Wild Leeks

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I was on tour in New England the first spring after moving to Wisconsin.  One day I got a call from my sweetheart at the time, outlining all the things I was missing back at the housing co-op as the season began bursting with life.  “The saddest thing, though,” she said, “is that you aren’t eating these ramps. Oh my god–they’d be your favorite thing ever.”  I didn’t get back before the season was over, but my first taste of wild leeks the next year proved her right–that complex, strong, garlicky-oniony flavor, with a hint of something lemony hiding underneath, floored me, and I ate them with almost every meal for the few weeks I could get them at the co-op.  It was an early sign of the horrible disorder of dedicated seasonal eating, which has doomed me to pleasures more severe than I ever could have imagined.

Since becoming a foraging nut (figuratively–I have a soft shell and only hang on trees for short periods–and also make stupider jokes), I’d found one dense little patch of wild Allium tricoccum, and had harvested it gently, thinning here and there.  In the middle of last spring’s heavy rains I took a walk in a forest new to me.  Countless glittering streamlets flowed over the high landscape, and my bare feet sank deep into mud and sand as I walked in calm wonder.  A half-mile into the woods I caught the scent, and started to spot, here and there, unmistakable pairs and trios of long, pointed leaves.  I held back the urge to harvest anything–these were very young plants, in small clusters–but before too long I followed a line of them off the trail, and into a vast grove of wild leeks, thriving on the wet soil.  I waited another couple of wild weeks before I returned.

In the interim, I’d become more acutely aware of the aggressive overharvesting of ramps by foragers catering to a restaurant industry in which wild foods have become increasingly sexy.  Backhoes, I was told, were uprooting entire colonies of wild leeks, so that entrepreneurs could supply chefs who could put ramps on their menus, the dollar value of this increasingly threatened plant increasing with each stage of the process.

I don’t, by the way, necessarily have anything against foraging in order to sell the surplus to restaurants and grocery stores.  Though I personally value the degree of detachment from the market economy that gathering can provide, I see innumerable ways in which the introduction of wild edibles to our food industry could potentially alter the ecological consciousness of eaters.  If foragers and chefs around cities with blossoming food scenes banded together, fueled by a shared sense of historical mission, they could use wild food as an encouragement for people to become more self-sufficient and more critical, not only in relation to the food system, but about our forms of life and the ways they do or don’t involve a rich, invested, multifaceted relation to nonhuman nature.

I wondered if indigenous people had tended this spot.  So many places we assume are “wild” turn out to be the result of careful interaction between humans and other life.  Our (scary) ability to affect nearly all other living & nonliving things is balanced by a singular ability to reflect on the relations in which we’re enmeshed.  Those relations can form the basic material of composed interdependences that help us provide for our needs.  From “the environment’s” point of view, we’re not more or less intrinsically important a factor than anything else.  Regular management of savannas by controlled fire doesn’t set us apart from grazing by buffalo, pollination by native bees, or regulation of nutrients among forest trees by networks of fungal mycelia.  We are creatures who push our “environment” — everything that affects us, but whose membranes are distinct from ours — in directions that benefit us, and who, at our smartest, can see that we derive the most benefit from “environments” that benefit from our actions.  The more mutuality the better.

Though I felt confident that my spots weren’t being harvested by anyone else, and I knew I could sustainably dig some bulbs, I decided only to harvest greens that season.  I took one leaf and stem from every third plant in the denser patches.  I moved slowly and quietly, trying to pay attention to the dips and rises of the land, to learn more about where the plants seemed to be thriving the most.  I did dig a small bag’s worth of bulbs and roots, and I transplanted them to spots where (without much rigorous study, and without even a basic level of gardening experience) I thought they might reproduce and thrive.  In my clumsy way, I tried to engage in something of the kind of management so well-practiced by our hunter-gatherer forbears.

