Food critic spends day living off the land in Minneapolis

Black raspberries grow along Greenway, wild plums along Mississippi

Even from the passenger seat of a car whizzing down the freeway, Teresa Marrone can't help foraging. Scanning the blur of vegetation, she picks out things to eat. "That's dock," she might say, pointing to shaggy brown plants along the freeway shoulder. "Some people call it 55-mile-an-hour weed." Marrone, who wrote Abundantly Wild: Collecting and Cooking Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest, had agreed to assist me in my attempt to spend a day living off the land in the Twin Cities. When I first asked her if my conceit was possible, she replied, "Oh gosh, yeah—but it won't be exactly what you wanted to eat."

Before the development of agriculture, humans spent millions of years hunting and gathering their food. Over a relatively brief period, historically speaking, the instinct to find nourishment by plucking berries, digging up roots, or spearing animals has been replaced by strolling fluorescent-lit supermarket aisles and tossing boxes and cans into a shopping cart. Yet even as the contemporary American diet consolidates into a smorgasbord of corn and soy, wild edibles are making a comeback in response to a growing interest in local, seasonal foods. Uncultivated plants occasionally show up at farmers' markets—I've bought greens such as stinging nettles, lamb's quarters, and purslane. And Twin Cities chefs regularly incorporate foraged foods into their menus, including ramps (wild onions), morels (the prized, elusive mushrooms), and mulberries (they're like small blackberries).

A surprising number of edible plants thrive within the city limits, including black raspberries along the Midtown Greenway and wild plums along the Mississippi riverbanks. Marrone forages in shelterbelts along highways, suburban office parks, and her own south Minneapolis yard, where last year she collected a gallon and a half of syrup from two maple trees. For the sake of efficiency, Marrone and I headed to a large east metro park, which I'm not going to name lest City Pages readers pick clean one of Marrone's favorite berry patches. But you can find wild food practically anywhere. The other day, Marrone managed to pluck four different edible greens from a scraggly patch of grass next to a Hi-Lake parking lot that was no more densely vegetated than five o'clock shadow. Rules about foraging may vary from place to place, and enforcement of those rules can also vary, so Marrone always recommends asking a park ranger or property owner for permission and avoiding areas that may have been chemically sprayed.

There is such a thing as a free lunch: Theresa Marrone picking wild thimbleberries; a patch of black raspberries
courtesy of Teresa Marrone
There is such a thing as a free lunch: Theresa Marrone picking wild thimbleberries; a patch of black raspberries

Suspecting that OSHA wasn't doing anything to protect food writers from poisonous plants, I was glad to be guided by Marrone, who's been foraging since college, when her friends taught her to harvest alien egg-like puffball mushrooms. (You can find a recipe for PLT sandwiches on page 121 of her book.) Marrone likes to wear her long, graying hair neatly braided into one thick plait. Dressed in hiking shoes, jeans, a denim shirt, and a backpack promoting the National Audubon Society, she looks ever the part of the nickname she has acquired: Julia Child of the Wild.

Walking through the parking lot toward the trailhead, Marrone was already finding edibles, including milkweed and wild grapes. Having forgone breakfast, I was ready to pick—but unfortunately the plants weren't. As we hiked, Marrone explained how foraging is very seasonal: ramps and ferns are best in the spring; berries peak midsummer; wild rice and roots are ready for harvest in the fall. I started to salivate when Marrone pointed out unripe black cherries, green-husked butternuts, and the bright yellow flowers of a Jerusalem artichoke with edible roots, but none of them was ready for consumption.

Marrone spotted chicken of the woods mushrooms—they looked like a layer of lumpy orange shelves growing on the side of a tree—and said she recommends fungi collection only for experienced foragers. While misidentifying most wild plants will usually result in an upset stomach at worst, with mushrooms, Marrone noted, "a mistake could kill you." Marrone carefully considers the attributes of each plant she approaches—checking the coloring of a leaf's underside, feeling a fern's stem for its characteristic deep groove—because instincts can often prove wrong. The stinging nettle, whose itch-inducing leaves Marrone touches only with a gloved hand, becomes perfectly benign when cooked. But a plant covered with pods that look like soybeans or sugar snap peas is inedible. And bright red baneberries—as glossy as nail polish and as tempting as a mistress—are in fact highly poisonous. The forager's number-one rule is "When it doubt, throw it out." Remember what happened to the guy from Into the Wild?

Some edible foods are easy to spot: purple clover and orange lilies, whose flowers may be eaten raw, or, in the case of the lilies, stuffed and fried like zucchini blossoms. But others stay well camouflaged. I felt as if I was hiking with the green-brown blur of nearsightedness, particularly when compared to Marrone, who seemed to function like a pair of human binoculars. "It's amazing what you can see because you're attuned," she remarked. "I can just walk through the woods—and there it is." Increasingly, though, once-common foraging skills are fading and edible plants are going undetected by untrained eyes. Ironically, Marrone was recently invited to Mystic Lake to instruct Native Americans on how to collect and prepare wild foods.

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