Paul Steury, a 7th grade Earth Science teacher in Goshen, wades through a thicket of thorns and brush, rolling a heart-shaped leaf between his finger tips. He furrows his brow, smelling the broken leaf between his forefinger and thumb.
“Nope, that’s not it,“ he says as he flicks the leaf aside and cranes his neck to see a few feet back. ”Ah, here we go.“
He picks up what looks like the same leaf, only this one’s scent is a small cloud of garlic. He is looking for garlic mustard in the Shanklin Park in Goshen. Paul Steury is foraging for wild edibles to add to his weekly cooking.
Clad in a green ”Life is Good“ shirt, earth-toned pants and worn-in sandals, Paul wanders down the path, picking bits of green here and there to nibble on. Not-so-coincidentally, ”nibbler“ is also his nickname. For the entire hike, he never stops grinning. Skye, his 8-year-old son, darts back and forth on the trail, asking every few feet if he can eat a plant beside him. He has the definition of foraging down in an act — grazing.
Although both father and son picked and munched on little leaves here and there, the essence and usefulness of foraging remained the same. When walking through a park or even through your yard, according to Steury, 90 percent of what you see, you can eat.
Although most of what you see during a park stroll can be eaten, that doesn’t mean it should be. Much of public areas and yards are sprayed with insecticide and other harmful chemicals. Steury estimates that nine percent of what you see could make you sick and about one percent could kill you. It is important to always know what you are picking and why.
Foraging does has a few benefits. Aside from taking ”eat local“ to the extreme, many plants are excellent sources of condensed amounts of vitamins and nutrition.
Dani Tippmann, a Miami tribe leader, says those who are just starting to forage need to make sure they don’t overdo it. Too much can be a shock to the body.
Tippmann regularly forages for her family’s meals. They have a wild side dish at least once a week, although dried or canned edibles are used more often in the winter. She and Steury lead groups on edible and medicinal hikes, teaching people what they can use around them.
For Tippmann, one of the many benefits is being able to expand her palate and try flavors that are not readily available in stores. Because of Tippmann’s Native American heritage, the benefits are not the the first thing that comes to mind.
“From the time I was little, Mom would take me out to collect plants,” says Tippmann. “They were food. They were medicine.”
As a small example, Tippmann remembers walking through the woods with her grandmother, who noticed a small wart on her hand. She pointed to a milkweed plant nearby. “Go get that,” she said. Tippmann pulled a leaf from the plant, and her grandmother dabbed it on her hand. She instructed her to apply for two weeks. Sure enough, the wart faded right on time.
“As Miami we are taught to honor those plants,” says Tippmann. “It connects me with my ancestors.” She goes onto explain how she likes knowing that they ate the same plants that she eats now.
Steury also learned how to forage from family. His father, who rarely knew the names of what he was picking, taught him what was safe and how it could be used while Steury was in college.
‘Tis the Season
Although there are plenty of foraging recipes, like this one for garlic mustard pesto, the best way to incorporate foraging is to add it to what you already cook. Steury, for example, likes to take what he finds and mix it into salads. He likes to add garlic mustard to salsa as well.
For salad, a good base to start with is a mix of your choice of green and plantain leaves, which are probably in your yard right now. Plantains can be cooked or eaten raw, much like spinach. Red clover blossoms are very sweet and make a colorful topper.
Also probably found within a few feet of any outdoor area is wood sorrel. It looks like clover but has heart-shaped leaves instead of rounded ones. Sorrel has a tart lemon taste and adds a good twist to a raw salad.
Fall is the ideal time to harvest roots and nuts when foraging. Black walnuts can be broken open, tossed in a skillet with butter and sugar to make a candied treat or topper.
Hickory nuts are easily found in northern Indiana and are a good substitute for pecans in pecan pie — Steury swears it tastes ten times better.
Along the Millrace Canal in Goshen, specifically near the dam, pawpaw trees yield a 2- to 4-inch fruit that looks like a large legume. Steury uses the fruit in a banana pie that is all local.
For roots, Tippmann recommends cattails. They are easy to spot, and can be used in each season. In the fall, she digs up the roots and roasts them over the fire. When the small rootlets burn away, Tippmann recommends splitting the root open and eating it with a spoon. They can also be roasted or put in a stew like a potato.
Tippmann encourages those who are interested in foraging to start small, get to know your own yard first and always check and double-check books to ensure that something isn’t a poisonous look-a-like — there are plenty.
“Be respectful of the plants,” says Tippmann. “Learn from your elders and learn from the plants.”
She goes on to explain that food is one of our strongest points of connection.
“It is important that we do that — that we stay connected to each other,” says Tippmann. “Churches have potlucks and stay connected through food. Any kind of group stays connected through food. We are doing the same thing only these are foods that have been here forever around us.”