Nov 10, 201610:52 AM
Our weekly blog on the New Orleans fine dining scene
A Forager’s Garden
One of the things that I think about a lot is what I would do if I was forced to sustain myself from the fat of the land. I think about this almost as often as I think about my hair, which is thick and lustrous.
I am under no illusion that because I currently have more okra, peppers and basil than I can comfortably use, I am somehow a farmer. I am not a dietician, but I do not believe that one could actually subsist on a diet of okra, peppers and basil. Even considering the bumper crop of cucumbers I had earlier this year, I’d starve to death rather quickly if I had to subsist on my backyard garden.
This is one reason I became interested, years ago, in foraging. By “interested,” I mean I read a few books and dug around on the internet a good bit. I also called Dan Gill’s radio show to ask if he had any suggestions on people who might give tours in the area. He did not. I like Dan Gill, but man, sometimes that guy can be a Crabby Cathy, am I right?
I did eventually stumble across a few resources that were of more local interest. The most important being "Edible Plants of the Gulf South," by Charles M. Allen, PhD, Andrew W. Allen, B.S., and Harry W. Winters, M.D. I read that book cover to cover, then I read it again, and then I took it with me on walks in City Park and in Amite, whence comes my mother’s family. (One says things like, “whence comes” when one is a forager.)
That was a number of years ago, and while I would like to tell you that I learned enough to survive in the wild if necessary, I doubt that would be the case. I read in many sources that it is possible to make flour from acorns. Most of these sources stressed that it is necessary to leach the tannins from the acorns before proceeding; some also stressed that this leaching process is time consuming and somewhat difficult.
The few sources I found trustworthy on other topics also noted that even if you leach the acorns for weeks in a fast-running stream, then boil them, then re-stream them, the resulting flour tastes like sour elbow sweat.
I have rather refined tastes, my friends, and thus I fear I would not take readily to acorn-flour crepes, biscuits or bread. In addition, I lack access to fast-running streams, unless you count the hose, and I don’t.
Then there is my experience with chanterelle mushrooms, which are fairly easy to identify, and grow pretty readily around here. When I was studying the subject, it also appeared that there wasn’t a particularly toxic mushroom that looked very much like a chanterelle, though I did note the existence of the “false chanterelle,” which I understood wasn’t poisonous, exactly, but did taste pretty bad.
How tough could that be? I thought. Even if I pick a few false chanterelles, I’ll be able to puzzle it out, and worst case scenario, I’ll sample a small bit of each mushroom and discard those that don’t taste right.
Which would have been a good plan if false chanterelles didn’t taste like burning crossed with battery acid and leave a “tingling” sensation on your tongue that is not a pleasant “tingling” sensation, but rather a “tingling” sensation that makes you question whether the source of your information on the toxicity of false chanterelle mushrooms was accurate. As it turns out, one man’s “not very tasty” is another man’s “burning battery acid am I going to die now?” (I still pick chanterelles when I see them, by the way, as it happens there’s a pretty simple way to distinguish the two species.)
My “foraging” these days is mainly limited to noticing edible plants while I’m walking around. If you know what it looks like, you can find purslane all over the place, even downtown. It doesn’t take much room for plants like wild sorrel amaranth and plantain to grow in open lots. You’d have to work hard to avoid dandelions, and caught at the right time (which is, admittedly, sort of hard to do) they’re delicious.
So while I’m more or less an imaginary forager these days, I still find it interesting, and it’s one of the reasons I have a garden in the first place. I’m continually amazed at the various plants that spring up, uninvited, in my beds. Most of these plants are entirely useless to me from either a decorative or nutritional standpoint, but now and again I’ll find something that looks interesting invading the garden, and I generally let it stick around until it proves itself neither. Once in a while, I’m pleasantly surprised, and eventually, I hope, much of my garden will consist of plants that one might find growing wild during a walk through City Park.
If you have any suggestions for native species of edible plants for the home garden, I’d appreciate hearing from you.