Sharon May 19th, 2008

I recently was asked to provide advance comment on a new food storage book, _Food Security for the Faint of Heart: Keeping Your Larder Full in Lean Times_ by Robin Wheeler.  She’ll definitely be getting a great deal of praise from me - this is a terrific book, warmly written, funny and smart.  Not only do I now want to read her gardening book, but I immediately found myself fantasizing about hanging out with the author and trading recipes and graden tricks.  That doesn’t happen so terribly often - I’m impressed.  I really recommend the book, and I’ll put it in the food storage section of my store once it is out.

 I was particularly struck by one of her observations, in a chapter on edible flowers and foraging (the book ranges widely over everything from bulk buying to gardening for renters and preservation methods).  Wheeler writes,

 ”Like most people visiting Asia, I have experienced the constant dripping of a rain of epiphanies during my stays.  One of these occurred on a trip to Northern Thailand, as I was standing on the edge of a new friend’s yard.  I admired the grove of towering bamboo that edged her garden boundary, in a row so straight I could have marked it off with a piece of thread, with not a single trace of bamboo growing out into the road. 

‘How do you do that?’ I asked her.  ‘How do you keep the bamboo from growing all over the place, outside of your yard?’

‘Well, that’s easy,’ she replied.  ‘Everyone knows how good bamboo shoots are in their dinner.  The minute one shows its head outside of my garden, someone takes it home.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘In Canada we hack down the bamboo and throw it in the bushes and buy bamboo shoots in a can at the store.’

But that is what North America is all about.  We have been trained that if it is right in front of our face (e.g. free, accessible) it is somehow inferior, and that the only really good stuff is at the store.  The more abundantly and freely something grows, the more reviled it should be.” (Wheeler, 95)

I think Wheeler’s articulation of our culture is right on the money.  And I started thinking about that fact in relationship to another book I’ve been reading, a very different, but equally wonderful book.  Archaeologist Martin Jones has written _Feast: Why Humans Share Food_ in which he takes the time to make strange the human custom of food sharing, and then explores its origins and history.  It is an utterly fascinating work.

In one section, he talks about the custom of choosing *not* to eat, to render taboo, commonly available foods.  For example, he explores bone piles from coastal British tribal populations that show no sign of including fish bones, even in periods where there are signs of famine and protein shortage.  This suggests that the cultural taboos against eating fish were powerful enough to affect even the starving.  It may well be that the cultural habit of not seeing things as food made them effectively invisible to the hungry?   And, of course, we know that they are.  How many hungry Americans know to go out in the parks near them and dig up burdock roots?   How many know to eat grasshoppers, and how many Americans can overcome their aversion, the profound idea that something is not “food.”

The ability to take some edibles and call them taboo is an important way that cultures differentiate themselves  from one another - what we eat is who we are- and that’s no less true now than it was in any other society.  Of course, some of this is the wastefulness that Wheeler describes, but part of it is also the cultural sense that we are identified by our ability not to recognize these things as food - this is our way of differentiating ourselves from our agrarian prior culture.  How many ethnic narratives describe being embarrassed by a parent or grandparent’s harvesting of a wild plant from a public place, or by agrarian food traditions?  Many, that I’ve read.  It isn’t just that we’re wasteful - it is that we’re still sending out the cultural message “we’re different from the old agrarian roots” even though that’s become painfully obvious.  That is, we are constituting ourselves as fundamentally different from what came before us, as a new people.  The difficulty, of course, is that we may need to be rather more like the old people. 

One of the ways we are abandoning our agrarian roots is by disdaining wild foods.  That may seem like an odd claim, given our tendency to think of the world as historically divided into highly discrete hunter-gatherers vs. agrarians, but in fact, the archaeological record suggests that most agrarian societies relied quite heavily on wild plant foraging, and that the line between gathering and agriculture probaby predates any solid archaeological evidence.  For example, Laura Schenone, author of _A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove_ observes about our perceptions of gatherers,

 ”Let’s have a look at her again, a woman moving light-footedly through brambles, gathering berries.  To our modern perception, the image seems somehow innocent and trivial.  In fact, the ancient gatherer women were nothing short of botanists with extensive knowledge far beyond the scope of berries for dessert.  This knowledge could only be built up over generations through careful judgement, skill and yes, even some poisonous trial and error along the way.  By the time the Europeans came, Indians from coast to coast were gathering almost 2 thousand types of edible roots, nuts, vegetable plants, greens, fruits, and herbs, as well as insects and shellfish….

