Foray into Foraging
by Jennifer Pharr Davis
To say that I have always had an interest in plant identification would be a lie. I remember on my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, I grew quite annoyed with my friends when they pulled out their half-pound flower identification book and then put their noses to the ground to observe the stem, stamen, and petals of an unknown species. But then again, when I started the Appalachian Trail I didn’t know the difference between an oak tree and a maple tree. When I started the Appalachian Trail, I didn’t feel at home in the woods.
The more time I spent moving through the wilderness, the more I felt familiar with my surroundings, and then the more grateful I felt for my environment. Eventually, the trail started to feel like home, or at least a much cooler apartment than the craigslist alternative I was living in at the time.
Eventually, I noticed that despite my love for movement, I also wanted to know the details of my environment. At this point, I would say that I have had a strong interest in plant identification for quite a while. But I have my 2-year-old daughter to thank for facilitating a perfect pace to learn edible and medicinal plants.
Hiking with Charley this year has been such a gift. She is too big for the kid carrier and too small to go fast or far. We take our time, we take lots of stops, and I get to look at every plant lining the path. Typically I take pictures of known and unknown plants and then go home to try to identify the species and learn more about it.
I have to admit that I was so overwhelmed with plant species that I put a mental block on mushrooms. I felt like I needed to learn the flora before the fungus. But then I spent some time with friend and forager, Adam Haritan, in Pittsburgh and he convinced me, literally overnight, that I needed to start learning my mushrooms.
The very next week I had a long discussion with the Deep Woods Mushroom man at our local farmer market and even bought some Chaga tea. Then on a recent hike I came across and new and very distinct mushroom. I went home and identified it online as a cauliflower mushroom. I asked my mushroom friends to help confirm my positive identification and then I went back with my scissors. Time to forage.
Cauliflower mushroom is supposedly a choice edible in the mushroom realm. And, BONUS, it has no known poisonous look-a-likes. Phew.
I had eaten berries, chewed on bark, steamed needles, and tasted leaves but I had never made my meal out of a mushroom before. I googled all the best foraging and mushroom blogs for a recipe and then decided to sauté my mushroom and add it to a soup.
I had low expectations. I’m not a great cook. Plus, as my husband put it, “I don’t like cauliflower and I don’t like mushrooms, so I doubt I’m gonna like a cauliflower mushroom.” But I was determined to devour it for the health benefits. Without going into detail, and while admitting that I am a total newbie, I am convinced that wild foraged food offers a superior diet and lifestyle. I had spent a lot of time and miles making my exterior a part of Appalachia and now I wanted my interior to be Appalachian as well.
When the soup was finished, I first dipped a spoon into the concoction and brought out a few drops of brown liquid. Then, I subtlety sipped the broth and, to my surprise, it was delicious! (But, let’s face it, it’s hard to mess up salty beef broth.)
Now it was time for the true test, I dug my utensil into the soup to fish out a big chunk of cauliflower mushroom, then resisted the urge to close my eyes and pinch my nose before sticking the spoon into my mouth.
Taste. Chew. Swallow. Smile.
Seriously?! I am not just saying this, it was the most delicious soup I had ever tasted! It was like a savory and superior French Onion. In fact, the richness of the soup caused everything else at dinner to taste stale. Even my husband claimed it was one of the best soups he had ever tried. I consumed a big bowl of the mushroom flavored consommé and held-off on seconds simply to see how the wild food would sit in my stomach.
I am happy to report that 48 hours later, I still feel great and I am excited to know that foraged food doesn’t just harbor medicinal properties and health benefits, it can also taste incredible.
I will now add the same disclaimer that I have seen on every single foraging website, DON’T EAT ANYTHING THAT’S BEEN FORAGED IF YOU AREN’T 100% SURE WHAT IT IS. Don’t pick or pull anything rare or endangered and know how to forage properly as to not deplete the plant population. Also, if you forage on public lands, make sure you are following proper guidelines and protocol.
Happy Trails and Foraging ; )