Originally Written October 25, 2015
I find myself in an increasing familiar place, the back fields of a farm. The soft crunch of acorns under foot belies the bounty of this fall. Fresh tracks of turkey, deer, raccoon, skunk, and coyotes appear clear as writing on a page along the single lane dirt road I'm traveling. The crisp cool air hints at the coming winter and everyone is eager to gather enough calories to make it through next season's deep snow. Passing from a stand of red oaks down hill to a stand of white oaks the crunch disappears and squirrels chitter away with the protest of a glutton bearing chased from his banquet.
I'm walking with two family-turned-friends, Alex and his wife Connie who have just moved up from the city. Both work in office jobs and use weekends to breath and embrace the simple joys of company and nature. I'm happy to oblige them on both counts and we began to gather the acorns that deer and squirrels have not yet touched. Pockets full, we head back to our cars and drive down to their apartment where with pliers and butter knives we crack the apron shells and pick out the nut meat.
Five hours of gathering and processing yield enough shelled acorns for about a dozen muffins. In that same time, we could have bought a bag of wheat flour for two dollars and baked three dozen muffins. Alternatively, we could have gone to the baked goods section of the grocery store and bought a dozen muffins for ten dollars. All three of us have college degrees and are gainfully employed. In any of our regular jobs we could have worked for less than an hour to get the same calories we worked several hours for. In fact, it probably cost more in fuel to travel and boil the acorns than to buy the flour. So why did we spend the time, energy, and money to get such a small return? In this age of easily accessible, cheap food, why would anyone go to the woods to fill their stomachs?
For me, it goes much beyond physical fulfillment. Every plant I recognize brings me closer to feeling like a part of the land and less like an outsider from it. There is something entirely fulfilling about walking to a place and foraging a whole meal using only the knowledge of a place and the living community in it. The second part is taste. The sweetness of the sun-warmed grapes that grow beside the creek beats every grape I've ever tasted in a supermarket, fresh venison tenderloin will beat the best beef steak from any steakhouse, and even the black walnuts that fall off the trees by the bucketful every October put the english walnuts found in neat little bags at the grocer to shame. There is nothing, and I mean nothing that beats the combination of all of these flavors in a single meal. Thirdly, its been shown that wild foods simply have more nutrition than their domestic counterparts. According to Prevention.com, Wild salmon has as much omega 3's as farmed salmon per oz, but with only 2/3 the calories and more calcium, iron, and zinc. Venison is not only leaner than beef, but has 1/9 the saturated fat, 1/3 more iron, and substantial quantities of B vitamins. Even our produce has been bred to have more sugar and, as a result, less nutritional value than its wild ancestors. Spinach has only 1/7 of the phytonutrients of dandelion greens. Wild Blueberries have up to 100 times the antioxidant content of domestic blueberries. Both foods, considered to be top choices in modern nutrition, are dwarfed by their wild counterparts.
Taste, nutrition, connection. That is the inspiration for this crazy project. Every week for a whole year I will prepare one meal of wild foods. The rules?
1. Everything in the meal must be wild and foraged one way or another. Nothing may be purchased from a store or market.
2. Everything will be gathered during the course of the project. The project begins at first thaw, when the sap begins to run in the maple trees and ends 52 weeks later. Things may be stored for future use, but everything used must be gathered as part of the project.
3. Everything must be local. Nothing may be flown in from a remote location, nor gathered more than 150 miles from my residence.
4. Everything must be legal. There are many laws set up to protect native plant and animal populations. All animals will be taken by legal means and during their legal season. All plants and fungi were harvested in areas where I had permission to do so.
What this project is not:
1. A survival guide. While some of the knowledge here might be useful in a wilderness survival situation, I will be using modern processing and storing methods for nearly every meal. Many of these foods are also not available in wilderness areas. The New York landscape is so far developed that many organisms live right along side humans in far greater quantities than in more remote areas.
2. A manifesto. I don't wish for everyone to abandon agriculture and head to the woods for food. Agriculture can give us much more food per acre than wild food can. Out of 21 meals a week, only 1 of mine will be purely wild. I will eat many domestic crops and even a few domestic animals during the course of this experiment. This does not detract from the purpose or value of this project.
3. A guide to frugal living. Many of these wild food take a ton of time to prepare. Hours or even days of soaking, drying, smoking, may be needed for a given dish. Wild foods are slow foods. More still cost money to procure. License fees, costs of fishing tackle, boats, processing equipment, gasoline, all of it I will expect to add up to much more than the cost of the food itself. If you're looking for cheap eats, I'm doubt you going to get enough just by foraging.
Questions I hope to answer
1. How much time will it take to forage each meal?
2. How much will each foraged meal cost in therms of time and money?
3. How will wild foods affect me physically and mentally?
4. How will this experiment affect the human community around me?
This is a project I'm really excited about. Keep checking this site for updates and I will have other platforms up soon as well. Happy Holidays everyone!