Even that gentle harvest sent me home with many gallons of ramp greens, which we ate daily for the next few weeks, raw in salads or sprinkled over fish, briefly sauteed with eggs, blended in soups with nettles.  We preserved a lot: chopped finely and mixed with butter (we rub chickens with that prior to roasting, or spread it on bread), fermented (lacto-fermentation brings out some of the subtler flavors in the stems and bulbs; I also added a lot of greens to a big batch of kimchi), dehydrated (to sprinkle over stir-fries or into soups) or blended into pesto with other wild greens. In January, we’ve still barely made a dent in the supply we put up in May.

If you’re walking in the woods in early-to-mid spring, especially in an area where streams or rivers often flood, and especially among a mix of still-leafless sugar maples with other hardwoods, keep your eyes peeled and nostrils open.  Look for the pairs or trios of lance-shaped, flat green leaves between 8 and 12 inches or so; though they’re a member of the Allium genus (along with garlic, onions, chives and cultivated leeks), they look more like lilies than garlic or onions.  The base of the leaf, where it tapers to a stem, is often a beautiful purple color; the lower stem and small bulb are white, often with a purple exterior layer.

For sustainable harvest, take only greens, don’t defoliate any plants completely, and don’t thin any patch out too much.  You can also dig around the base of the plant and snap or cut the bulb above the root stock, leaving the roots in the ground to sprout a new shoot.  Bulbs get larger after the leaves die back, so–if you know where the plant was growing–you can also harvest them later in the year, which is especially good if some plants have flowered and gone to seed; that way you’re replanting the leeks as you harvest.

You can use wild leeks as a wonderful addition to countless dishes, in the ways you’d employ other alliums, but with the added advantages of leafy greens.  They’re also a great main ingredient, and were used that way often by indigenous people.  I like them raw or just-barely sauteed, but you can cook them longer if you want a milder flavor.  I can’t think of a better spring meal than wild leeks with morels, a brook trout, and a watercress-based salad on the side.  The greens don’t keep for long (and bruise very easily), so use them soon after gathering or purchasing.

Ramps are highly nutritious, with significantly more vitamin C than oranges and a host of other vitamins and minerals, including K, B6, and sulfur.  Like garlic, they seem to have potent antimicrobial properties, especially in the crushed bulb.  Wild leeks basically have the nutritional bang of greens and garlic, with a flavor profile that goes beyond either.

What a beautiful thing it is to get out into the woods for the first greens of the year, and to cleanse the body and awaken the palate with one of the most versatile foods around.

 

2018 in Foraging

The year of rains: it was a rough one for so many.  Streets and houses flooded in cities and towns.  Topsoil and ravine banks washed away, farmland flooded.  In the middle of it all, there was incredible abundance for this walker and forager.  In magical places new and familiar, I got to know more plants, tended to special spaces, found a quiet mind and easy breath as I moved slowly through landscapes, in tune with some fundamental aspects of being a human animal.  Coming home, I collaborated on inventing ways of cooking with wild foods I’d previously used in the most basic ways.  Friends and family joined in.  There was never enough time to learn, gather, process and prepare, and each time was always enough time.

I remember wading, in the spring, barefoot among hundreds of knee-deep new rivulets, linking the glittering streams that flowed down through a remote natural area I hadn’t visited before.  Happily pulling my legs again and again from deep sandy mud, noticing more and more wild leeks on the side of the trail, until they led me to a massive grove, to which I returned a couple of weeks later to sparingly gather their greens, in a gentle harvest that still gave us enough dried plants, ferments and ramp butter to last through this winter.

Around the same time we had the best morel harvest I’ve seen since moving to Wisconsin, going out in the pouring rain to let those mushrooms encounter us, seemingly peeking out into patches of light among the undergrowth.

It was the beginning of a great year for fungi.  In early summer, nine-year-old Yevka and I went to hunt chanterelles, and came home with the first eighty or so of hundreds gathered this year.  Yev insisted that we sit down with our field guides to identify every mushroom we saw–something I rarely give myself time to do–and we learned a lot, spending four hours in one sizable clearing.

