Over the past few years, foraging has grown into a full fledged movement, led by a cast of colorful characters as varied—and as wild—as the foods they’ll help you find.
Photographs By Sam Polcer
PART ONE THE EVANGELIST
Daniel Vitalis wears Vibram five-fingered shoes, keeps his long hair in two tight braids and has covered his arms and much of his torso in an enormous tribal tattoo. So, when he casually makes proclamations like "our type of agriculture is actually a war against nature, which is a bummer," I am not surprised. Nor am I surprised when he tells me that the water he drinks is always fresh spring water—even when he travels to public speaking engagements—or when I spot a large mason jar containing yerba mate "and, like, 20 other ingredients, the result of my constant attempts to make a coffee-like concoction" in the drink holder of his mud-caked Honda Element or when he mentions that he doesn't keep toilet paper in his house. (There's a bidet.)
Vitalis is fully committed to the back-to-land lifestyle that he promotes at public speaking engagements, through the regenerative food substances his company Sur-Thrival sells and in what he teaches on his "Re-Wild Yourself " retreats. He is a natural instructor, peppering his lessons with the occasional "stay with me on this" and "anchor that thought, hold on to it." His enthusiasm is infectious.
Out in his yard in rural Shapleigh, ME, we're enmeshed in a discussion about nutrigenomics, the study of how food affects our gene expression. He explains that most of the vegetables we eat come from a very small selection of plant species; cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts are all variations on Brassica oleracea, for example. "Up to 30 percent of our genome is affected by the different plant genetics that we put into our bodies," he says. "Just today, you might eat four or five species that you've never put in your body before, whereas on average you're eating 10 species a year." He lets that one sink in, turns to me, rubs his hands together and, with a glimmer in his eye, exclaims, "There's so much I want to tell you!"
Twenty minutes later, I've eaten at least four plants I've never tasted before—hemlock, dandelion, foxglove, sheep sorrel—and polished offa glassful of clay.
"What I've found is that the closer I can get to the wild genetic form of the plant, not only does my body process it better and not only does it have better nutrition—I feel better physically," he says when I ask him what he gets out of foraging. "I'll hear this a lot: 'Don't you just wish you could not have to do that and have a cheeseburger?' It's just funny to me. It's like if you drove a Corvette every day, and I said, 'Don't you just wish you could drive a beat-up Ford Focus sometime?' It's like, 'no I don't wish that at all.' These things become second nature after a while."
For Vitalis, eating wild food is one part of a balanced, holistic lifestyle philosophy that looks to aboriginal cultures for inspiration. "If we want a model for what's natural for chimpanzees," he says, as we enter the woods in search of a chaga mushroom, which he plans to bring back to his kitchen and brew in a tea, "we don't go to the zoo and look at what chimps do. We have to go to the wild chimp. If we want to know what's natural for people, we have to look at the hunter-gatherers—the last people living fully in nature without agriculture," he finishes as he munches on Medeola virgin-iana, otherwise known as "Indian cucumber." He plucks another one from the plant and hands it to me— it's tastier than the bitter shoots he served earlier to demonstrate how domesticated vegetables, over centuries, have had their medicinal properties bred out of them. "Cavities, arthritis and disfiguration of the skeleton didn't really start until farming began 10,000 years ago," he prosthelytizes.
It's getting late. Out of the blue, Vitalis asks, "Hey, have you ever been sea foraging?" That's funny, I tell him. I'm flying out to San Fran-cisco tomorrow to do just that.
PART TWO THE FISHERMAN
"Oh! He robbed me!" Kirk Lom-bard, 43, says to Maxim Tracol, 8, in regards to the monkeyface eel that has once again eluded the hook at the end of his pole. "Ok, you ready? Stand right here. Step on my foot. There's something there, huh? I saw that. Oh, the anticipation! Let me try! Is he in there? Oh boy, that's a deep one. Usually when the hole's that deep, you'll get one. These are eel palaces."
