Just minutes into the first class at the recent Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, Sam Thayer is already eating the foliage.
He lunges up a hillside and returns with a giant lobed leaf he identifies as red mulberry. Then he strips the top off a sapling branch and stuffs the young leaves in his mouth.
“Much tastier than white mulberry,” he says.
Over his two-hour plant identification walk, Thayer darts into the underbrush several more times, offering students samples of bladdernut, peeling slippery elm to show the medicinal bark, and munching on cut-leaf coneflower shoots, a green known as sochan in the South.
Thayer is one of the gurus of the foraged foods movement, an irrepressible advocate of wild edibles and author of two deeply documented books on the topic, “The Forager’s Harvest” and “Nature’s Garden.”
At a time when “wild-crafted” foods like morels and ramps flood local menus in springtime, when mixologists brag about the hand-gathered ingredients in their cocktails, and fiddlehead ferns and nettles are available at local co-ops, wild foods have become a new frontier for adventurous eaters.
But there’s still a wide gap between those willing to try a seasonal entree at a restaurant and those who forage in their own backyards.
That’s where teachers like Thayer, with his anyone-can-eat-wild ethos, and regional gatherings like the recent Midwest Wild Harvest Festival come in.
When Thayer started the Harvest Fest in 2005, it drew about 50 to 75 people a year, said Melissa Price, his wife, who now coordinates the gathering. This year’s recent event, outside Prairie du Chien, Wis., drew 146 people from as far away as Rhode Island and Tennessee.
Price said the current interest in foraging and wild foods is similar to a surge propelled by the back-to-the-land movement in the ’70s.
“It’s people getting back to basics, wanting to understand more, know more about where their food is coming from,” she said. Many families also like it as an outdoors activity they can do together.
Price and Thayer bring along their daughter, 6, and son, 4, on many of their foraging activities and have hired staffers at the Harvest Fest to take children on nature walks and other foraging activities.
“If we’re mushroom hunting, they love looking for king boletes,” Price said. “We know a few patches we scour every year, and they just love realizing that they can identify them, too.”
It’s Day 2 of the Harvest Fest, and cookbook author Ellen Zachos, a wild foods Julia Child in camouflage cargo shorts, camo apron and rubber clogs, is leading a Wild Greens and Grains class. She’s the author of “Backyard Foraging: 65 Familiar Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat.”
The smell of oyster mushrooms sautéed in hickory nut oil fills the dining hall as she passes around some of the wild ingredients: the mushrooms, found a day earlier in nearby woods, wild carrot seeds, lamb’s quarters, dried bee balm and foraged garlic from a patch in her neighborhood that went wild.
“I’ve never picked a ramp. I don’t need to pick a ramp. I think field garlic is just as delicious,” she says, sautéing her dish, a cheesy egg bake with the lamb’s quarters and quinoa.
Nearby, Bill Cook leads a class on preserving wild foods. His dense, dark acorn bread was a hit at the wild foods potluck the previous night.
The St. Cloud State assistant professor of biology grew up picking blueberries and knew the names of scores of wild plants from his research on plant succession in abandoned farm fields. But he never knew many of them were edible.
“Queen Anne’s lace, I never knew that was wild carrots,” he said.
Even for a biology professor, it’s a big step from knowing a wild plant to eating it. “That conceptual barrier is hard for people,” he said. “There’s the stuff we grow, and the stuff we don’t grow.”
A bitter taste
Kathy Zerby’s first wild food was a patch of aronia berries she found planted as landscaping outside a West St. Paul office park. After her daughter dragged her to last year’s Harvest Fest, she started noticing more wild plants in the city.
“I wasn’t sure what it was,” said the St. Paul special education teacher. “They’re not your standard berries, like a blueberry or raspberry.” She didn’t want to sample the berry without a positive ID.
A Facebook group helped her identify the dark purple berry as a high-antioxidant super food. She began surreptitiously gathering the berries, ducking under windows and collecting the berries in the shade so her co-workers couldn’t see her.
Still, she became known at work as a forager and recently saved a bunch of rose hips at a gathering of co-workers to celebrate the cleanup of a weedy courtyard.
The mushroom queen
The students on Mike Krebill’s mushroom walk have just returned from their hike into the woods with more than a dozen paper bags of mushrooms for identification. The prize, a pearlescent, gray oyster mushroom colony found growing up the side of a dead elm.
“Fall is an underrated mushroom season,” Krebill says.
Now it’s time to sample the find. Krebill puts out a foragers’ buffet: bright orange chicken of the woods, pale maitake lobes, a handful of chanterelles, bear’s tooth, yellow oysters, a giant puffball and a handful of king boletes, also known as porcini.
As students fry up chunks of the spongy puffball, Maggie Kwong Taylor, owner of Dragon House Chinese restaurant in Columbia Heights, appears with a handful of fresh basil and a small jar of oyster sauce.
She was out walking with a friend, who saw a stand of mushrooms the friend remembered gathering as a child.
“We picked two bags and went to the Minnesota Mycological Society,” she says. “Brought them and a big puffball we found in the city.”
That was her first encounter with foraging. Then she attended the White Earth Wild Food Summit. “It opened my eyes,” she said. “Trying the simplest things, like chickweed. It’s sweet and you put it on a salad. Or dandelion roots. You roast it and it smells so good.”
Now, she forages for mushrooms whenever she has a break from the restaurant, keeping her “foray” basket and mushroom log sheet close at hand. She hasn’t put wild mushrooms on the menu at Dragon House, but she does cook them up for her kitchen staff and customers she knows are avid mushroom hunters.
Make this at home
On the final day of Harvest Fest, light streams into one of the campground’s lodges, where Zachos is leading a class on making wild sodas.
“Oh, wow, can you smell that sassafras?” she says, as tingly bubbles of root beer scent fill the room. She has also ground dried juniper berries and is making a simple syrup of it for a homemade juniper soda.
Beside her, Krebill is sorting red-berried cones of sumac for his tart sumac “lemonade.”
Zachos, who spent the year leading wild edible workshops for bartenders and mixologists, said one of the benefits of wild foods is that it expands your pantry.
Sumac, for example, makes a tart, red lemonade and can also be used for lemon meringue. For those who want to eat locally and don’t live where lemons grow, “sumac is a good thing that’s accessible to a lot of people,” she said.
Juniper soda and sassafras root beer, lamb’s quarters and sochan are rediscoveries for many wild foods enthusiasts. But Price said in many families, knowledge of wild foods is closer than people realize.
Her grandfather recently visited from South Dakota, and he named many wild edible plants he grew up with, including pigweed, also known as amaranth.
“He is not someone I would have thought of as a forager,” she said. “But it’s not that far out there that people really did use and know these things.”
The 2016 Midwest Wild Harvest Fest will be held Sept. 9 to 11. For information on other foraging events, see foragersharvest.com/resources-links.
Trisha Collopy is a Star Tribune copy editor.