Spend one week (even one day) in the wilderness with no food, and you’ll quickly realize that without no-how, you’ll starve or poison yourself.  And it’s not just knowing what you can eat, but where to find it and when it will be ripe or available.  If you get to the nut trees or fruits even a few days late, more enterprising animals will have beat you to them, or you’ll find youself left with the taste of overripe or rotten fruit in your mouth, opportunity so closely missed….

While we can never be sure, many experts believe that women “discovered” horticulture and were probably America’s first farmers.  The rise of farming was a gradual process.  Perhaps one woman decided to help along the wild plants she liked best.  First, she began to weed away competing plants or give water to her favorites.  Maybe she noticed that a basked of dropped seeds had sprouted in the loosened soil where she’d built an earthen oven.” (Schenone, 8-9)

I’ve written before in my work on vegeculture about how when European scholars arrived in Africa to study African gardening, they were stunned by how small the cultivated patches of roots were in African house gardens.  The assumption of early bigoted thinkers was that Africans were simply bad farmers - it was only decades later that it became clear that large patches of jungle near villages were actually cultivated patches of food crops.

And the line between gathering and agriculture has remained fine through most of agrarian history.  Martin Jones argues in _Feast_ that in fact, “the cultivated field was more unusual to our modern eyes….We could envisage instead plots of land that were certainly sown from a particular stock of seedcorn, often a maslin mixture to hedge against poorer years.  After these plots had been tended and brought to maturity, quite possibly everything in them was treated as a resource, not just the progeny of what was sown…”

He backs this up with evidence from bodies excavated from peat bogs, many of while contained mixtures of both wild and cultivated plants in their bellies.  He notes that as late as the 20th century, Danish farmers were still eating wild brome grass seeds, a grass that flourished when the rye harvests were poor, and so were allowed to coexist in fields to ensure a secure harvest.  

Jones also argues that farmers in most societies had every incentive to diversify their diets - because agricultural taxes have usually been based on single, monocropped analyses (and we still count food this way) - that is, farmers were forced to play based on single crop food webs.  The way to minimize taxation and retain the most for your family’s diet, then, was to vary one’s crops as much as possible, and rely on fields and forests, to have as diverse a food web and harvest as possible. 

There are still modern rural populations that make full use of the food around them.  One 0f the revelations of Dmitry Orlov’s _Reinventing Collapse_  is that most Soviet families fed themselves on extremely small gardens, much smaller than most of us would expect.  But this was heavily supplemented by the foraging of wild foods, particularly berries and mushrooms. 

What does all of this have to do with food taboos?  Well, on the one hand it is worth reminding us that strong identifications of what we don’t eat do have a purpose, they aren’t just wastefulness, but they help us identify ourselves as part of particular community. 

I say this as someone who accepts (with some ambivalence) a set of religious taboos about food - I keep kosher.  I was not raised a Jew, so I grew up eating most of the foods that are not included in a kosher diet - growing up along the coast of Massachusetts, shellfish were a dietary staple.  And I want my children to obey religious dietary laws, and find value in those laws - I believe that the restrictions of kashruth lend to a greater mindfulness in eating, an awareness of G-d even during ordinary kitchen tasks.  At the same time, I recognize that religious food taboos are designed to differentiate, and that often those raised with food taboos cannot bring themselves to eat taboo foods.  I don’t want my children to respond to rabbit or clams with an instinctive “ugh” - I want them to recognize them as a food, one we choose not to eat, because we have an abundance of other things.  But I wish them to be able to eat them in the interest of pekuah nefesh, the Jewish law that “saving a life” overrides every other requirement. 

At the same time, just as kashruth generally serves me now, but might not in the same ways in a scarcer future, the cultural food taboos of the technological rich world can no longer serve us.  The unconscious (for most of us) process of differentiating ourselves from people who engage in literally “dirty” or “old-timey” or “dangerous” (think how much we worry about poisonousness in wild plants) practices has to stop, and we have to find ways to differentiate ourselves from others that may include food taboos, but cannot be based on the idea that we only eat processed, store bought food.  How will we do this?  My suspicion is that the first priority must be to change our set of cultural taboos, to render “dirty” the processed foods we now rely on.  And this is happening because they are dirty and dangerous - toxic to us in many cases, and often contaminated as we’ve seen in the past year or two.  We need to precisely reverse our current set of food taboos.

Even more, however, it suggests that not only do we need to be working on our gardens, but on our integration into the farmer-hunter-gatherer paradigm - that is, most of us will feed ourselves not simply through horticulture or agriculture, but as mostly-fixed human beings have for thousands of years - with the integration of all of the above skills. 

