Since the 1960s, Euell Gibbons has influenced multiple generations to rediscover the art of foraging wild foods, included among them, my grandpa, Ted.
As a former lawyer for the Cleveland Browns, one may take him as an unlikely student of Gibbons. Once he retired from law, however, my grandpa spent increasing time on his hobby farm in western Pennsylvania, planting blueberries, encouraging wildlife habitat and tending his treasured American chestnuts. “See if you can spot them?” he would challenge as we walked together toward the marsh, where his prized chestnuts stood. If I correctly identified them, he gave me a much sought after nod of approval. It was during these walks he introduced me to the taste of tender greenbrier shoots and cattail.
This education on wild edibles continued as my father and I gained comfort from hot sassafras tea, winter backpacking together on countless trails of the Northeast. He taught me how to look for the small saplings with mitten-shaped leaves before digging just enough root to make our brew. Foxfire books were a staple on the bookshelves of my youth, just as Stalking the Wild Asparagus was my grandpa’s most trusted companion.
Grandpa’s farm was a place of wild discovery. The giant mulberry tree next to his old farmhouse became a place to learn about birds. This is where I became aquatinted with scarlet tanagers, and just beyond, the little swath of sweet, wild currants. A row of rubber boots, in all sizes, were fixtures in the farmhouse mud room, accommodating my siblings and me over many years of exploration.
Like Mr. Gibbons, my grandpa Ted encouraged a primitive desire to have a relationship with my wild surroundings. As he gained freedom from years spent behind a desk by gathering hickory nuts and cracking them by his fireplace, I learned the importance of these simple rituals.
Unlike the experience of grocery-store foraging, where a variety of foods from across the globe can be found throughout any season with varying freshness, eating wild food is exclusively seasonal. The fleeting nature of these edibles makes them all the more special. As winter days are replaced by increased light and frantic finches, the first of my favorite wild foods appear. A violet salad or daylily shoots sauteed in butter and garlic boldly mark winter’s cease-fire. Though it is the greening patch of nettles along my stream bank I truly look forward to.
After a winter of eating hard squashes and one too many bowls of soup, the electric vibrancy of nettles knocks off any remaining cobwebs. Packed with vitamins and minerals from winter’s dormant soil, nettles reinvigorate the kitchen. I prefer them gently steamed in a slippery homemade broth, packed into quiche, or rolled between flaky pastry with sweet onions and feta cheese.
What I have grown to cherish most about wild eating is its inclusive nature. Anyone can join the feast, rural or urban dwelling. Once wild edibles are part of your culinary profile, the view from almost anywhere seems increasingly optimistic. Dandelion greens will push through concrete, and nettle thrive where little else will.
Although every generation must bear the uncertainty of its future, passing on the lessons of those who came before us holds promise. As my daughter toddles around our budding blueberry bushes with the fever of a shark circling a school of mackerel, I am pleased to think she may have already learned a thing or two from great-grandpa.