Making grocery trips to buy fresh food for the family has become an anxiety-ridden decision during the coronavirus pandemic for many, and not everyone has the time, skill or space to cultivate a garden of vegetables for the dinner table.
But you don’t have to venture far into the world to find food. You can just take a step into your own backyard.
Jesse Iliff, riverkeeper for Arundel Rivers Federation, grew up on a farm in Arnold and always has been a “nature boy,” taking notice of the plants around him on walks. A few years ago, he plucked a few chunks of chicken of the woods, a lumpy orange mushroom that resembles nuggets, and baked it in butter and salt.
“It turned out OK, it was nothing special. But it was a big amount of food in there … ” Iliff said. ” … It occurred to me that are resources out there that are overlooked. It would be nice to have an eye trained enough to spot them.”
The arrival of coronavirus, and the inclination to take up doomsday preparation activities with it, spurred Iliff’s interest into a full-blown hobby. He explores his surroundings with intent. He started pulling up dandelion greens, fiddlehead ferns, plantains. He’s educated his kids about it, and it’s become a fun family activity. He’s joined Facebook pages, such as Forage Maryland, and fungi enthusiast pages.
“People can get plenty of canned goods and dried food and freeze meat, but lettuce and kale are the stuff that don’t really keep. But we’ve got that growing outside,” Iliff said. “People might save themselves a trip to the grocery store if they just feel like they need some leafy greens, which everybody does, and go take a look.”
From her perch as Forage Maryland’s administrator, Denise Whitman sees trends of forageable foods come and go with the seasons. Right now, morel mushrooms are hot; even just scrolling through the page for a few minutes, users’ photos of morel mushrooms outnumber all the rest.
“There’s one guy who’s found a lot of morels in Anne Arundel County down by Patuxent. He was posting a lot about all the morels he was finding,” Whitman said. “I was quite jealous, quite frankly.”
A penchant for foraging isn’t limited to a pandemic activity. Liana Vitali has served as a naturalist for five years at Jug Bay Sanctuary in Lothian, and said folks are always more keen on adventure this time of year.
“Everyone just has this vibration of excitement because, especially during normal times, we’ve been cooped up inside all winter and we haven’t gotten to the great big heat of summer,” Vitali said.
Before taking visitors of Jug Bay Sanctuary out to forage, Vitali has some rules.
If you don’t know what it is, don’t eat it. Ask permission before taking from private property.
Knowing everything about the place you’re harvesting from is vital. Don’t pick from lawns you know for a fact have been treated with pesticides. Likewise, picking from the side of the road is dangerous due to lingering chemicals from traffic.
And, never take more than you need. What’s the rush? Who knows when it’ll be safe to leave our homes again.
“If everyone who wants to forage just takes an eleventh of a plant, it’s going to stay healthy and be able to reproduce in the future,” Vitali said.
Dandelions, those sun-yellow flowers that invade practically any lawn in America are considered weeds. But as recognizable as they are, they’re the easiest foray into foraging. Why kill them with noxious chemicals when you could collect a healthy serving for your next salad?
The whole plant is edible, from roots to flower. Dandelion leaves are considered very nutritious; the leaves, best young and taste like arugula, can be cooked like you would spinach or kale. Renowned French chef Jacques Pepin posted a recipe for young dandelion salad to his Facebook.
Dandelions be infused in olive oil, vinegar or even make wine, and the roots make for a tea capable of handling digestive issues.
Some have even made dandelion root coffee.
“The first ones that come up will always have the best flavor. Most of these plants, you can just go for it,” Vitali said. “Dandelion greens, if it’s a few weeks past the season, instead of having them raw in your salad, you can saute them, and it takes away some of that toughness. A little garlic and olive oil and you’ve got a good side dish.”
Vitali calls wild onions the gateway plant. Sprouting up around spring time, the plant part of wild onions are a cool-green, often cylindrical and almost rubbery looking with white bulbs at the end. When in doubt, the simplest way to identify them is smell. Do they smell like onions or garlic? Then they’re onions or garlic, and are ready for the grill, a salad, or some butter in a pan.
Whitman advises to pull wild onions as soon as they sprout. Otherwise, the green part will adopt a woody flavor.
One often overlooked backyard forageable, Vitali said, is the common Maryland tree, the American beech. In its first two weeks of leaf growth – right now – the leaves are tender and lemony.
Because stay-at-home orders means she can’t have hundreds of volunteers, Vitali doesn’t have the freedom to host her foraging classes virtually.
For expert inquiries, Vitali suggests the University of Maryland’s Extension, where users can submit questions and received experienced answers.
Iliff touts a source of information practically everyone has on hand: the internet.
“It’s easy enough to look up (things) on online, print out a picture, maybe fold it in your pocket as you go mushroom hunting,” Iliff said. “But in addition to pictures and descriptions, there’s also good information on where to look. It can help you target your efforts better.”