I think of the role of farmer-hunter-gatherer in a community as the integration of the margins into the whole.  That is, our job is not just to cultivate as much earth as we can, but also to familiarize ourselves with what is out there, and make the absolute best use of it we can.  In some cases, this will mean traditional hunting and foraging - most of us should at least have the skill to trap small pest animals and the ability to eat them, to gather wild foods.  But that also means recreating the ability to *see* what is around you - to make use of sidewalk margins as growing space, or to view the weeds that compete with our crops as potential hedges against crop failure. It involves the recreation of a deeply intimate and profound knowledge of place - and this will take time and practice, and a new crop of home botanists with the eyes to see and the courage to cook.


37 Responses to “Farmer-Hunter-Gatherer”

  1. Greenpa says:

    Lots of meat in that post! :-)

    Euell Gibbons wrote several books way back in the 60′s, starting with “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, I think, and talks about pretty much all of this. The library may still have copies, or certainly can get them.

    He was a good writer, and a great observer and experimentalist; I still re-read the books for pure entertainment.

    One of the racist canards about China is that “they eat EVERYTHING!” which is somehow supposed to be an insult. They are also the only surviving “civilization” from the ancient world… hm…

  2. dewey says:

    I have repeatedly argued with a group of anti-herb zealots who respond to any favorable mention of wild plant medicines or foods with hysterical shrieking about how deadly nightshade and poison hemlock are “natural!!”. There is a weird combination of fear of all plants (outside the supermarket) and contempt and hostility towards people who choose to or must consume them.

  3. Sue says:

    Amen! After movign into our house about 5 years ago, we discovered a large patch of Japanese knotweed in the side yard. I don’t really want it there, so I’ve tried everything short of chemical warfare to gt rid of it (yanking it up repeatedly, covering it with black plastic, etc). About 3 years ago, I read that it was edible, and tastes like rhubarb. Curious, I asked a member of a local horticulture group about it. she was HORRIFIED that I would consider eating it, and told me it was poisonous and would KILL me.

    I was scared off for a while, but kept thinking about this patch of land that was “useless” because the knotweed was on it (I wanted to plant currants there). I finally asked a friend who is a vegetable farmer and grew up here about the knotweed. She confirmed that it is, in fact, edible and that she used to fight with her siblings over the best shoots on the walk home from school.

    So I went out and harvested myself some. And you know what, it tastes pretty darn good. Plus, with rhubarb at $6+ a pound at the grocery, it makes a more than adequate substitute until my own rhubarb patch really takes off.

    As for the currants, anther patch of the grass is scheduled to be tilled tomorrow afternoon to make way for them.

    It’s really amazing how the ignorance of one person kept me from
    harvesting a perfectly good crop for years. I certainly don’t want it taking over my whole yard, but I’m perfectly happy to live with the knotweed now that I know how tasty it is.

  4. Jade says:

    I think one part of our modern culture is narrowing the “acceptable” food range even further: the “foodies.” For a few years we had friends who we felt were overly focused on eating only perfect food, to the point where we would no longer invite them over for dinner. When we went to their place I would refuse to cook, and we’d bring something from the local grocery store instead. Yet my husband valued other parts of the friendship, and we continued to visit.

    One day we came fresh from picking cherries from my Uncle’s tree and bringing a large bowl as our contribution to the gathering. Some cherries were pinker than others, some had tiny brown spots, some were summer joy in themselves. We were full of joy and ready to share the stories of the gathering- skinned knees, our daughter’s pride at climbing high on a ladder for the first time, the smells and interesting ecosystem of the tree.

    They ate a few, then went to the kitchen and pointedly brought out a bowl of identical, deep red cherries purchased from a gourmet market. They simply couldn’t value the stories or the friends more than having the perfect cherry. At that moment I found myself profoundly uninterested in them as human beings and haven’t been back since.

    So my point is that we have a culture that is willing to give up one of the basic bonding points of humans- sharing food- for yet one more commodity. The thing matters, not the people.

  5. The Purloined Letter says:

    Thank you so much-and what perfect timing! I spent the weekend harvesting dandelion flowers, picking off all the green from the petals, then turning the yellow into a delectable dandelion jelly. What fun!

    My family, after keeping kosher for years, recently started questioning our practice. (Like you, I grew up eating non-kosher foods-but my husband had never eaten pork until this year.)

    The most difficult part of Jewish identity for me has always been its emphasis on separation-of Shabbat from the rest of the week, of the holy from the not-holy, of Jews from non-Jews.

