Done carefully, it can be very rewarding.
By Anthony Valterra
I’ve just reread The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver. It is a near-future (obvious by the title) crash book written in 2016. Given the huge changes since that date, it holds up incredibly well.
Like all speculative fiction, it will age quickly and show its flaws. But the three aspects I loved about this book are that it concerns a very average family (no ex-military special forces folks), who are unprepared for events (no bug-out shelters prepared for the coming events), and live in a middle-class suburb (not on a semi-off grid homestead). I would love to see more novels of that type.
As I said, it has its flaws, and one is that there are no examples of “urban foraging,” or “suburban foraging,” which even though we are steps from the St. Louis city line is technically what Lisa and I do. I am going to define this kind of foraging as collecting unwanted or disregarded food stuffs in a (sub)urban environment. Climbing into your neighbors’ backyard and stealing apples off their tree doesn’t count. Picking serviceberries off of the obviously uncared-for tree in their “green zone,” however, is probably okay.
Of course, the easiest spot to forage is your own backyard. It’s also the safest. First, you know it’s okay with the owner since they is you. Second, you know what has been put on the ground since (hopefully) you did that as well. If you have a crew that comes in to take care of your backyard, I hope that 1) you know what chemicals they are using and 2) you will subscribe to our Substack, as you can obviously afford it.
The very first edible I saw in our backyard and then realized I was seeing everywhere was wild garlic.
These alums (Allium ursinum), are known as wild garlic, ramsons, cowleeks, cows’ leek, cowleek, buckrams, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, Eurasian wild garlic, or bear’s garlic. They show up in yards all around our neighborhood. I assume most people think they are just a lawn weed that needs to be eradicated or tolerated. But they are very edible and very yummy. In the early spring, the shoots are thin and often curvy and loopy (like the image above, often even more dramatically). At this point you want to eat the tender greens. You can use them just like you would green onions. Dice them up and put them in soup, or in salad, or in a pesto. The story is that bears like them (thus some of the common names), but oddly our cat loves them. We’d been told that alliums and cats are not a good combination, so we limit his intake to a little bit very occasionally. But wow, he really gets excited when we bring some in the house and let him have his share. In the fall the shoots thicken, straighten, and toughen. They are not really very good at that point (not even the cat is as interested). But at this point they have a bulb. Yup, just like a green onion, if you gently pull the whole plant out of the ground, you will see a marble-sized bulb.
The bulb looks like a tiny garlic bulb. Clean it up, chop it, and use it like garlic or onion. We don’t really need to pull these from anywhere other than our own backyard. We have more than we can use. I do occasionally pick one when I am out on a walk and chew on it like you would a grass stalk. It lends to my urban-farmer image to have it hanging out of my mouth.
The next target for urban foraging is considerably more risky. Not so much because people will claim ownership, but because (technically) there is a risk of sickness or even… death. Yes, we are talking mushrooms. Look, people forage mushrooms in this country all the time. According to this study from 1999-2016, there were only 52 fatalities from eating a mushroom in that time period. Fifty-two in 18 years is not a lot. One should be cautious1, read up on how to properly identify a mushroom, and then actually go through the process. I suspect that many people read about how to identify a mushroom (say, from spores) and then don’t bother doing it out of a false sense of certainty.
In our case, we were blessed with Reddening lepiota (Lepiota americana).
The spores likely came in on some mulch we spread on the garden early on. From about 2018 to 2020, we had a profusion of these mushrooms pop up all over our yard. They were delicious. And then in 2021—nothing. They just stopped coming. I have no idea why. Maybe they had consumed whatever they were eating in the mulch, and there was nothing in the new mulch. Or maybe they all got Covid and died—who knows.
Finally, our latest foraging victory: serviceberries.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier), is also known as shadbush, shadwood or shadblow, sarvisberry (or just sarvis), juneberry, saskatoon, sugarplum, wild-plum, or chuckley pear. There are a number of these trees that I assume were planted by the city in the street’s “green zones.” In case this terminology is unfamiliar: The green zone is the strip of growth between the sidewalk and the street. In our neighborhood, these trees (technically large bushes) are unpruned and uncared for. If we did not collect the berries, they would drop to the ground and be swept up by street cleaners or be eaten by the birds. As near as we can tell, no one in the neighborhood is collecting or eating these wonderful sweet berries. I can guess why. They are bright red and probably remind people of a number of red berries that are at best very sour and at worst toxic. We will pick as many as we can and make pies or crumble (recipe below) and freeze the rest for later in the year.
This year I decided to make a healthier version of a crumble with serviceberry and apple as the base. I did this in the tradition of Lisa’s post on making jam and being confidant playing with recipes. Here is the final result, but the recipe itself is for paid subscribers.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial