Foraging Wild Plants to Eat Now – Or After The Apocalypse
I knew of Pascal Baudar as a fellow Master Food Preserver, so I was intrigued to hear about his workshop “End of the World Food Preservation Techniques.” He’s also a well-known expert wild food forager who runs Urban Outdoor Skills. I joined his workshop thinking it would be fun to forage for wild edible plants and learn a few historical food preservation techniques. I was not expecting to discover how to feed myself and my family entire meals made from local wild plants. Or how to use a roadside weed common in the Los Angeles area to create zombies.
The dry grass shattered under our feet as we scoured the sunburned terrain around Hansen Dam, a semi-wild park in the Lake View Terrace neighborhood of Los Angeles. Pascal is a good public speaker, and he led the hike with a mix of educational zeal and a wicked sense of humor that made the experience entertaining and slightly ominous. Pascal informed us that he’s a medal-winning marksman, and when he cautioned us not to pick all the olives off the trees in his favorite grove, we all took him seriously.
But far from being a bunker-dwelling doomer, Pascal is an upbeat guide to semi-urban food sources and pre-Industrial Revolution food preservation techniques.
We discovered more edible plants than I’d ever realized existed in such a small and seemingly barren landscape, including prickly pear cactus, California sage, horehound, elderberry, curly dock and two kinds of mustard (yellow and black). The curly dock and mustard had already gone to seed, but Pascal assured us that the seeds and shaft could be ground into flour and used to make hard tack, a kind of primitive cracker. We tried a version of his homemade hard tack later that afternoon and it was a truly post-apocalyptic food — dense, portable, nutritious and disgusting. But after the apocalypse, you might not care how it tastes.
Make your own zombies
Perhaps the strangest of Pascal’s revelations during our hike came when we discovered a jagged-leaved plant that grows gorgeous white trumpet flowers: jimson weed, or the devil’s trumpet. Pascal pointed out that this deceptively pretty plant may be one source of the zombie legend.
Jimson weed grows throughout Southern California, and you can see it along freeways and in vacant lots. It was first described in 1705, when it was called “Jamestown weed” because colonial British soldiers in Jamestown ate it and went mad. In fact, jimson weed (Datura stramonium) contains the powerful hallucinogen scopolamine, which causes delirium in low doses and death in larger doses. It has become linked to the legend of zombies because of these hallucinogenic properties and is known in Haitian Creole as concombre zombi (the zombie’s cucumber). Pascal sternly cautioned us against ever eating any part of the plant. A nurse in our group chimed in, saying that she had treated a teenage boy who had eaten jimson weed to get high. He wound up violently ill in the emergency room and is lucky to be alive.
With a deadpan expression, Pascal pointed out that one possible safe use for jimson weed would be using it to make zombies who could then help us collect mustard and curly dock seeds after the apocalypse. We all laughed nervously, but as we finished our hike I mulled over the question of how I would feed my zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. Wouldn’t it be easier to just collect the curly dock myself?
I was ready for a break when we reached our camp, but the real work had only just begun. Over the next three hours, Pascal provided a grand tour through centuries of basic food-preservation techniques. He discussed simple techniques to lengthen the shelf life of vegetables and herbs without refrigeration, such as storing herbs in cups of water and putting greens in a wet canvas bag and hanging them in a cool, dark place.
In a whirlwind of activity, Pascal demonstrated how to make salt pork and a dry salt brine for meat. He made hard tack and two versions of beef jerky (one good and one not so good). While the rest of us wilted in the shade, Pascal whipped up a brine for fermenting vegetables that could yield either sauerkraut or kimchi, depending on the vegetables you use.
Foraging for survival soup
The most complex dish Pascal concocted was a pot of “survival soup,” using his collection of dried wild plants that he’d harvested on previous hikes, including yucca shoots, wild radish pods, garlic and kelp. We sampled it near the end of the workshop and it was quite tasty, much to Pascal’s surprise. He told us that his partner Mia Wasilevich is usually in charge of making foods that actually taste good. She runs their companion organization Transitional Gastronomy, which they use to explore the idea of using locally sourced wild foods to create gourmet meals. Sadly, Mia wasn’t present at this hike, so we focused on food for the “Mad Max” world.
By the end of the workshop, I was exhausted from the hike, the heat and information overload, but I couldn’t wait to get home and share all I’d learned with my apocalypse-loving husband. I left wondering whether I could really sustain my family using only foods I found growing wild in my neighborhood, and how hard it would be to persuade mustard-seed collecting zombies to eat hard tack.
Hard Tack by Pascal Baudar
2 cups whole wheat flour (you may replace up to ⅔ cup whole wheat flour with curly dock flour)
Slightly less than 1 cup of water
2 tablespoons salt
1. Mix ingredients by hand, roll the dough and cut it into squares (2-by-2 or 3-by-3 inches). Using a fork, make about four rows of holes. Don’t push too hard, you’re not supposed to go through. Some people make holes on both sides, I only do one side.
2. Bake on ungreased cooking sheet at 375 F for 30 minutes, turn the tack over and bake for another 30 minutes.
3. Not a must, but I also dehydrate the hard tack for a couple of hours afterward, let it cool and preserve the pieces in vacuum-sealed bags.
Note: It’s not a gourmet cracker. It’s terribly hard and doesn’t taste good, but will probably preserve for years!
Top photo: Prickly pear. Credit: Susan Lutz