    Keeping kosher meant we were reminded of the separation constantly: That we had to separate the milk and the meat-and any mixing caused contamination. That much of our food dollar necessarily had to be spent only in Jewish-owned businesses in order to get kosher foods. That kosher Jews could not eat easily at non-kosher friends’ houses without bringing their own food. (We personally never followed the last one, but many of our stricter friends do-and I certainly recognize that perhaps being stricter could allow folks to derive more meaning from kosher than we did.)

    When we decided to eat only what we could get from farms around us, we struggled a bit-and after we spent time at one of the farms and saw how compost-wise keeping pigs was for the owners, we decided to do a trial run of giving up our kosher practice. I’m sure you can understand what an enormous decision this was.

    Funny thing is that it in no way made us feel less Jewish. Quite a surprise.

    Our trial has not ended and I do not know for sure what we will decide to do long term. It is nice to know other people are grappling with some of the same big issues, whatever their thoughts or decisions on kosher specifically are. Thanks again for this excellent post and your wonderful blog.

  6. NM says:

    Fascinating, important post; thank you. So true; I’ve read about people becoming desperate enough to eat grasshoppers or locusts during plagues, or choosing to eat them as a native food, and thought, I just don’t think I could do that. Ugh, in spades. And whether I’d be able to overcome that disgust if it were a question of starving otherwise, I don’t know.
    Particularly in this country, without strong food traditions, using food to define ourselves presents some interesting challenges; we almost have to make some of it up as we go, taking bits and pieces from what we know about our own forebearers, and bits we like from other cultures.
    My father remembers wincing as his immigrant mother dug up dandelions at the park, and I recall going with her as a small child into our pasture to hunt for greens. It’s a lovely memory; only now am I realizing there were valuable lessons in it, too, and wishing I’d had the sense to learn more from her while she was alive.
    But as wonderful as traditional methods are, some of the recipes I read out there for preserving all that bounty really horrify me — mostly the ones that say things like, “put fresh herbs in a jar, cover with olive oil and leave in the sun for a few weeks.” This is a great way to prepare a bottle of botulism, and I just bought a cookbook with several such traditional recipes. I worry about the people who decide to try them.
    Wild food is very important, often also more nutritious than cultivated crops, and we need to hold on to the knowledge in those traditions, but I hope people won’t forget that not all old ways are safe, and that things change over time — bacteria mutate, for example, and the strength of vinegar changes from one generation to the next, etc.
    Then, too, I think part of the reason for some of the worry about the dangers of wild foods is the degree of ignorance out there. If we all knew our local plants and understood what was edible and what wasn’t, we wouldn’t freak out so much, any more than we do about rhubarb, parts of which are quite toxic. We’re afraid of the unfamiliar, but also of the degree of mmm, unwiseness, sometimes demonstrated (such as the anecdote in one of my edible wild food books, about a rancher telling people that poison hemlock was “wild parsley.” They ate it! The rancher didn’t. Fortunately, the author was nearby, to rush them to the hospital. This sort of antic feeds the hysteria Dewey was mentioning.)
    I like the comment about considering processed foods unsafe. Friends who have worked in canneries tell me you really don’t want to know what goes into those cans.

  7. Sharon says:

    NM, I agree with you that old foods do not mean the same thing as “old ways of preserving them” - that’s a very useful distinction. But they are seperate - that is, it is no safer to dump parsley in oil than it is plantain.


  8. NM says:

    Oh yes, I did not mean to imply that cultivated vegetables and herbs are somehow safer. : } I just got a little sidetracked by the preservation issue, probably because the new cookbook just arrived.

  9. Sharon says:

    No, I understood you, just wanted to clarify for people who didn’t. I agree with you that there’s the danger of an uncritical romance of “the old ways” that can lead us into trouble.


  10. Rosa says:

    One thing to remember is that we’ve spent the last several decades deliberately making many plants unsafe to eat. One of the joys of living in the urban area I live in is that I follow the park board news and I know the burdock in our park has not been sprayed with herbicide; I watch our neighbors and know who does not spray, so the plantain and dandelions and lambsquarters and cress in their yards is safe to eat. But when I was a kid, I lived in a suburb where *everyone* used pesticide all summer, and all the rural areas I’ve lived in, the county has sprayed the road right of ways.

    When I was in college I was in this class that read Norberg Hodge’s Ladakh book, and one of the students told a story about being in the military in Vietnam and seeing little kids who drank water from streams, “because they didn’t know better.” Well, depending on where they were and what the livestock and sanitary practices are, they may have known better than the soldiers what was safe - all those first world soldiers from places where we allow sewage and pig shit and industrial runoff in our water just didn’t know a better way was even possible.

