Food critic spends day living off the land in Minneapolis

Black raspberries grow along Greenway, wild plums along Mississippi

What then, exactly, are we missing? Earlier this summer, I had the chance to taste several wild foods at a demonstration Marrone hosted at the Midtown Farmers' Market and by tagging along on a schoolchildren's field trip to Dodge Nature Center. Thorn-studded gooseberries looked like tiny green satellites (the prickles soften when cooked) and had a rhubarb-like tartness, fiddlehead ferns reminded me of broccoli rabe, lawn-invading creeping Charlie was slightly sweet and minty, and the shaggy leaves of garlic mustard really did taste like garlic. Marrone made crepes using powdery, golden cattail pollen that tasted a little like sweet, roasted corn. At Dodge, we snacked on apple blossoms and wild violets. The kids peeled cattail stalks (they tasted like seedless cucumbers), sautéed maple seeds in butter (the tiny propellers turned caramelized and nutty), and fried up dandelion blossoms dipped in batter, like a wild-grown concessions-stand treat.

But on the day Marrone and I went foraging, we didn't come up with nearly such a bounty: Besides our black-raspberry jackpot, we collected a few mulberries and some stinging nettles. Playing the wilderness version of Stump the Cook, we blanched and then sautéed the nettles, which have a fuzzy texture and a kale-like flavor. (We drank the cooking water as a grassy, herbal tea.) Marrone had brought along a pancake mix—I decided to relax my wild-only restriction at this point—and we drowned our flapjacks in a thick, chunky berry sauce. It wasn't the tastiest meal I've ever had, but I was more than satisfied by being let in on an obvious secret: Most people have never tried these foods, even though they're right under our noses.

Suspecting that a meal of grass and berries might leave my stomach rumbling, I'd made a backup plan involving one of the Cities' most well-versed urban fishermen, Jon Blood, co-owner of Sea Salt Eatery in Minnehaha Park. Within minutes of meeting me at Lake of the Isles, Blood was telling fish tales—bona fide ones. The previous evening, he'd hauled a 49-inch muskie out of Lake Calhoun. Grinning like crazy, he stretched his arms to indicate the length, which I estimated to be about the size of a third-grader. Though Blood assured me that muskies' jaws aren't strong enough to take off a limb, swimming the city lakes suddenly became far less appealing.

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

If muskies are the fish world's pit bulls, the modest bluegill sunfish I hoped to catch might be considered Chihuahuas. It was a reasonable place to start for someone who hadn't been fishing since she was 10 and who proceeded to, at various intervals, cast her line into the bushes, into the weeds, and finally, across Blood's line to create a snarl worse than any a mother has ever attacked with a hairbrush.

But even a lousy fisherwoman such as I managed to reel in a few of the palm-size, yellow-bellied cuties, which looked more like they belonged on a decorative soap dispenser or shower curtain than on a dinner plate. I let one dangle off the end of my pole and held it there for a second (the last time I'd been fishing, Dad had taken things from here) before realizing that I was way past old enough to handle the killing and cleaning myself.

Remember the parable of the rich man trying to get into heaven? I've decided that passing a camel through the eye of a needle might very well be easier than pulling a barbed hook out of a slippery, twitching fish. When I finally removed my biggest catch of the day, Blood pulled out a large knife, and we hunched over a cutting mat near the edge of the lake. I held the fish while Blood showed me how I would pinch the flat end of the blade between my fingers and whack the fish's brain with the handle. At some point, Blood and I miscued over the knife handoff and I let go of the fish, which flopped back into the water with a tiny splash, faster than you could say "lunch."

In spite of everything, I managed to take home two ready-to-cook sunnies, one of which I even gutted myself by slitting the fish's belly and scooping out the innards with my index finger. (The Minnesota DNR says the contaminants in Isles are moderate enough that sunfish may be eaten weekly without concern.) Dredged in seasoned flour and quickly fried in butter, the sunnies' flesh tasted a bit like walleye, but slightly sweeter and creamier. I smugly noted that I was eating fish you wouldn't find even at Coastal Seafoods. Not to mention, I'd gathered it myself, for free, within walking distance of my home. Were some catastrophe to shutter the city's grocery stores, I could always fall back on my budding survivalist skills.

Even though picking through the sunnies' fins and bones slowed me down a bit, I still finished the fillets in about two minutes flat. It was mid-afternoon, and I was still hungry. A day's worth of work had netted me just one meal. It was time for my backup backup plan: dinner reservations. 

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