamp of approval from culinary superstars, home cooks are also increasingly seeking out wild ingredients in their own backyards. And the surge in interest has brought about a fleet of online and digital resources that make the search easier, more accessible and perhaps a bit safer for those who are just learning about wild edibles.
For Steve Brill, who calls himself the “Wildman” and has been leading foraging tours in the New York area since 1982, the availability of information through technology is a boon for foragers. “I had to learn this all on my own because there was really nowhere to learn it except for books,” which he says were mainly written by botanists who didn’t forage or cook.
Now the author of four books on foraging, Brill is considered one of North America’s leading experts on the subject and works with nature centers, schools and libraries in New York to create awareness about foraging. One of his latest ventures is an iPhone and Android app called Wild Edibles, which gives users information, photos and recipes on 260 edible plants (a free version offers access to 20 common edible greens).
“I have photos of every single part of the plant, in all directions and at different ages,” Brill explains, “and then hundreds of recipes – all original and all very tasty.” The app allows users to filter by region, season, habitat and edible part to identify a plant in the wild and determine whether it is edible and whether it is ready to be eaten.
Wild Edibles was developed by Gwen McKay and Matthew Schultz, who run a technology company called Winterroot in Oakland, California. “We used to be based in Detroit and Matthew had a copy of one of Steve Brill’s books,” says McKay. “We thought, ‘Well, shoot… this should be available on an app,’ so we got in touch with Steve and we came and did one of his tours and since then the relationship has really blossomed and expanded.”
McKay hopes the app will encourage people to get connected with plants and learn about foraging. A newly relaunched version of Wild Edibles now includes a mapping tool so users can privately track the locations of their favorite plants. It also offers cultivation information so that wild plants stay forageable year after year.
“Learning how to cultivate the things that are already growing around us is really important,” says McKay. “We’ve added more tools to aid in that, so people can add to the map and say ‘Oh, I want to remember this to come back a little later in the fall so I can spread the seeds so next year there will be more of that plant,’” McKay says.
Foragers who make their living selling ingredients to restaurants are notoriously secretive about their locations. But for amateur collectors, sites like Falling Fruit and the Berkeley Open Source Food project help people understand how much food is available right in front of their own house. “Edible foods are everywhere. You don’t need a website or an app to show you where they are. They’re all over, all you have to do is open your eyes,” says Philip B. Stark, Professor and Chair of Statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of the Open Source Food project.
Stark says the primary purpose of the site is not to enable people to forage but rather to study the ecosystem and understand what is available and seasonal for research purposes. Another purpose is to document the amount of food available in urban areas such as Berkeley that is going to waste.
“If someone were so inclined, they could feed themselves, they could substantially improve their nutrition at essentially zero cost, zero water footprint, zero carbon footprint by just learning to recognize some of these plants and embracing them,” he says. “Our big agenda is to bring these foods back into our diets and stop the waste.”
We have become so distanced from food in our modern lives, Stark says, that we no longer know what it looks like when it is growing in the wild. “We’ve abdicated our power and knowledge of what is and isn’t food and we’re so disconnected from that that we’ve relied on what I’m calling the ‘food clergy’ to tell us what’s OK to eat,” he says. He believes that without the blessing of a chef, or a grocer or a vendor at a farmers’ market, modern consumers are reluctant to try new ingredients.
“If you are someone who goes to a farmer’s market and you go to your favorite stand and they say: ‘Hey, try this new wild salad mix or try this new wild grazing mix, it’s really interesting,’ most of us would be inclined to say: ‘Cool, I’ll check it out.’ But if you to point out this plant over here growing in the sidewalk, they’ll say: ‘How nice for you, isn’t that interesting? I’m not going to touch it, I don’t want to stick my hands in the dirt, a dog might have peed on it, I don’t recognize it,’” he says. “A whole string of things get in the way.”
For Stark, who has been foraging in Berkeley for about eight years, collecting wild edibles is not only fun, but it’s also tasty and reconnects people to the environment. “It really does shift how you view the world,” he says. “Your brain just gets rewired. You start to see food everywhere, and I think if that happens to people they will be slower to dump their motor oil on the street, they will be slower to throw their trash on the ground, they will be slower to do a lot of things because they recognize that it could feed them.”