  11. Cynthia says:

    NM’s comment reflects my own. As I’m struggling to build my own garden and make concientious food choices, to notice and UTILIZE the bounty available to me (our lawn is covered in dandelions for example…) I’m constantly frustrated by my lack of knowledge. I know that dandelions are edible, but I don’t know HOW to eat them, how to prepare them, and I don’t have anyone around who does know, to show me.

    I think part of the problem is that we in the US are not taught these “survival” skills as our parents or grandparents were. My grandmother grew up watching her mother make bread in a brick oven her father built in the backyard. I grew up watching my mother choose bread in the grocery aisle. My great grandmother (an immigrant) then sold the bread to the neighborhood ladies who got bags of flour from the relief agency (during the depression), but didn’t know what to do with it.

    If I want to bake my own bread, I have to learn how to do that without the benefit of acquired knowledge that older generations had just as a part of growing up.

    There’s a huge store of knowledge that has been lost over the years in the name of “convenience”. How do we learn these skills from the ground up without getting overwhelmed?

  12. Sharon says:

    Cynthia, I do know precisely what you mean. It is hard to learn all this stuff piece by piece. We’ve been at our place for 7 years now, and I am only just discovering a small piece of what’s already there. It is frustrating. But I don’t know how to answer, other than to say “bit by bit” we take one step, and then the next one. We can jump some steps by finding mentors and using other people’s knowledge, but otherwise, it is a slow process of sitting out in the field trying to figure out what the heck that plant is, and trial and error with the bread.


  13. Kerr says:

    Jade—That’s probably true for many, but actually embracing a little bit of “foodie-ism” has been my gateway to learning more about wild foods and eating locally. I grew up in the south, and when I return home I’m struck by how much people in my former hometown, including my family, rely on things like “Healthy Choice” (HA HA) frozen dinners. I used to think that was normal until I moved to foodieville. Now I’m learning to recognize whatever’s in season at the farmer’s market or arriving in my CSA box (often with a few insectile co-diners to prove its deliciousness) as food… and not only that, to appreciate it as a precious delicacy!

    That’s not to say that it doesn’t cut both ways. The sheer consumerist pressure of foodie propaganda means that when I’m thinking of uses for the local goat cheese and eggs from my CSA and the homegrown basil out of my landlord’s yard one of the first things I remember is a savory crepe recipe, and then I wish I had a crepe pan… maybe that fancy one I just saw in the—no, wait, I don’t need that.

    If it weren’t for the foodies I’d probably still think all mushrooms were disgusting and that my cultural staple food is Five Star Pizza. (Those two things are not unrelated, by the way.)

  14. Kerr says:

    As I was walking home today saying hello to someone who often sleeps on the doorstep of where I work who probably doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from, I thought about what a great service it could be to run a free class on foraging, making a solar oven out of trash, and eating for free in the city and suburbs. My big hang-up is dumpster-diving. I mentioned I grew up in the south, and so I think anything that’s been left outside for half an hour is probably spoiled. It’s not usually that hot here, and probably a lot of food can be dumpstered perfectly safely, but I don’t really know how to do it.

    I’d love to sponsor a class for people like myself who can (mostly, for now) afford to eat as well as people like my neighbors who can’t, to learn wild and neighborhood foraging and safe dumpster-diving, and how to cook for free. I think someone more knowledgeable than I am should teach it, but I’d be willing to contribute by helping create the materials, handling the logistics, and paying a bit towards time so that other people can take it for free.

    I know I’m in danger of ending up homeless and hungry in the next few years. I don’t want that to happen, and maybe I’m a little more secure than other people. But if it does happen I want to have plenty of options, and knowing how to forage is an important way of ensuring that I do.

  15. Wendy says:

    That’s so funny that you posted this. My family is only a couple of years removed from being heavily dependent on processed foods for the bulk of our diet. For the past couple of years, we’ve been changing our diet to include, now, mostly “whole” foods and mostly organic, almost wholly local, and a good deal of things we grow ourselves, including edible flowers (I love hearing, “Mom, can I eat that flower?” :) .

    Unfortunately, eating those processed foods, like Toaster Strudel, is something they remember, and so when we’re in the grocery store, I always hear, “Mom, can we get …?” I’ve found myself more and more answering, “No. That stuff’ll kill you” - kind of half joking, but also, serious, because I know that that “stuff” will “kill us” - slowly and painfully through a host of really awful diseases.

