You don't have to stray far from home to get a taste of the wild West.
If you ever had to survive only on food found in the wild, Hank Shaw’s the guy you’d want on your team. Author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast (Rodale, 2011) and the 2013 James Beard Award winner of Best Individual Food Blog for Hunter Angler Gardener Cook — the single largest source of wild food recipes on the Internet, with more than 1,000 recipes from greens to game to wild fish — Shaw knows how to procure the goods.
Today he’s talking foraging, which he casually defines for the novice as “hunting for things that don’t run away.” Or swim or fly. For instance: “You hunt for birds but forage for mushrooms.” And he’s got mushrooms on the brain. That’s because it’s prime mushroom season in California, where Shaw is based, and he’s heading out this weekend to forage.
“There’s just a ton of stuff in California, everything from pine nuts to huckleberries, elderberries, mushrooms, and wild onions. Those are the kinds of things I stockpile, but there’s something to gather every week.”
You don’t have to live in California to hit foraging pay dirt — or even head out farther than your own yard. “Foraging begins at home,” Shaw says. “Go outside and look at your lawn. Virtually every so-called weed is a food plant that was brought here. Dandelions, catspaw, sow thistle, plantain, salsify, chickweed — chances are you have these outside your house.”
But seeing them is another matter: “Learn the names of the plants that grow in your own yard, edible or not,” Shaw advises. “The ultimate goal is to cure what foragers call green blindness. If you look outside and just see green things — bushes, trees, etc. — you’re green-blind. It’s a form of biologic ignorance that would have caused you to die 5,000 years ago. Most pioneers brought their own food and ignored the plants around them. When we choose to not care about plants, it becomes a green mass. If you want to be a forager, you have to pay attention to detail.”
As American Indians did for centuries. “Virtually everything modern Americans know about wild food regardless of background comes from ethnographic accounts of American Indians, from very obscure scientific and biologic and anthropologic books.” Shaw pores over those accounts, wading through the ponderous prose and making it digestible for the layperson. “Indians were masters of their environments,” he says. “Where I live, the Miwoks used 142 different plants as food right here, just east of Sacramento in the Sierra Foothills.”
In the Old West, what the pioneers learned about regional foods, they, too, learned from the local Indians, as is evident in some food traditions that persist today. “In Montana and the Dakotas, for instance, there are very old traditions of using chokecherries,” Shaw says. “In some parts of Texas, people use agarita berries. And prickly pears are used throughout the Southwest and Great Plains.”
The West is, in fact, crazy with wild food: “The early fall in the Great Plains is really pretty special. If you’re anywhere in the Great Plains in September, all sorts of things are going on that are not visible to the naked eye. Most people think only of grasses, but in the hollows and creek beds, there are all kinds of berries and hazelnuts, not to mention birds — partridges, etc.
“In really early spring in the Desert Southwest, there are a couple of things: Prickly pears have been hanging out all winter. And there are cholla buds — the flower bud on a kind of cactus. You dry them then reconstitute them; they taste exactly like artichoke hearts. You could grow fat in the Sonoran Desert off of what grows naturally. There’s so much good stuff it’s unreal.”
As for the Holy Grail of foraging in the West? Shaw’s initially stumped. For a moment he considers wild chiles in the Desert Southwest. But then he settles back right where he started — mushrooms.
“The entire Rockies after the monsoon rains in August get a short-lived flush of porcini mushrooms,” he says, a hint of their deliciousness evident in the anticipation in his voice. “Telluride has a famous mushroom festival to coincide with that. People swarm the Rockies looking for mushrooms in early August.”
From the May/June 2015 issue.