By Sarah Vance
Few people want to be labelled a scavenger, but at any given moment, we’re all just a few notches away from becoming one. While it’s one thing to perform the action of ‘scavenging’ as a verb, there are entirely different connotations to being ‘named that,’ or ‘called one,’ as a noun.
But we’ve all done it.
Maybe it’s that good deal at a thrift store; your featured furniture found curbside; or a piece de resistance that emerged from someone else’s junk pile. Trust me, anyone who tells you they haven’t scavenged, is lying.
When scavenging occurs in relation to naturally living species, this art is called foraging, and recently I’ve been testing my skills, down by the river, in the town of Bancroft. The pitch to my editors was quite simple. “I want to eat things I find in nature, over a period of time, and instead of dying, I will thrive in new and unforeseen ways. ...”
I didn’t even have to sign a waiver. We agreed that the project would be executed in full, if I could feed my family using found plants that they would actually want to eat, and ask me to prepare again.
I would need to develop a culinary repertoire with a balance of foraged ingredients at its core and because a shore lunch is as important as Sunday dinner for my family, strategies for both domains presented importance.
Being a pragmatist I know it is unrealistic to make my family’s diet 100 percent found; and in all likelihood, my kids would retain lawyers if I were to try. But since my eldest two girls have their gun licences, it’s foreseeable that sometime in the future I will find myself “dogging for them”, so foraging could stabilize my stock value, despite the fact that I am not myself, a hunter.
At a community level, I wanted to consider out-comes that might be produced if wherever possible, we ate food growing 100km around us; and relied more on what is here now, instead of bringing things in.
Some research suggests that we could radiate new ethical accountability into how we build relationships; that sustainability would ripple into countries where vital food crops are disproportionately exported onto our grocery store shelves; and that everyone might be healthier and wealthier in the long-term.
Parallel research tells us that it takes 21 days to rewire our brains to produce new responses towards existing stimuli. So, with a reach of 52 days before I had to turn in my article, it occurred to me that I could potentially forage out a whole new identity — and food sovereignty before press-time.
A possible, but unlikely goal.
Instead I focused on leveraging resources growing in abundance and in close proximity to my home, as if my survival were, in fact, on the table. Because sadly, worst case scenarios do sometimes happen, and in my experience, (borrowing words from the late Gord Downie) ... “when it starts to fall apart, it really falls apart.”
If you find yourself up the proverbial, “creek without a paddle” this autumn, my research has everything you need for whipping up a gourmet shore lunch, because sometimes you just need a little snack before sinking your teeth into the bigger problems.
In foraging culture, spring can be a tough act to follow — there are leeks for digging; fiddleheads nestling between leaves; and wild asparagus shoots. However, when I discovered BroadLeaf Plantain — a perennial, classified by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs as a weed and invasive species — my autumn repertoire expanded.
Often called White Man’s Foot, sadly nothing on the MAFRA website describes this plant’s medicinal uses dating back to the 10th century in Persian communities, where it is a remedy for neurologically related ailments. Today this plant’s derivatives are providing breakthrough results in trials involving seizures in mice GABA systems, in a dialogue with Western neuroscience. With leaves that distribute in a rosette and grow to 30cm in length, Plantain has a taste and texture similar to Kale.
In the kitchen Plantain is dynamic — served fresh as a green; salt-baked to become a chip; blanched then wrapped over savory mixtures for dolmades; or pulsed with walnuts and parmesan into pesto — anyway you choose to prepare this leafy vegetable it will make an impressive accent dish.
When foraging, I always ask if my actions are sustainable, and consider if my meal could deplete the resources where I am picking. But this is a non-issue with Plantain. It’s everywhere, precisely be-cause it is invasive, but it isn’t your enemy.
Generally foraging involves leaving the city, but Plantain offers a handy urban staple, if you are mindful not to seek it from places where pesticides are used.
Both a root and pollen vegetable — Cattail has also become a dynamic ingredient in my cooking, as everything from its inner core, to its flower is nutrition laden and reasonably easy to locate and process.
Late summer and early autumn are perfect times for shaking pollen from small maturing flowers, and I recommend just dipping the flower into long empty cups, and then tapping them. Nothing is harmed in this process.
Harvesting Cattail flour is easy, but ‘finishing-the-job’ (a.k.a. picking out bugs) developed my appreciation for what goes into table preparation. Foraging is a verb for a reason — it can take a whole day to obtain enough resources for a meal that will be consumed in 20 minutes. Finding, harvesting, cleaning, and then preparing and processing Cattails for the table can be an endeavor and it is important to consider time as a factor.
It’s worth it though, because Cattail flour is suitable for pasta, bread, bannock, muffins, cakes, crepes, waffles, or as a thickener. The root on the other hand, can be used in grilling, soups, fried, sautéed, or even pickled — and it is gluten free.
While you don’t hear many people boasting about time spent in the bulrushes, there may be an untapped market for harvesting and selling these, and other crops, locally.
Wildcrafting, is a name given to social movements, that are increasingly gaining traction. They involve harvesting found foods and selling or trading them at retail locations, in a conscientious effort to put food production more into the hands of the people
Some millennials are eyeing this craft because, unlike farming, there are limited start up fees, and little to no crop maintenance or cultivation responsibilities. Cattail could prove to be a low-risk crop for breaking into the market, as it nestles most highways in North and Center Hastings. Also called Locovore movements, one speculation is that carbon emissions could be reduced, as a result of less energy put into food transportation, if foraging activities occurred close to home.
In rural communities where nutritional insecurities present as every day realities, foraging could be one route towards achieving self-reliant networks of food supply. First, however, there needs to be an ontological shift, or decolonization, in our thinking about what makes something “food”.
While it is not for me to tell you why we value some plant species over others, it can be educational and inspiring to spend an afternoon in a swamp, so don’t knock it unless you’ve tried it.
Do be mindful of whose land you are on, get permissions as required — give thanks, and be humble in all of your endeavors.
Autumn brings signs that winter is just around the corner, and what really, is more humbling for a forager than an up-coming snow cover? Using canning as a strategy I became proactive. I set my-self to pickling blanched cattails and milkweed; making crabapple jellies, and I boiled down most of the blackberries growing around me on the Heritage trail and in ditches for jams.
Never under-look the ditch.
When using an asset based lens, ditches can provide nutrition, learning, and maybe even new levels of solidarity with animate and inanimate others.
And why else are we all here?
Autumn foraging can happen close to home — it can produce food experiences that delight guests; quench the palette; and make for genuinely affordable meals that are just as intriguing as the conversations they inspire. As a rule of thumb, you don’t need an abundance of one species to deliver a good meal, and I would stay away from that — focus instead on curating an assortment of different tastes and textures. This will keep your efforts sustainable, even if you only have a few acres to work with. As a community it might be worth considering how targeted education and decolonization could help us chip away at the food-security issues systemic to rural living, using innovative and localized approaches.