    Anyway, I thought it was funny that you posted this. My husband tried to convince me for years that I don’t need to learn to grow EVERYTHING we’re going to eat, that we could, actually, forage for part of it. Eventually, he convinced me, and I like that you point out what he was saying all those years … not quite as succinctly as you did, though :) .

  16. Ailsa Ek says:

    I would never have known that knotweed was edible if it weren’t for this thread. We have tons of it and my husband loves rhubarb, so I am going to go out and harvest some tomorrow and cook it up to see how it comes out. And it’s almost strawberry season too. I look forward to making strawberry knotweed pie.

  17. Nita says:

    Just a note of caution - my friend is an herbalist and always stresses in her classes that if you’re wildcrafting, always try to pick your herbs, berries, etc at least 50 feet from any well traveled road. I think 50 cars a day is considered “well traveled”. Not only are the road right-of-ways most likely sprayed with herbicides, the exhaust from automobiles leaves toxic substances also.

  18. Alan says:

    All you knotweed lovers, be aware. Japanese Knotweed is horribly invasive along streamsides and wetlands in the Pacific Northwest (and other well-watered areas). It dominates and out-competes native plant species and prevents streamside revegetation in damaged riparian areas.

    Around here, responsible gardeners are encouraged to use native plants as alternatives in gardens and to be especially careful not to discard knotweed plant material in areas where it can spread and crowd out native plants. It spreads almost entirely from rhizomes rather than seed so it can be contained if people are careful with the stuff they dig up and discard.

    Here’s a link to the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board Fact Sheet on Japanese Knotweed:

    The Noxious Weed Control Board makes no mention of Japanese Knotweed’s edibility, nor its stores of resveratrol and emodin (a natural laxative). But I suppose they’re having a hard enough time trying to keep it from choking out native vegetation without encouraging people to grow it for food and medicine.

  19. Helen says:

    I totally agree with the idea of wild food harvesting but I am also in the difficult position where our council (in Australia), sprays the roadsides and the blackberry bushes (they are a weed here). I would love to encourage people to grab the blackberries and dandelions that are all over the place, but they are all routinely poisoned. It is a terrible waste of available food and nutrients. It would take a huge amount to turn this around as thousands of dollars are spent annually on controlling these ‘weeds’! Someone asked me recently how I control the sorrel in my garden and if I use poison, I just said that I ate it…you can’t get a better weed control than that!

  20. cb says:

    Concerning herbs in oil, my mother taught me years ago that newer hybridized veggies, say tomatoes, may not be as acidic as older varieties and that it doesn’t hurt to put a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice in your tomatoes when you can them. I’ve done that for years. Recently my daughter found “apple-flavored” vinegar at the grocers. Yeegads!!

    Around here, the older ladies process beans and potatoes in their water bath canners. I make everyone mad at me when I warn them about botulism. They say their mothers never had pressure canners. I say all it takes is one wild goose to contaminate your soil with botulism. Just because someone is sure they are right doesn’t mean they are. There is a prejudice here against pressure canners because they “might blow up”.

  21. Nita says:

    cb, I have many friends who think canning is safe in a water bath. NOT! I use my pressure canner for most things, less electricity, less water, less time. When I’m processing tomatoes, I can barely keep up with the canner. We have our own water system and the height of canning season always occurs during late summer and early fall, when our spring is the lowest.
    Also you can use citric acid in tomato products, if you’re worried about the acidity. I plant heirlooms just for that reason, but I still put citric acid in my salsa because it will not be heated before eating.

  22. Sharon says:

    BTW, Alan, I don’t think anyone was suggesting we plant Japanese Knotweed, just that we eat what is already a pest.

    That said, however, I strongly encourage people to look at David Theodoropoulos’s _Invastion Biology_. While I don’t agree with all his claims, I think that sometimes we place on invasive plants responsibility for human actions, and overstate the dangers.


  23. Sarah says:

    My sister just finished up her undergraduate thesis on edible wild plants, including a section on invasive species. It included a list of recipes :-)

  24. Gina says:

    Around here, it is Garlic Mustard that is both edible and a horrible, horrible invasive. Most invasives were either accidentally introduced or brought over as an important edible from the motherland. That being said, my woods is full of GM and it will take me years to eradicate it. So, in the meantime, while I pull and pull, I plan to eat it as well. And, as Sharon said, I don’t think anyone is suggesting planting it or cultivating the invasives, but there is so much already in our wild systems that it could feed a mass of people.

