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historically speaking, the instinct to find nourishment by plucking berries, digging up roots, or spearing animals has been replaced by strolling fluorescent-lit supermarket aisles and tossing boxes and cans into a shopping cart.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.
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.
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.
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.