Herbalist and Expert Forager Lisa M. Rose Details Her Most Memorable Farm-to-Table Quest
"Consider the natural world around you."
For most Americans, grocery stores and farmer’s markets make familiar fruits, vegetables, and herbs easily accessible. However, less familiar produce and edible wild plants – things like dandelion and honeysuckle – are rarely sold at the local supermarket. This may explain, at least in part, why the ancient practice of foraging is still popular today. In addition to expanding your ingredient options when cooking, foraging allows you to enjoy fresh herbs and produce without the added chemicals and preservatives food manufacturers use to extend shelf life and increase vibrancy – but that also reduce foods’ nutritional value by altering and removing important vitamins and minerals.
In her new book Urban Foraging (Buy from Amazon, $19.99), herbalist and expert forager Lisa M. Rose advises readers on how to safely select wild plants for cooking. Here, she shares exclusive tips for getting started as a beginning forager and foraging in an urban environment, and talks about her most memorable farm to table meal.
Q: In your own words, can you define the act of foraging?
A: Foraging is the collecting of edible plants, berries, and other natural materials for art, shelter, and sustenance. For urban foraging, the intent is to really nudge at the edges of our perception of cities as being desolate and left out of the environmental scene; and consider the natural world around you.
Q: What was the process of conceptualizing recipes for ‘Urban Foraging?’
A: In Urban Foraging, I put forward a framework I use regardless of where I’m at. I grew up in the Great Lakes, MI area and my family’s from Flint. First and foremost, safety is very important to me. Understanding where I’m at within a city relative to the watershed and potential industry is key. Also, what’s happened in that industry or in that area across time. We have lots of concerns in all of our cities with lead contamination. These are data points that help me understand and consider what areas I might want to avoid.
Q: Do you have a favorite recipe or favorite moment from the book?
A: A couple of recipes stand out, one of which is the mulberry pie. This pie plays a really significant role for me in that I remember my first apartment after school moving out of the house, I gathered mulberries along a trail. Mulberry trees can be found across so many cities and they drop so many berries.
I remember gathering these berries, taking them back to my kitchen, and making an absolutely delicious mulberry pie. It wasn’t the most perfect pie I ever made, but it was one of those moments of, “I did this myself! I gathered the fruit. I made the pie crust.” I mean, it was super runny and taught me a lot of things, like how to iterate on the next version. But, that mulberry pie was one of those moments where I felt really proud of myself… I’d made a delicious dessert for my friends that came over for dinner that evening.
Q: Have you ever seen people who were skeptical about foraging at first, but they grew to love it?
A: All of us have a history and a lineage of people. Our people came from somewhere and our people across time – wherever we’ve been in the world – we’ve adapted to being able to cook from what’s around us. We’re about two generations from our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers, and aunties… from really doing that as the way of feeding families.
Now we’ve got a food system that’s largely industrialized and doesn’t require us to put food up for the winter. In large part, folks are like, “Oh, I don’t think I could ever do that,” or to them it’d be scary or unapproachable. What I really love is that this is fun. It’s really just finding a sense of wonder that we don’t really have any longer.
The past few generations, we’ve largely been inside and moved our world inside. We don’t have that same connection to the outdoors that we once had. And I don’t want to romanticize it. Putting up food is hard. I know that living in Flint, my mother had a garden and she did a lot of canning. But, it wasn’t because it was a foodie or bougie type of hobby for her. It helped our food budget.
For me, bringing this forward in a playful way to people and getting folks into the garden is a [way] to engage them. Then, I’ll maybe serve one of my favorite foods like acorn bread or acorn banana bread, and they’re like, “No way! You processed this acorn, turned it into flour, and now it’s in the bread?” When I work with kids, they’ll say, “No way Ms. Rose.” I’m like, “Yeah, way.”
Q: What are your tips for someone who’s a beginner?
A: Urban Foraging offers a good framework to consider the area that you live in, to consider questions to ask, and the watch outs in terms of contamination. Also, there’s a plant perspective of getting to know plants. What I really want is to democratize botany. In the book, there’s actually a very basic framework of botanical identification.
My rule across the board is, if you don’t know what it is, don’t put it in your mouth. These are basic things like we say to our kids and I say in my classes, “If you don’t know what it is, definitely take the time and the due diligence to validate that the plant is what it is.”
Now in Urban Foraging, I really focus on plants that are across many of our cities. I also include plants that are probably more wild and weedy like dandelion and chicory. I mentioned oak and crabapple. The edible landscape that might be around us has gone feral or we might not have ever considered being edible. For the most part, this is a good jumping off place for someone that’s new to the concept.
As we go along, follow that rabbit trail that you might have. If you like to cook, start to connect with those in the community that have a knowledge share group on cooking with wild foods. There’s so many unique groups out there now [that are] focused on food, culture, canning, and wild food processing. It’s really fantastic that you can start to plug into these little groups and just be curious and willing to learn.
Q: What do you hope that people take away from this book?
A: I think my biggest [contribution] with Urban Foraging is that people reconsider the hope and opportunity within [their] city. I think that you can’t be what you don’t see. In our cities, from my perspective and in my neighborhood, it’s really providing experiences and opportunities to have that ‘aha‘ moment: from getting into a garden or walking around a local park and pointing out new plant friends to involving kids in an after school program or in a community garden program.
Those little steps and micro-moments really make a difference and the trajectory of people’s lives. It’s not just about the apple, but it’s about the knowledge that you start to grow for future generations.
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