    If anyone is interested, this guy ( has some yummy recipes for Garlic Mustard on his site (he forages and teaches in NYC) and I believe it is knotweed he is holding on his home picture (I could be wrong).

    Great post!!!

  25. dewey says:

    I don’t think you should count on foraging for a major part of your diet. My experience with wild food has been that for most calorie-dense foods such as nuts or roots, I probably burn more calories collecting and processing them than I can get from eating them. Greens are often obtainable in quantity with little effort, but there are not enough calories in them to keep you alive, though they are a fine source of micronutrients. In case of famine they are much better than nothing.

    The bigger problem is that the density of high-calorie nuts, tubers, animals, etc. in any natural community is not great enough to support a dense human population. Hunter-gatherers need at least a square mile per person, and preferably more. This is why they are so easily slaughtered by agricultural peoples, who are less healthy but more numerous, and thereby why there is such a prejudice against wild foods (they are the natural cuisine of people who live in small groups and are therefore by definition weak and likely to get wiped out). Unless you live in a really remote area, you might be able to make some acorn bread from the oak tree on your block, but there probably are not enough oaks in your neighborhood to allow you to live on acorn bread, much less you and many of your neighbors.

  26. Rosa says:

    Yeah, I think history shows that the fastest way to wipe something out is convince humans to eat it.

    I don’t think homeless people are the market for a wildcrafting/foraging course - they have a combination of needing to keep clean, not having places to cook, and not having easy access to health care if something does not agree with them (This was always my hardest line at Food Not Bombs - the safety of food served shouldn’t be on an “I would eat it” standard, it should be on a “I would give this to a person with a compromised immune system” - because you may be.) Also, they usually have plenty of food - it’s shelter that’s expensive in the city (in the rural areas, bizarrely, shelter is usually cheap, while food can be expensive and transportation is prohibitive.)

    That said, I would take that class or join that group. I have been lucky to have lived in about the same climate my whole life, and had good teachers at various times, but I still only know a smattering of our local edible plants - and I’m not good enough at identifying plants to use Gibbon, or some of the other foraging writers.

    For instance, I only know that two of our local mushrooms are safe for sure, morels and puffballs. And puffballs don’t taste that good. I did discover that if we don’t clean up the flowerbed in the fall, in the spring we will get small morels under the leaf litter.

  27. NM says:

    Lately, it’s harder to find actual apple cider vinegar here than “apple-flavored;” sometimes I have to go to two or three stores. Yeech. Fortunately, a gallon lasts quite a while, but I’m thinking I may need to learn to make my own. Which actually sounds like fun; I just get a little overwhelmed sometimes, trying to be a homesteader-type, and work full-time; some people must be a lot more efficient than I am. I did find a link though, that told how to test the acidity so that you could even make sure it was safe for canning, which is neat.
    About the tomato-canning, here’s what the USDA says:
    “Acidification: To ensure safe acidity in whole, crushed, or juiced tomatoes, add 2 tablespoons
    of bottled lemon juice or 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid per quart of tomatoes. For pints, use 1
    tablespoon bottled lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon citric acid. Acid can be added directly to the
    jars before filling with product. Add sugar to offset acid taste, if desired. Four tablespoons of a
    5 percent acidity vinegar per quart may be used instead of lemon juice or citric acid. However,
    vinegar may cause undesirable flavor changes.
    Recommendation: Use of a pressure canner will result in higher quality and more nutritious
    canned tomato products. If your pressure canner cannot be operated above 15 PSI, select a
    process time at a lower pressure.”
    I think the older pressure canners did blow up sometimes; I knew someone once whose eyesight was only saved during such an explosion because she was wearing thick glasses. So a lot of people who remember that are freaked out about them. But the new ones have safety valves to keep that from happening.
    They spray the blackberries here, too — cleverly, often at the season when the plant is sending everything right into the berries. Then I see people picking them by the side of the road. Horrifying. And it really is shocking, once you start thinking about it, how willing we are to waste food while letting people go hungry.
    A group of us in my county have started a slow food group to try to increase awareness and availability of local food, and one of our goals is to help decrease hunger by working with the area food banks. This is all Sharon’s fault; in (yet another) of your beautifully-written posts, you followed a general theme of, “if you see it needs doing, go do it.” And darned if I didn’t rush out and send a bunch of e-mails to people saying, “Hey, let’s start a local food group.” I’m still wondering what I’ve gotten myself into, :D but it’s exciting to see how many people are wanting to join, including, just recently, a woman who teaches wild foraging, and wants to start a medicinal herb CSA. I see so many possibilities for projects branching out from this, and helping people transition to a more sustainable way of life. Kind of amazing what can happen from reading here, and thinking, “Hey, what if …”

