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Food for thought: Musings on sustenance and what makes us human

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus is illustrated only with ink sketches of the plants, so it is hardly a field guide for a modern aspiring forager; and since he suggests adding butter and/or bacon to almost every vegetable he finds, it is not really suitable as a contemporary cookbook either. But it does have a terrific title, and his "thoughts on wild foods" are stirring.

"We live in a vastly complex society which has been able to provide us with a multitude of material things, and this is good, but people are beginning to suspect that we have paid a high spiritual price for our plenty" Gibbons wrote – in 1962. In gaining access to produce grown all over the world, all year long, we have lost our primal connection to the Earth and the seasons. And in addition to the spiritual price Gibbons cites, we have paid a biological one – the centralization of our food supply has made it vulnerable to pathogens, allowing contaminated crops from one area to sicken people all over the country. (See Food Inspection Is Often Flawed.) But although it is trendy to pine for old foodways, when people were more likely to die of malnutrition than obesity, is it feasible or even desirable to "live solely on the bounty of nature," as Gibbons did?

Self-sufficiency certainly sounded appealing, so I decided to try it out by going on a foraging tour run by "Wildman" Steve Brill. Mr. Brill collects wild food in and around New York City; this particular outing was in Danbury, Conn. Mr. Brill noted that foraging causes no harm to the environment, as the sources are renewable – they will all grow back again. Right out of the parking lot we found green foxtail grass (Setaria viridis), whose seeds we collected to bake into muffins and add to oatmeal; ground ivy (Glecoma hederacea), a minty smelling leaf that grows close to the ground and can be used for tea; and spotted jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), not usually still around by November, but protected here by a barn. The juice that comes out of the jewelweed stems when they are squeezed contains 2-methoxy-1, 4-napthoquinine, an anti-inflammatory and fungicide that can be used to soothe mosquito bites, poison ivy and other skin rashes. I rushed to taste the ground ivy steeped in boiling water as soon as I got home, but it was not, as they say, my cup of tea.

I was hoping to gather wild mushrooms to sauté and put on my burger for dinner, but the pear-shaped puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme) that we found were about 10 days past their prime. My son picked up a poison pigskin puffball (Scleroderma citrinum), but we didn’t eat it for obvious reasons. Mr. Brill said that he found a treasure trove of honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea) in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park the previous week, but we found none.

We chewed on twigs from a black birch (Betula lenta), which contain methyl salicylate, or oil of wintergreen. That’s why birch beer tastes like toothpaste. Methyl salicylate is also the topical analgesic used in Ben Gay and similar liniments. We picked yarrow (Achillea millefolium), named after Achilles because he (and other, realer warriors) used it to staunch the blood flow of battlefield injuries. We saw mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), which is used in traditional Chinese medicine to make a tea that alleviates PMS. As a side bonus, the toxic thujone in it gives vivid dreams. But the big highlight, on nutritional, culinary, and medicinal fronts, was probably the stinging nettles (Urtica dioca). The hollow hairs lining the stems and leaves act like hypodermic needles, injecting formic acid, histamine, acetylcholine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), and as yet unidentified compounds to sting unwary animals. Yet Mr. Brill claimed that the leaves are delicious – like spinach – when cooked properly, and they are rich in vitamins A, C, D, iron, potassium, manganese, and calcium. Nettle leaves have traditionally been used to treat arthritis, and recent research has revealed a mechanism by which they might act; nettle leaf extracts lower levels of the inflammatory cytokine TNF-α in the synovial tissue that lines the joints [1]. I stayed away from the stinging nettles.

So I ended up bringing home a bag filled mainly with dirt and bugs but nothing I could (or would) actually eat except three cloves of field garlic (Allium vineale), each about the size of my pinky nail. Others in the group rushed to collect Gingko biloba nuts to roast, but I stayed away because the butyric acid in the fruit literally smells like vomit. Mr. Brill called it “dinosaur repellant,” alluding to the Gingko tree’s status as a living fossil – it has no close living relatives. We dug up some wild carrots (Daucus carota), each about the diameter of a pencil with all the dirt crusted on it and even narrower when washed off. Mr. Brill suggested that the wild carrots and garlic were small but their flavor was intense and concentrated; he said that cultivated vegetables are bred for size, and are therefore mostly water with little taste or nutrition. But these little carrots were too tough to eat.

