New Adventures in Urban Foraging

At least it's 100% juice. (wikipedia)

Urban foraging is the new black. Except that city officials are enforcing rules against it in Central Park, a place that, if they banned black, most people would have to go naked, which is also banned.

For you, Mom, who hasn’t heard of urban foraging, I’ll briefly explain: it’s when you look for, find, and use the plants growing right outside your door for food, medicine, or a nice quick high. (That means people smoke it to feel good, Mom, like marijuana.) (All other readers: for more on Mom, please see Passengers in Zone 4, Please Board While Doing the Charleston.)

My fellow classmate at Goucher, Rebecca Lerner, has been contracted to write a book on urban foraging, based on her master’s thesis, Dandelion Hunter: Foraging for Adventure in the Wilderness Downtown. Based in Portland, Oregon, she’s got a blog called FirstWays, in which she reports on things like mallow and chickweed salad, back-alley blackberry mead, and datura, a weed said in Haiti to have brought back at least one person to a very hip zombie state.

I admire her encyclopedic knowledge of flora, her trailblazing spirit, her insatiable curiosity about what’s right in front of her, and her willingness to put it in her mouth.

I consider myself a friend of the Earth; that’s what my novel is about. Lily McNutt doesn’t get the panties that no one else has seen in too long in a twist over nothing. My father, The Guru (see Building the Future, One Accident at a Time) hunted deer responsibly. We all fished and crabbed responsibly. We picked salmonberries with gusto every July. That all seemed normal. It resulted in good food. And other people did it.

Salmonberries: food of gods, bears, and adolescents

But I will forever associate foraging with goose grass, which Mom decided, sometime in the seventies, that we should harvest on one of our family boat excursions in Southeast Alaska. (That’s where we lived.)

Goose grass: the next arugula? It will have to change its name. (

So my siblings and I found ourselves yanking tough, dull green weeds from among the rocks at low tide, wishing that Mom would just stick to what she did best: everything else.

That night when dinner was served, the goose grass was like oversalted strips of leather in brine. We begged Mom to stop her experiments in the hippie culture. Maybe we should just pick younger shoots, she mused. We did. We determined that that was not the problem.

By seventeen, when part of an outdoor survival course was to camp on a beach for twenty-four hours eating only what we pried off the rocks at low tide mixed in a pot of boiling water with potatoes, I found that I didn’t like limpets either. (In retrospect I think this was totally due to overcooking and a lack of salt and fat additives.)

Limpets. The next lobster? (

Last week, channeling his grandmother, Mbot did some urban foraging of his own. We were at the park early Sunday morning, after witnessing the tail end of a drug deal (see The Ex-Con’s Rule.) (Don’t look, Mom.) There had been a birthday party at the park the day before. I picked up a few plastic cups and threw them in the overflowing trash bin. I sat down. I looked away.

I looked back. Mbot was sucking on….a crumpled old CapriSun sippy juice bag. We had not come to the park with a crumpled old CapriSun sippy juice bag.

I overreacted.

The Midgets laughed and laughed.

When we got home, I searched the internet to discover how much I should worry.

Not much, I was assured, by several sources that appear to be reliable. It’s just really gross. Sucking a stranger’s backwash through the inside of the stranger’s straw at a quiet suburban park at the western outskirts of Phoenix. Even Anthony Bourdain might draw the line.

By now I’ve developed a social and environmental consciousness that makes me feel small-minded for not embracing those early forays into foraging. And back in the nineties I worked with foodies who taught me it was uncool to turn up your nose at something just because it was unfamiliar. I will encourage the Midgets to learn about indigenous plants. Giving names to things–recognizing each plant’s individuality–fosters respect. Knowledge builds confidence.

As for me, I’m holding out for the back-alley blackberry mead. But I want a new straw.

What has urban foraging turned up for you?

2 thoughts on “New Adventures in Urban Foraging

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