I was chasing my two-year old around today after church, and went through a mental exercise; I tried to tally up all of the food-bearing plants on the property, and was surprised at not only how much food we pass over in our daily routines without even noticing, but also the interesting culinary picture all these crops painted together.
I know at first, many people scoff at the thought of eating something they see every day – as if these crops are sub-par food options you should only eat when you’re starving – but there are many common landscaping plants and weeds that began as cultivated crops, and if you pictured them in the produce aisle, next to all the other fruits and vegetables for sale there, you’d start to understand not only that they’re just as “real” as the foods you normally consume, but you’ll also get a sense of the enormous amount of food all around us that goes unharvested.
I’ve noticed that many of the food cultures I admire around the world originate from a close relationship between people and the crops that grow naturally around them. You could say in almost any country outside of the United States, that foraging is a normal part of one’s culture and diet. Virtually all of the interesting cuisines out there are assembled largely from the foods that naturally occur in those places. And now you compare those to the food culture of the United States, where the mind-boggling variety and year-round accessibility of almost any food, actually makes our diet less interesting.
With that point in mind, I looked around today and asked myself what a local diet would look like in my town. What fun local customs could develop around the harvesting and processing of these crops?
Of course, it begins with a lot of greens…
you may scoff (I did after three unsuccessful attempts to make them edible) but dandelions are actually a perfectly good green. I make no pretenses of enjoying the taste of the raw leaves, but if you blanch them in boiling water and then saute , they are a perfectly decent cooked green with almost no noticeable bitterness.
This ubiquitous weed is a delicate green that many children discover on the playground. Its clover-shaped leaves are sweet with a sour finish, due to the high acid content. While there are commercial varieties of sorrel under cultivation, this smaller, wild version is perfectly edible, either fresh in a salad, as a microgreen, or in a soup (I like to make a creamy potato soup, toss in a huge handful of sorrel greens, and then garnish with crumbled bacon and cream.)
Chefs recommend you don’t overload yourself on sorrel, as the oxalic acid can be hard on your kidneys. I think you’d probably grow tired of it before it did you any harm.
Here is another powerhouse vegetable that is easy to love. Saute, blend in a smoothie, or even pickle. The semi-succulent leaves are mild but will hold up in a stir fry or almost any other application. It is called verdolaga in Latin-American cuisine, and is well-loved.
Notice how the American diet contains minimal greens, while they play a major role in other cultures. The modern Greek diet, considered one of the healthiest in the world, has a heavy focus on fresh seafood and local greens. What’s interesting is that it was borne out of poverty – Greece was practically destroyed in the two Great Wars of the 20th Century, and locals turned to foraging to scrounge up whatever would fill their stomachs.
For some reason this berry crop has not caught on in the United States, but it is beloved around the world, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia. The berries can be eaten fresh, preserved, and made into juice and wine. The mulberry tree is also the habitat of silkworm moths. In famine, the inner bark can be tenderized and eaten, but we wouldn’t recommend it.
This one requires no introduction; you’d easily pay $2-4 a piece for pomegranates at the supermarket. Not only are the seeds eaten fresh, but pomegranates can be juiced and also turned into a delightful molasses. Here in Southern Utah, they grow like a weed. Still, you’d be surprised how many pomegranates I see in people’s yards, rotting on the branch.
Purple Leaf Plum
These landscaping trees are extremely common and also prolific bearers of tasty fruit, but you don’t often see people eating them. Why not? They’re just like a plum from the store, only smaller, and they actually taste better than store plums, since you can wait until they’re perfectly ripe before picking them. In addition to eating them fresh, we like to make plum butter – just mush them until you can extract the pit, then reduce down in a crock pot and blend. You can also make them into vinegar.
While somewhat difficult to harvest and shell, pine nuts are a valuable food crop and are still an important part of the U.S. native cultures where pine trees grow native. And they grow all around us! Why not embrace this local crop by teaching the community to harvest and process pine nuts? It’s actually a fun group activity.
Did you know that without fungi, our forests wouldn’t survive? Microscopic threads of fungus live in our soil, attaching to the roots of trees. This symbiotic relationship pulls nitrogen and minerals out of the soil, making them accessible to the tree, while the fungus feeds on some of the sugars from the tree roots. The mushrooms you see are the brief reproductive period of the fungus.
I noticed a cluster of some kind of button mushroom growing around the base of a mulberry tree, and realized we could easily inoculate the soil with edible mushrooms, picking them as they emerge.
Estimated yield from church property
- 20 lbs dandelion greens, plus flowers for frying
- 15 lbs sorrel
- 10 lbs purslane
- 30 lbs pine nuts
- 100 lbs plums
- 60 lbs mulberries
- 10 lbs button mushrooms
What can we do?
I’ll admit, I didn’t pick any dandelion greens to take home with me, but what if I did? Why couldn’t we incorporate foraging and local food harvesting into our cultural and religious institutions? Imagine if every church made a conscious decision to plant edible (ideally native) landscaping suitable to the local climate. What if they also made room for a few garden beds, and taught brief classes on how to harvest and prepare the local food crops around them. Southern Utah might have workshops on prickly pears and pomegranates, or pine nuts and wild greens. The youth or unemployed could be put to work harvesting produce from the grounds and bringing it to market. Local greens could be harvested on a regular basis and sold at farmers markets or local restaurants. The hungry could be encouraged to forage for food on the property, and would also have access to classes on how to prepare what they find.
Imagine the global implications of each local organization taking a little thought toward food production and self-reliance.
What ideas do you have?