Where Vitalis is enthusiastic, Lombard, wearing white wading boots he jokingly refers to as "Cajun Reeboks," is downright gleeful. The former fisheries observer for the California Department of Fish and Game is a hybrid of children's entertainer, surfer dude and biologist. I'm sitting along a rock wall facing a sheltered bay lined on one side by an empty loading dock, with an old stone lighthouse in the distance, watching him "poke pole" for eel while educating a group of 25 adventurous foodies about the mollusks, crustaceans and slimy, slithery things one might find in the crevices and shorelines in and around San Francisco. So far today, "The Sea Forager" has caught a crab using a bizarre snare at the end of a long fishing line, demonstrated how to use an "A-frame dipnet" to catch smelt ("fries with eyes") and successfully taught Maxim and his older sister the meanings of the terms "bivalve," "univalve" and "intertidal," and how to identify a Dungeness crab (the tips of its claws are white). A few seconds into poke poling, he pulled out a small, impossibly ugly monkeyface eel, which he released back into the bay. "It's not usually this easy," he told the crowd. "If you aren't impressed, I certainly am."
Lombard, who has been known to fish out of storm drains to prove a point, hasn't chosen this spot—what he calls "the butt end of a nasty man-made harbor"—for the quality of its seafood. "Have I eaten a few out of here?" he says. "Yes I have. Would I recommend my customers do it? No.
This is an outflow tube." Rather, it provides him with the unique opportunity to fish in three ecosystems within city limits and demonstrate sustainable fishing practices to an ever-growing number of aspiring sea foragers, who he encourages to take their newfound knowledge to less-polluted spots nearby. "You can't help but gain a certain respect for the creatures that you're eating when you see how hard it is to get them," Lombard says. "The things that you catch in the wild and eat, they just taste better, even if they don't actually taste better. It's because you earned it. You actually went out and figured out the patterns of behavior for that species and you got it."
PART THREE THE VETERAN
If you ask "Wildman" Steve Brill, refusing to follow the rules was one of the best things he ever did. In 1986, five years after he started leading foraging tours in Central Park, Brill was busted in a sting operation for picking, according to park rangers, sassafras tree saplings, wild carrots, winter cress, cattails and daylily shoots. "If everyone keeps picking," Parks Commissioner Henry Stern told the New York Times, "there'll be nothing left to pick."
The arrest backfired: Brill became the most famous forager in the world. "It was a false arrest," he says, claiming that the city government was really just afraid that too many people would become inspired to forage and didn't want to condone the activity. "They were covering their butts politically, and that legally constitutes false arrest... so I made monkeys of them on TV. They dropped the charges and hired me to teach foraging after that."
Despite the gig, Brill, now 63 and still sporting his trademark pith helmet, remains antagonistic: "They're making the same claim, that eating the berries and pulling up the common plantain is going to make them extinct, which is total trash. They know the difference between renewable and non-renewable." Brill comes offas a cross between George Carlin and Woody Allen with a dash of Jim Henson. I wanted to be practical about this lesson on finding free food in my notoriously expensive hometown. What are foraging possibilities in my urban backyard? So, I stood next to Brill in his old backyard in Queens, where he first caught the foraging bug.
"I got interested in foraging through cooking," he says, surrounded by a tour group clamoring for his attention so that he can help identify the plants. "One day, I was riding my bicycle, and there were these Greek women in Cun-ningham Park, picking something.
I asked them what it was, but it was all Greek to me. Nevertheless, I went home with grape leaves, which I stuffed—and they were delicious. I started getting books about foraging, most of which had a lot of mistakes, because most botanists didn't forage or cook." Decades later, Brill leads tours for the public, day camps and schools—even birthday parties. He's written three books and sells DVDs, T-shirts, magnifying glasses and playing cards ("Wild Cards") and even has a foraging app.
All of which wouldn't be possible if it weren't for the fact that there is indeed a great deal of foraging to be done in New York City. Before Brill's tour concludes, we've tasted burdock root, wood sorrel, jewelweed, black birch, sweet cicely and many more specimens that I probably would have learned the names of had I not been excitedly tromping through the woods looking for a cache of sassafras or somesuch. This, I suppose, is what happens when a city mouse learns that wild food, the kind our ancestors ate, the kind that our bodies are supposed to consume, doesn't have to be a fantasy—and that it's everywhere.
At the end of the tour, a particularly rich cluster of wine berry bushes is discovered. I unfurl the plastic bag I've brought with me for the occasion and go to town, popping the bright fruits into my mouth as I go, thinking about how good they're going to taste dropped in a glass of champagne.