Thanksgiving is next week, and most of you will probably enjoy feasting with family and friends. If you are planning to enjoy a typical American Thanksgiving dinner like myself, then you will likely indulge in turkey, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie. If you step back and think about it for a minute: the food supply in the United States and the “developed” world is impressive. Most of us never really have to worry about food.
All food comes from nature
Tell us more Mr. Science!
Almost everything we eat has been cultivated and “engineered” over time; that’s mainly so that the yields are higher and the food tastes better. Hooray science! As long as we can stay ahead of disease and we don’t mess up too many genomes, we will always have a dependable food supply.
So with that said, there are a few reasons why gathering food for free (foraging, if you will) is rewarding:
- It’s free: not paying for food is satisfying. It’s like you cheated the system or you are “off the grid”; even if store-bought food is quite cheap and abundant.
- It’s “all natural”: For people who truly want to eat something organic, all-natural, or whatever you are looking for at Whole Foods, getting it straight from nature is really the purest way to do it. It certainly doesn’t taste as good. But if you want to pay $4 for that organic avocado, be my guest.
- It makes you appreciate the food we have: When I have foraged for food in the past, at some point the following thought will cross my mind: “what if I had to do this every day to eat?” In some places around the world, that is exactly what people have to do. After pondering that question for a minute, you will more than likely come to the conclusion similar to mine: “the modern food supply is pretty awesome!”
Foraging in the Fall
I’m no expert on gathering food in the woods. If I was, then I would have a blog just talking about it. However over the past few years, I have become more interested in finding food in nature. Late spring and early fall (at least in the Mid-Atlantic region) is a great time to find food in nature. Even if you don’t plan to eat anything, looking for edible plants can make your walk in the woods a little more interesting.
Even though it’s a little late in the season, you may be able to find several species of edible nuts in November, including: hazelnuts, walnuts, acorns, beech, and hickory nuts. Although most nuts need to be soaked or boiled in water to reduce the tannin levels (and kill any bugs/bacteria).
Right around the end of September, the fruits from Persimmon and Paw paw trees start to ripen. The persimmons native to the US are much smaller than the Asian varieties that are commercially available. The native persimmons can have a gritty texture too, so it’s best to eat them when they are extra ripe to take the edge off. Additionally you can find wild grapes growing in many forested areas. So November is quite late to find any fruits that are worth eating, but keep it in mind for next season. The following picture was part of a harvest from this September.
In the late Spring and Summer (on the US east coast), you can find wild raspberries all over the place (many of which are invasive). The major invasive raspberry in the US, wineberry, is actually quite tasty. So in a way, by eating wineberries, you are preventing an invasive species from spreading.
Know before you start eating native plants
Make sure you know what you are doing! I don’t recommend picking up anything on your next hike and eating it if you don’t know 100% what it is and if it is edible. If you didn’t notice, I didn’t make any recommendations on wild mushrooms (I don’t eat mushrooms very often, but also they can be dangerous). If you are an expert on identifying mushrooms, there are plenty of options in the forest (many of which can be quite valuable); but again, I’m no expert so use common sense if you are going to “hunt” for mushrooms.
Another disclaimer: a study has shown that concentrated extracts of one of the naturally-occurring chemicals present in paw paw fruits have adverse effects on neurons. Although I think you would have to eat dozens of fruit to have this effect. I eat a few each fall, and I don’t think one or two at a time will hurt you.
Get fruity…or nutty
Being able to identify native (or invasive) species and their fruits is a great skill to have. You don’t necessarily have to eat anything, but it’s nice to know what’s edible if you are ever stranded in the woods. So I encourage you to pick up a field guide, or find one online, and check out the native species in your area. You may be surprised in what nature has to offer right in your backyard.