foraged food

In Praise of Free Food


At the end of the street from my childhood home in California lies an undeveloped field. When I was growing up, there used to be a couple horses who grazed it, but nowadays the horses are long gone and the field has been given over to weeds. Chief among which are wild mustard plants.

And when the mustard is going full force, my mom will report on how many people she sees milling around in the field, harvesting free food. They're all Asian folks (probably Chinese) for two reasons (and I speak as a Chinese-American): (1) Chinese enjoy mustard greens in a stir-fry; and, (2) Chinese adore saving money.

Don't ask me why, but it took me until recently to make the not-very-advanced brain connection that many of the plants we pay good money to eat happen to grow in the wild. Or, at least, in the free. I was reminded of this helpful fact again when I recently read

Author Nordahl advocates for unused city land to be planted with edibles and cites many exciting examples of cities doing just that, thus getting citizens excited about gardening, making use of dead space, fighting the "food desert" problem, and supplying local food banks with fresh, ripe, seasonal produce.

Now, Bellevue hardly counts as a food desert, as we are spoiled with access to not only local-ish foods, but, in our grocery stores, to food from across the globe, but it's still true that those foods are pretty pricey and that not every citizen of Bellevue reaches first for the fruit and vegetables and second for the Chick-Fil-A and Wendy's. As Nordahl points out, processed and fast food offer the most calorie bang for the buck. It takes a lot of carrot sticks to make you feel as full as one Quarter Pounder. Wouldn't it be lovely if more of the easily accessed public landscaping were edible? All planted alongside "Eat Me When I Look Like This" signs? If a thousand objections immediately rose to your mind, including things like maintenance, liability, etc., you may want to read Public Produce for Nordahl's rebuttals. I was more interested in visions of free food gracing our community, like the tiny strawberries that landscape our summer pool. I'm pretty sure I'm the only pool member who actually picks and eats the four or so berries per year, but it's worth pointing out that the strawberry plants get as little TLC as other plants at the pool and that I haven't died yet from eating them.

Did you realize that fruit tree branches that overhang public access areas are fair game? That some towns and cities have online maps you can consult, to walk around and pick all sorts of free produce? Greedily I checked if there were such a map for Bellevue, but alas, only a few (private) fruit trees are listed on one site, along with the blackberries we all know from our own thorny wrestling matches in the backyard. Sigh. But weeds do grow Bellevue, especially in the spring, so a future mission I've assigned myself is to investigate some foraging books and report back.

Here are the two on the shelf:


The last foraging book I had was black-and-white with hand-drawn illustrations. I don't know about you, but I wasn't willing to go out and about, stuffing things in my mouth based on my best guesses. I'll keep you posted on my findings.

All of which is to say, if you're considering putting in new landscaping this year, think about making it edible! In these days of social media, you don't have to worry about harvest going to waste, if you let people know about it.

Just one last word of wisdom: none of what I've said applies to zucchini. Don't plant zucchini. No one wants your zucchini. No one can even keep up with their own zucchini. Zucchini = NO.

Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Hungry just looking at it

Last week I caught Metro Bus 271 from just west of Bellevue Square into the U District to check out The Burke Museum's new exhibit Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, in which a photography team chose ten families around the world and documented a snapshot of their food life, including the signature photo of the family, surrounded by "a week's worth of groceries." The corner of the museum was crowded with preschoolers, teachers, and a few curious foodies like me. As I expected, the American family sat amidst a cornucopia of processed food, the sheer volume of which made me doubt whether I could trust the whole project. Surely the photographers asked them to empty out their pantry cabinets as well..? Second to the Americans in processed food products was the Japanese family. The family with the fewest? The Quechuans, from high in the Andes, in Ecuador.

A woman next to me, eyeballing their potatoes and other tubers, murmured, "How healthy!"

When her friend wondered, "But no protein..?"--I couldn't help but jump in.

"My husband spent a week in the Andes with a Quechuan village," I said. "The only protein they had was guinea pigs."

"Oh!" exclaimed How-Healthy. "Vermin."

The exhibit listed the average weekly grocery bill in dollars, but unfortunately didn't correlate that to percentage of income. In straight dollars, however, the German family topped the list at $500.07(!). At the bottom was the Mali family, at $26.39. The Americans fell second at $341.98, closely followed by the Japanese. The Chinese family grew the most food on the side. While the data was interesting, it's impossible for one family to represent a whole nation's eating habits. I imagine the urban/rural disparities in each country are huge, as are the class divisions.

What shouldn't be missed, I think, is the side exhibit entitled Salish Bounty: Traditional Native American Foods of Puget Sound. According to Elise Krohn of Northwest Indian College, the native Salish tribes enjoyed a diet of over 300 foraged and hunted foods before white encroachment and settlement. And nowadays? "Most Americans eat fewer than twelve foods on a regular basis. In this very short period of a couple of generations, we've gone from an incredibly complex diet, eating with the seasons, eating many types of foods, to eating just a few." Lost cultures and food traditions are always sad things, but I confess my mind got hung up on the 300 foods. 300? Foods in the Puget Sound just lying there or swimming around or stuck to rocks or otherwise there for the taking?

(Please forgive the Italics after this point. I CANNOT get Blogger to turn them off. Curses.)

At the Bellevue Farmers Market we've frequently enjoyed the offerings of Foraged and Found Edibles, from their tiny huckleberries and various fungi, to their more exotic "sea beans," but I never thought of them as carriers-on, in a way, of a longtime Puget Sound food tradition. Nor did it occur to me that ordinary, failed farmers such as myself, could--with a little know-how and effort--also take advantage of the 300 Free Foods lying around the region.

Since we still have a few weeks till the Market opens, I picked up a copy of Northwest Foraging at the museum gift store. Everyone I mention this to is sure I'll poison myself, but I figure I can at least identify dandelions, for Pete's sake. I'll keep you posted. If this blog ceases to exist, you'll know it's because I mistook Death Camas for the edible Camas, and all in the name of free food.

Stay tuned.

I know you can't read it, but you get the idea: BOUNTY!