- Euell Gibbons
That line from Stalking the Wild Asparagus came to mind as we pulled into the woods. Even before getting out of the truck we knew it was going to be a productive day. Our noses told us. Gwenne and I were on our annual ramping outing near the Battenkill. Actually she dug the ramps while I mostly poked around, providing sport and sustenance to the local tick population. We both endured a few hit or miss snow squalls. Ah, spring in the north country.
That was several months ago and the greens of wild leeks (aka ramps) have now withered. The white bulbs are still there, just below the surface, but much harder to find. It's the end of June or early July before the flowers appear. Look for a bursting cluster of small (quarter to half inch) white blossoms at the end of a bare stalk 8 or 9 inches high. Other Alliums you might find in our area (Meadow Garlic, Field Garlic and Wild Chives) have pink or lavender flowers in somewhat similar stalk borne arrangements. All waft a strong garlic/onion odor.
Wild leeks seem to be having a "moment". That's not necessarily a good thing. They're turning up in trendy restaurants like Vermont's Misery Loves Co. You can buy them in stores and at farmers markets. There are even Ramp Festivals. The problem, of course, is over-harvesting. On our land we dig sparingly and Gwenne cuts off the rootlets from the bulbs, replanting them to develop into new plants. She has also started new patches by transplanting.
Collecting wild plants for food or medicine is called foraging. Many find it a very gratifying outdoor activity. We are all descended from hunter/gathers and foraging feels like a return to our roots. It satisfies some deep urge in a way that shopping at Walmart doesn't.
Humans have only been practicing agriculture for maybe 10,000 years. Here in the Northeast it wasn't until the Late Woodland Period, about 1000 years ago, that Native Americans began planting the Three Sisters: beans, corn and squash. Before that hunting, fishing and gathering provided everything. Wild animals are still hunter/gathers although domesticated species have trained people like me to provide for them.
The rebirth of interest in foraging is often traced to Euell Gibbon's Stalking the Wild Asparagus. First published in 1962, it was part of the whole "back to the land" vibe of the 60's. Asparagus is a folksy collection of recipes, identification info, natural history and homespun philosophy. Many other useful volumes are now available (check The Forager Press). They help preserve our accumulated 'living off the land' wisdom. If all we know is 'store bought' what would happen if there weren't any stores?
In Washington County self-reliance is holding its own. You see pick-ups loaded with firewood all the time - a gathering of warmth for the coming cold. Many people have gardens and a variety of locally grown food is available at farmers markets and roadside stands. Sue Van Hook teaches how to identify edible mushrooms and Barbara Price has a website called Greenwich Meal Time with recipes and foraging advice.
Not surprisingly, there are even professional foragers. Evan Strusinski is a Vermont native who has become something of a celebrity by providing the best restaurants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia with exotic wild fare for their tables. Take a look at his Instagram page and goggle him for a peek at a culinary world somewhat removed from your local McDonalds.
Photo of Strusinski from the Web
Few of us will ever 'go native' and meet all our needs as hunter/gathers. But here's a memory I cherish. When I was younger, Dad and I would do the morning milking while Mom walked up the lane gathering wild strawberries. When we came in for breakfast we may have had cereal out of a box but there was fresh milk and just picked strawberries to go on it.
Perhaps it's just the healthy connection to place that is foraging's biggest benefit. There is an older gentleman who has come to my farm for many years to gather hickory nuts. He no longer drives but his granddaughter still brings him each fall for an activity he obviously enjoys. I like talking to him and last time he was here I asked "How do you shell and eat so many nuts? Aren't they bitter?" He laughed. "Oh, I don't eat them. I feed them to the squirrels."
Foragers (and squirrels) are welcome