Everyone on the kitchen staff at Noma in Copenhagen, the best restaurant in the world, is required to go on the foraging trips that supply the restaurant’s larder. When René Redzepi, the chef, was faced with carrots that were a year and a half old – because it was a crazy cold winter and there was absolutely nothing left to harvest or forage to feed the customers who had made reservations six months earlier – he cooked them for an hour and a half in local goat’s butter and they turned sublime. But alas, I do not run the best restaurant in the world, so my four skinny wild carrots went into the composter after the first rubbery bite.

My Polish grandmother used to say, "If God wanted us to drink skim milk, that’s what would come out of cows." This barely even qualified as crazy compared to some of the other things she used to say, so we would just smile and roll our eyes. But she was preempting Alice Waters and Michael Pollan, noting that the more we process our food, the worse it is for us. The wilder the better. And yet foraging, at least for me that day, did not inspire me to cook up the acorns (Quercus rubra) or dandelion greens (Taraxacum officinale) littering my yard. Rather, it made me think that agriculture caught on for a reason.

There are a number of adaptive changes that vie for the honor of making us human. Changes in the shape of our pelvic bones allowed us to walk upright on two legs (and made childbirth difficult); I like to claim the use of tools as the hallmark of humanity when begging my children to use their silverware. But now I am thinking that it is precisely the fact that we do not (have to) spend the bulk of our time foraging for calories that freed up our time and energy and enabled us to pursue more worthwhile activities. Like blogging about foraging.

References:

1) Riehemann K, Behnke B, Schulze-Osthoff K. Plant extracts from stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), an antirheumatic remedy, inhibit the proinflammatory transcription factor NF-kappaB. FEBS Lett. 1999 Jan 8;442(1):89-94.

About The Author: Diana Gitig received her Ph.D. in Cell Biology and Genetics from Cornell University’s Graduate School of Medical Sciences in 2001. Since then she is a freelance science writer. Diana is based in New York.

 

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. wildmansteve 8:14 am 11/12/2010

    Thanks for covering my tour in the blog, and including the link to my site, Diane. It’s a shame the plants we found weren’t to your taste.

    Of course, there is an element of hit-or-miss to foraging, and the tour you attended turned out to be the least productive of the hundreds I led since last winter. Seems like the deer, which are highly overpopulated, got there first, and wiped out a dozen species of very common, tasty wild vegetables we’re finding on most of my tours in deer-free city parks.

    The very dry, hot summer did a job on the mushrooms too, although we found an abundance of fresh pear-shaped puffballs, plus a huge hen-of-the-woods (maitake) on my very next public tour.

    The same summer drought deprived us of a crop of black walnuts, but the gingkoes are a mainstay of East Asian cuisine, delicious after you discard the smelly fruit and roast the kernels. Asian families scour Central Park for these traditional delicacies, and sell them in Chinatown, where everyone cooks with them, including the best restaurants there.

    And while the wild carrots are tough raw, they’re superior in flavor and texture cooked into carrot soups (which are even better with the addition of field garlic), cakes, and cookies, because they maintain their texture and don’t get mushy. And wild carrots in sunny fields near the seashore get quite large.

    Paleontological evidence has pushed the use of fire by early humans back quite far, and I’m sure our paleolithic ancestors were as creative over the hearth as their foodie descendants are in modern kitchens. Recent findings are even showing evidence of Stone Age people making bread with dried, pulverized wild roots–something I’m going to try with wild carrots and burdock root in the near future.

    There are dozens of tasty, healthful, renewable herbs, greens, fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, roots, and mushrooms growing all around us that thousands of people attending my tours every year are thrilled to find and use. I hope you can attend another tour in a more productive location at a better time of year, cook some of our finds, and give foraging another chance. Hope to see some of your readers on these too.

    Thanks again for the excellent coverage of my tour, and of this topic!

    Happy Foraging!

    "Wildman" Steve Brill

    Link to this
  2. 2. Devlbunny 6:02 pm 11/15/2010

    If everyone were to rely on foraging, many of us would die from starvation or poisoning. While my current diet may not be the healthiest, I prefer eating my store-bought over-sized watered-down vegetables to starvation or accidental poisoning.

    Link to this

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