  28. Leila in PA says:

    Thanks to this blog I now know that dandelion and nettles (both of which are plentiful here) are edible. Who knew? But I did know that the wild raspberries in the woods are edible and tasty too. I purposefully didn’t plant any thinking it would be easier to harvest the wild ones. But I’ve ended up spending hours cutting back the multiflora roses that are outcompeting the raspberries. I guess it is just human nature to tame the wild. I’m having fun learning all the medicinal uses of plants in my backyard. For instance, jewelweed (I can’t believe I took oral steriods for 30 days which barely took the edge off my poision ivy rash when jewelweed cures it overnight).

  29. BoysMom says:

    Leila, you do know rosehips are edible? I made rosehip jam last year and it came out wonderfully (though it takes a lot of rosehips to make a pint). I also have a recipe for rosehip soup but didn’t have enough rosehips for both and opted for the jam instead. You can find both recipes in Joy of Cooking.

  30. Alan says:

    Actually, I was more concerned with people “eradicating” or “thinning” their stands of Japanese Knotweed and discarding the rhizomes and seed heads where they will root and become invasive.

    It’s amazing how many people dump yard debris along roadsides and in vacant lots to avoid dumping charges or the work of composting it. It may seem innocent since it’s “natural” material and it will “break down” or “compost naturally”, but a lot of it does not.

    People do, on the other hand, plant all kinds of invasive plants (English ivy, purple loosestrife, butterfly bush, and many others) which crowd out natives, including native wild food plants.

    People need to know which plants are invasive so as not to allow them to get loose from their property. Japanese Knotweed is the rare case of a very invasive plant which almost never spreads from seed and so can be easily controlled by a responsible gardener.

    And, of course, eating it helps control it.

  31. dewey says:

    Virtually all of the Japanese knotweed in both North America and England derives from a single female clone. Which tells you how easily it spreads.

    Kudzu is edible and medicinal also.

  32. Rosa says:

    Hey everybody, thanks for the heads up on Garlic Mustard. We don’t have any japanese knotwood around here that i could find mention of on the web, but I discovered stuff about Garlic Mustard being a problem in Iowa & Wisconsin, so I looked around yesterday and…yep, we’ve got it.

    Not a lot that I saw (and none in my yard - apparently the snakeroot out-competes it) but probably enough to eat a half kale/half garlic mustard dish tonight.

  33. tasterspoon says:

    This is such a fun post and discussion. Learning to identify plants is one of my projects for the summer - mostly because I’m a sloppy gardener and buy a bunch of flower and herb seeds but don’t really mark what’s supposed to come up where. In my case, knowing it’s all mostly edible is a nice safety net. I’m definitely wary of the unknown. “Weeding” the park would be a big step for me - and is it even legal? My Girl Scout training always said to “take nothing but pictures.”

    Sort of relatedly,’s latest post links to a step-by-step video on finding and preparing takenoko, bamboo shoots.

    The rampant use of pesticides is a real fly in this ointment, though, isn’t it? We have a ridiculous brown snail problem in California (apparently they were actually brought from France by ‘foodies’ way back when, went feral and have now overrun the place). I’m always laying down eggshells to keep them off my teeny plants (it seems to work) - but I really wish I could eat them. But it’s not the snails themselves (or the dandelions in the park, or whatever) that spook me - it’s not knowing *where they’ve been.* One website that discussed eating the snails said that you first have to make really sure that your neighbors haven’t put down snail poison - something I just can’t be confident of, living in a suburban townhouse complex. Total bummer, though. They’re like $12 in a restaurant…

  34. Rebekka says:

    I believe that if you want to eat snails, you need to starve them for some time first, as otherwise you’re eating the contents of their digestive systems - not so nice, and apparently very gritty, even if not toxic.

    This is called “purging” - see this website -

    Food taboos are a funny thing - my niece came to visit on the weekend, and I was having a conversation with my mum about the various things we had for our rabbits to eat, including some celery leaves and carrots. When I then offered my niece a carrot or some celery (not the leaves!), she refused, saying indignantly “I’M not eating what you give the RABBITS!”

    And I am in sympathy with councils spraying blackberries in Australia, they may be edible but they’re incredibly invasive. The blackberry is the most invasive weed in southern Australia, and has a huge impact on farm land. Under the Catchment & Land Protection Act, 1994, land owners are obliged to take all reasonable steps to eliminate it - it’s not just farm land it affects, either, but also native forest and native animals.

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