Weaving through the maze of trails in Sunken Meadow Park, Steve Brill pauses and pulls at a plant that is dark green, heart-shaped with scallop-edged leaves.
“Garlic mustard,” he said. “I have to keep my eyes open.”
Brill, also known as Wildman Steve, is a forager. He spends his days in various parts of the tri-state area searching for edible weeds, herbs and bushes. He’s one of a growing number of foragers in the United States that find their own food, sometimes selling it to local restaurants or teaching foodies about the edible plants.
Foraging has always had a romantic appeal. After all it’s how we get truffles. Every fall foragers and their truffle hunting dogs in northern Italy set out to find the rare white alba truffles. And maybe the growing popularity in the US, Forbes named it as a dream job, has a bit to do with that romantic sense. A getting back to basics lifestyle that comes complete with a connection between the earth and what you eat.
“We’re in the Appalachian Mountains and we’re super prideful on our ability to work with, as much as we can, local ingredients,” said Executive Chef at Crystal Springs Resort in the mountains of Northwest New Jersey, Anthony Bucco.
Bucco, who has led the kitchens at acclaimed restaurants such as The Ryland Inn, Uproot and Stage Left, oversees the resort’s five restaurants. He’s fostered relationships with some of the country’s top foragers who supply the kitchens and bars with rare, hyper-seasonal ingredients often available only for a few short days and he also goes on foraging trips himself, time permitting.
“I grew up in the state and I’ve always done a lot outdoors,” Bucco said. “You learn what’s edible and I try to use local ingredients more and more in different ways. We’re constantly putting different things in front of our guests.”
Foragers bring Bucco mushrooms, green roots and much more, which becomes a conversation starter among interested guests.
“The guests truth be told aren’t always aware it’s big part of what we do, but with the spirits we’ll give a history of the ingredients and discuss at length depending on their interest,” Bucco said.
There is after all no college degree in foraging. Brill and Ashville, North Carolina forager Alan Muskat both sort of fell into it.
“In college, I hiked, cooked and discovered Taoism,” Muskat said. “All three were about being natural and they added up to wild food. It was a big stretch. I’m from a suburban area, went to school in New Jersey and was pretty much on the corporate track, but after college I didn’t want to be part of the system and going back to the land was a way to be myself. It appeals to me, it’s relaxing and it’s sense of home when you go into the woods.”
About half of Muskat’s diet he sources from wild food. Muskat has run Wild Food Adventures in Ashville, North Carolina for 20 years, leading tours into the woodlands gathering wild mushrooms, wild gooseberry, flowers, fruits, seeds, nuts, roots and shoots and then shows local restaurant show tour goers how to turn it into food. His business has grown in recent years to include hosting wild food banquets, leading off the eaten path excursions and corporate team building and retreats.
“It’s grown tremendously more popular,” Muskat said. “Starting in 2008, I think with the crash, economic reasons made people want free food. It’s also more sustainable, wild is far better for the planet and the people.”
The growth of his business continues. Muskat said his business has doubled maybe event tripled in the last year.
“I think Ashville has a long history of local food interests, forage-to-table, as far as I know and is still pretty new and I’ve taken a lot of the chefs out foraging,” Muskat said.
But as the popularity of foraging has grown so has resistance to the practice. There are health concerns; there are more than 5,000 mushroom species for instance and not all of them are edible. According to the New Jersey Poison Control Center US poison control centers receive about 6,000 calls annually from people who’ve eaten poisonous mushrooms. About 2,500 of those cases require medical attention. And then there are local laws that often prevent foraging. It should go without saying you need permission to forage on private land but some parks also don’t allow foraging and others are starting to impose restrictions as more and more people start to try foraging.
At Crystal Springs Resort, Bucco is well aware of how difficult foraging can be and not simply because of the laws.
“It’s very weather dependent,” Bucco said. “We write a loose-ended menu based on what’s available at market and from there we wait for the foragers to come and determine the rest of our flavor profiles.”
In the spring foragers bring Bucco a lot of roots and a lot of that doesn’t end up on the plate but in the background; edible leaves and ferns will be used to create different syrups or a garnish. In the summer, sometimes flowers and buds take center stage on the plate operating the same ways herbs would in contributing to the overall flavor. It’s in late summer that mushrooms come out used in the center of plate, and some roots that end up as focal points in savory desserts.
“To me the priority is to make sure we’re putting forth ingredients that are flavorful for the guests and the dishes,” Bucco said.
Simple, natural food found in woods and parks around the country like Sunken Meadow.
“I always start off by saying we’re going to look at edible and medicinal plants and then go into identifications, food uses, medicinal uses and lots of culinary information with folklore and history,” Brill said he tells those on his tours.
When foraging there is always something new to learn, as Brill did when he discovered that garlic mustard which had previously only found in spring.