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Later, in another natural area unknown to me until then, I walked a steep hillside among tall old trees, hoping to find ganoderma tsugae, the hemlock reishi.  After checking every likely trunk and stump for an hour, I decided it was time to give up, hike back down the stream bed, and head home.  Standing by the water, I looked down and saw one shining little mushroom protruding from the base of a tree.  Of course.  As always, it seemed like the decision to stop looking invited something to appear.  I didn’t harvest that lone mushroom–but, when I looked up, I saw a downed log across the stream, covered with flat, round protrusions.  I crossed over and, brushing the thick chocolate-brown spores away, saw the lacquered red surface of the fungus I’d been seeking.  Hundreds of reishi on countless logs and trees led me back to the trail to my car as I filled bags with as many as I could carry–just a few caps out of fifty here, a few out of eighty there.  I stopped many times to kneel in gratitude.

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There was hardly time to gather the quantities of berries we seemed to find every time we turned around.  So many black caps all over Southern Wisconsin!  I also found many, many serviceberry trees I hadn’t encountered before.  Serviceberry was one of the gateway plants for my growing obsession with identification and harvest, when I was just starting this journey in a serious way a few years ago; the deep sense of ease and release I felt one summer day when I looked up from my picking at the perfect sky has stuck with me, so the joy of coming across more is a special one for me.  Some were planted alongside a major grocery store, and, in the wake of heavy rains that somehow left the ripe berries intact on the trees, we harvested as many as we could from them, despite being chased away more than once by a zealous cart-mover.  I found others, the first wild specimens for me, in the woods at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with my parents and sister, and they were the most delicious I’ve tasted.  That U.P trip was also my first visit as a forager to chokecherry country, and it felt like a heaven of abundance to fill my bags and buckets.  Not to mention the hours spent destemming and juicing wild grapes and elderberries with Nora, the kids, and Uncle Fred.

I could go on and on, and will.  Learning more herbs and wild greens (oh, noble poke shoot).  Digging roots with the kids at Wild Harvest Nature Connection.  Finding out that I’m one of the people whose gut doesn’t like daylilly.  Feeling supercharged by Sam Thayer’s new book, with its manifestoes for foragers as tenders of the land and ecological revolutionaries.  The realization that volunteers spray glyphosate on garlic mustard in remote places.  The desire to do something about the poison employed in our cities, parks and forests.

In the late spring, What Got Gathered began.  I thought it was time to share the fermented hot sauces I’d been making, and to build wild food into the process.  Nora and I launched the business with a dinner in June, cooking for 30 backyard guests in Meg & Adam’s little kitchen.  Max stepped in as guest chef and all-around helper, and he and Nora each made a dessert that literally brought tears to my eyes.  What a blast–and what a lot of work–to invent a foraging-centered menu for that meal, and for the brunch that followed in October.  In between, baby Miksa was born, in the middle of the great storms, under a full moon, changing just about everything, and making me long even more for a life closer to that of our hunter-gatherer forbears.  We can’t wait to walk with him through prairies and woodlands, stream beds and marshes, gathering in wonder.

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Having slowed down sauce production for the season, I’m hoping to write more (and more detailed and interesting) posts here over the next months.  Some will be essays.  Some will be brief descriptions of the wild plants and fungi we’ve been gathering.  I’ll start that off here by showing you the menus for our two meals, and adding an increasing number of links to posts describing the things we included.  I hope you enjoy poking around (and nettling about), and wish you a year of abundance (though maybe not such an abundance of falling water).

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Poke Shoots

Milkweed

Chicken of the Woods mushroom

Spruce tips

Wild Leek (ramps)

Bee Balm (monarda)

Wild Grape

Serviceberry

Nettle

Wood Sorrel

Acorn

Hickory Nut

Black Walnut

 

fall menu

 

hazelnut

maitake mushroom

japanese knotweed

nannyberry

crabapple

 

 

What Got Gathered’s Fall Brunch!

