If you’re still uncomfortable shopping in a grocery store during the coronavirus pandemic, maybe you can learn a few things from Tim Clemens.
He is naturally socially distant when he gets his groceries because he’s a forager. He goes out into the woods year-round to collect edible mushrooms, flowers, roots, leaves, nuts, sap, fruits, even bugs.
Where the rest of us see just trees, bushes and weeds, Clemens sees “a landscape of abundance.”
He once spent an entire year in which he went to the grocery store only twice for food.
The 31-year-old St. Paul resident used to work as a server at the Butcher & the Boar restaurant in Minneapolis. He made extra money selling local wild produce — like prickly ash berries, Minnesota’s only native citrus plant — to restaurants like Alma and Heyday.
“These are flavors and scents that are world-class cuisine, but we just think they’re weeds,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, Clemens got laid off from his restaurant job. But he’s fallen back on a career he’s fashioned for himself as a foraging guide and instructor, teaching workshops and giving foraging tours through his company, Ironwood Foraging (ironwoodforaging.com).
The pandemic seems to be boosting interest in what he has to teach, said Clemens, who is limiting the number of people he takes out in the woods to stay within state guidelines forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people.
With the right instruction, “you can have an amazing hobby that gives you free food, free exercise and it could even give you a job,” Clemens said.
Plus, it’s an activity that lends itself to social distancing — especially in the mushroom hunting community, where the code is to be solitary and tight-lipped about your foraging.
Clemens said he’s heard of couples breaking up because of conflicts over who had the right to be in a secret mushroom hunting spot.
“It’s serious,” he said. “If someone asks you where you got your mushrooms, you say, ‘The forest.’ ”
As president of the Minnesota Mycological Society, Clemens is particularly knowledgeable about the science and lore of fungi and mushrooms.
He estimated that he can identify more than 300 species of edible mushrooms. When he encounters a plant in the field, he can often rattle off the species name in Latin as well as its Ojibwe name.
The wild mushroom that the most people are familiar with is the morel, the official mushroom of Minnesota, Clemens said. But there are many other edible mushrooms waiting out there in the woods, some that Clemens thinks are even better than the morel.
“Like the chanterelle, for instance. Delicious mushroom. Smells like apricots,” Clemens said. Plus they’re brightly colored and easy to find. “You’ll see them like a yellow brick road through the woods, like someone dropped golden coins.”
There’s also the pheasant back mushroom, which smells like watermelon rind or cucumber and can be turned into mushroom bacon.
The indigo milk cap is a blue mushroom that when cooked with eggs will turn them green.
The chicken of the woods mushroom “tastes like lemony chicken breast. Delicious. Lots of people love it. Easy to find,” Clemens said.
The matsutake, which grows in northern Minnesota, smells like a combination of gym socks and Red Hots candy, according to Clemens. But he said it’s so prized in mushroom-crazy Japan that a single mushroom can sell for up to $400 there.
More than just a meal
Clemens said humans have been using fungus for thousands of years for medicinal purposes or as a fire starter. You even can take a type of fungus found on the bark of a tree, pound it flat into a material called amadou and make it into a hat or use it as vegan leather, Clemens said.
“They are definitely sexier than plants,” said Clemens to explain his fascination with mushrooms and fungi. “They are provocative and understudied.”
Foraging is more popular in other parts of the world. Clemens said many people around here are “mycophobic” when it comes to wild mushrooms.
“If we’re told anything about them, we’re told that they’re poisonous. Don’t touch them, even,” Clemens said. “The second question will be, ‘Oh, are they psychedelic?’ If people think of mushrooms at all, it’s like, ‘Will it get me high?’ ”
There actually are three mushroom species in Minnesota that have psychedelic properties, Clemens said. Two of those species smell “like Fruity Pebbles mixed with a glazed warm doughnut.”
But Clemens warned, “They have look-alikes that are deadly. So it’s not an intro thing.”
Other poisonous wild mushrooms like the death cap and the destroying angel resemble edible grocery store mushrooms, according to Clemens. And even edible wild mushrooms like the morel are toxic if eaten raw.
That’s why the beginner forager needs to get good instruction before eating anything found in the wild.
“The biggest rule for wild mushroom foraging is you have to be 100 percent sure of what you’re eating because you’re absolutely risking your life,” Clemens said.
Any forager who wants to sell wild mushrooms to a food establishment in Minnesota needs to complete a certification course with the Minnesota Mycological Society.
“Some are poisonous. There’s a danger. Although if you’re doing it right, it’s not going to be dangerous at all,” Clemens said.
Found foraging early
Clemens started foraging when he was getting an anthropology degree at the University of Minnesota. He made maple syrup. He studied books by Wisconsin foraging expert Samuel Thayer and took classes taught by Maria Wesserle, who runs workshops out of her Minneapolis-based Four Seasons Foraging company.
“I was like ‘wow.’ I’m totally hooked on this. Other people are doing this? There are other weirdos out there?” Clemens said.
He admits that foraging might seem like a fringe activity and that mushroom hunting has an air of the counterculture. But, he said, we’re all foraging, even in the grocery store, when we make judgments about what’s in season, what looks juicy and ripe or what looks blemished or moldy.
“You’re doing that ancient human narrative of getting food and preparing food for yourself and using your judgment,” he said.
In addition to knowing what’s good to eat and what can kill you, foragers have to know where it’s legal to forage.
You can start in your backyard. But Clemens said rules on public lands vary depending on whether it’s a state park, city park, regional park, wildlife area or state forest.
Foraging is prohibited in St. Paul parks, according to an urban foraging guide published by Wesserle. It’s also prohibited in Three Rivers parks, Clemens said.
But Minnesota state parks allow harvesting of fruits and mushrooms for personal consumption. And Minneapolis parks recently eased restrictions on noncommercial harvesting of some nuts and fruits.
Clemens is trying to encourage more food-gathering in public spaces by working on a project called the Hiawatha Food Forest, which he described as a sort of sanctioned guerrilla gardening: planting fruit trees at Lake Hiawatha Park in Minneapolis so the public will be able to pick plums, cherries and crabapples.
“There’s such a bias against wild food,” he said, even though foraging helps mushrooms by spreading their spores. And maybe we can try to push back against invasive species by eating them.
For example, Clemens eats destructive but protein-rich Japanese beetles by dehydrating and marinating them so they resemble flavored popcorn.
“You don’t get any gooeyness. You don’t get any of the bug flavor,” he said.
During a recent walk through a Twin Cities park, he suggested munching on gooseberry flowers, which he said taste like tropical guava fruit.
He also pointed out garlic mustard plants, which the Minnesota Department of Agriculture has classified as “restricted noxious weeds.” But, according to Clemens, they have four to eight times the vitamin C by weight as an orange.
“It’s so good and so delicious,” he said.
He touted serviceberries: “They’re like a blueberry that grows on a tree, but the seeds taste like almond extract.”
And wild oregano: “You make a tea out of it. It tastes exactly like Earl Grey. Or you can dry it and put it on a pizza.”
And he suggested tasting a butternut — a type of walnut — while you still can. “The nut tastes like banana cream. It’s really heavenly,” he said.
But they can’t be found in a store. “You will never find it anywhere else than on the tree or under the tree,” Clemens said.
And maybe not there for very long. Because of a disease called butternut canker, “in our lifetime it’s going to be extinct from Minnesota,” he said.
“This surpasses heirloom. This surpasses rare,” Clemens said. “If you don’t have this knowledge, if you don’t go out in the woods, you’re simply never going to have this experience.”