As a forager, I frequently encounter people who aspire to gather and eat wild plants, but something is stopping them: the fear factor. People have a vague curiosity about foraging, but the fear of ingesting poisonous plants stops them short of ever trying to eat wild foods. Time and again, people tell me they’re interested in learning to forage, but fear of misidentifying keeps them from trying.
It saddens me to know that a culture of fear surrounds eating wild foods. Raised largely by the industrial food complex, we’ve been taught that we can’t feed ourselves and have become estranged from the very idea of securing our own food. The things we recognize as food come from boxes, bags, tidy packages and Big Agriculture. The foods that grow all around us, by contrast, are considered to be weeds, or worse, dangerous. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Shouldn’t foraging feel primal and natural, not alien and frightening?
I’m a strong advocate of being educated, exercising caution, and making good decisions while foraging. As with any activity in life, it pays to be safe first and foremost. But if one takes precautions, eating wild foods is far less dangerous than driving a car.
However, I do sympathize, and understand that people need a way to get their feet wet when it comes to obtaining wild foods. And I think I’ve got an elegant solution to overcoming the fear factor: Begin foraging by gathering apples.
An apple adventure
Apples trees are common in many regions, and are easily spotted, as the fruit always closely resembles its supermarket cousins. An apple is an apple, and most everyone recognizes their characteristics. Feral apples look and feel as familiar as commercial apples, both in the hand and in the pan.
For newbies, foraging is as simple as finding an apple tree. Look in ditches, on hillsides, in fields and former homestead sites. Go for a walk in your neighborhood, along a local trail, or in a park. Make it a family activity.
Unless you are a skilled tree climber, harvesting apples that grow beyond the reach of your arms will require a fruit-picker. This tool is a wire cage with teeth on the end that can be attached to any long stick, such as a broom handle. I attach my own fruit-picker to the end of a 12-inch telescoping light-bulb changer. It enables me to collect the apples I’d otherwise have to leave behind, the ones growing high up in the tree that are kissed by the sun daily. Fruit-pickers can be purchased at hardware stores and online for as little as $10.
Apples don’t breed true, so if you plant the seed of an apple you adore, the resulting tree will not produce the same fruit. This explains the tremendous variation in the world of apples, particularly among feral trees. Keep in mind that some apples are better for snacking and lunch boxes, others are better for pressing cider, some are ideal for jellies because of their high pectin content, and some are best used for baking because they are tart and hold their shape. The only way to find out which of your local apples are best is to taste them.
Foraged apple party
I’ve found the perfect way to get people comfortable with the idea of eating wild foods. Every autumn, at the peak of apple season, I throw a foraged apple sampler party. It’s a fun way to determine which local apples are the most delicious. To prepare for the party, I collect several apples from every tree I can find within three miles of home. This year, there were 10 varieties, some were red, some true green, a few were variegated, and one was translucent yellow with a slight blush of pink. There were crab apples in the mix, too.
I then invited all of my friends over, asking them to bring local wines and cheeses. During the party, we tasted the apples side by side, and compared notes. Tasted in this way, the differences in the apples became quite apparent. One of the apples had a round, honeyed flavor. Another had the gritty texture and taste of a pear. A few were too tart to eat. We capped off the night by voting to determine which apple was the belle of the ball.
Hosting or attending an apple sampler party makes for a great introduction to foraged foods. What better way to fall in love with, and gain confidence in, foraging than to taste the familiar apple, deeply local, tree ripened and bursting with flavor? After all, one of the main attractions of wild foods is that they are delicious. I suspect the humble apple may open the gates to learning about the wide world of wild food, which is filled with gourmet delights such as asparagus, bitter greens, juicy berries, earthy mushrooms, roots, herbs, spices and so much more.
Zester Daily contributor Wendy Petty lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she is a forager, photographer and wild foods consultant. She writes about her adventures with mountain food on her blog, Hunger and Thirst.
Photos, from top:
Freshly picked mountain apples.
Foraged apples, and the fruit-picker used to get them from high branches.
Credits: Wendy Petty