After our spring launch dinner, everybody asked us when the next meal would be.  As promised, we’re doing another one next month–this time, a multi-course brunch, again featuring foraged ingredients in most or all of the dishes, and with some plates designed to feature our live-culture hot sauces.

We haven’t decided on the menu yet, but offerings might include sweet & savory acorn flour crepes (with wild mushrooms and fruits), wild nut coffee cake, quiche with foraged greens, pork loin with hickory nut / crabapple compote, Forager’s Bloody Mary, and more, or not more, or other things.  We’ll see what gets gathered!

The brunch will take place on Saturday, October 13th, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., in the back yard at 3708 Odana Rd.

The cost is $35 per person, or $60 for a pair. We’ll only have room for 25 people, so get your seat while you can!

Seat for one:

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Seats for Two:

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Some photos from our spring dinner:

First Post!

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It’s hard to know how to begin.  That’s what beginning is.  Not knowing, feeling it out.  That’s how I got started in both fermentation and foraging–figuring out how to give myself over to a comfort with my own ignorance.  To wander, meander, try things out, go deeper when something caught my attention.  Don’t rush.

And now there’s this little business, with its incomplete website and its little blog.  We’re making hot sauce, and I’ll write about that here.  We’ll have an October brunch to promote the sauces and celebrate the season, and you’ll see a post about that as well.  For now, I mostly want to convey my gratitude for a year that continues to astonish me in its abundance, from the perspective of a forager in south-central Wisconsin.

It’s a strange perspective to share, after torrential downpours have finally ceased, and the water in Madison is still flowing downhill toward the rising lakes.  Peoples’ houses have been flooded.  In the river valleys and creek watersheds across southern Wisconsin, whole towns are still drenched, and farms have been washed out.  My experience of the hardship of it all has been secondhand and anecdotal, and that could make it easy to forget that, in some ways, it’s been a hard year around here (to say nothing of the hardships in the wider world).

At the same time, I see empathy, collaboration and community coming out of the flooding, in human and nonhuman communities.  Our cities, with their expanding impermeable surfaces and profit-driven zoning, might not be able to handle it, but we can.  So can the plants, fungi and wildlife.  Waterlogged trees that have fallen will be converted by a massive flush of mushrooms (many of them edible or medicinal) into fertile ground.  There’s an unusual amount of fresh green growth for the onset of autumn: new nettles, violets, wintercress and lamb’s quarters are spreading under the grasses.  Berries have been incredibly abundant, large and sweet.  Hickories, oaks and walnuts bend down, weighted with massive nuts and acorns.

I recently wandered over high ground in one of Madison’s many large city parks.  Not really looking for anything in particular (which is usually, I find, the best way to forage), I stumbled across plenty of edible mushrooms, ripe black cherries, wild grapes, dandelion greens, highbush cranberries (the first time I’ve found the palatable species), varied crabapples, and far more American hazelnuts than I’ve found before.

That kind of bounty has characterized the whole growing season; even keeping my harvests to humble quantities, there’s been no way to keep up, especially as I’ve learned so much more about edibility and identification than in any season so far.  Tons of salad and cooking greens, buckets of serviceberries and black caps, big baskets of morels and endless flushes of chantarelles, a whole section of forest full of hemlock reishi mushroom, herbs of all kinds… it just keeps coming.

As I learn more and gather more, I find myself fully inhabiting my body, my mind doing exactly what it evolved to do, noticing so much that used to be invisible.  Noticing leads to caring about individual organisms, special tiny spots, and whole landscapes and ecosystems.  Caring about leads to caring for.  I aspire to find more ways to do that.  I think I know how to begin.

Okay, that feels as awkward as a first post is bound to feel.  Expect more (and better-written) general musings, as well as posts on particular plants and fungi, and the occasional bit of promotion.

Thanks for reading!