I’ve been foraging for blackberries my whole life. I also remember picking gooseberries on Mount Shasta when I was a small child. I used to find and eat miner’s grass and also sour grass. Things I learned from my mom. But it wasn’t until I moved to the JC neighborhood in Santa Rosa that I really became a forager in earnest. I rediscovered my love of picking wild blackberries and the first year in Santa Rosa my friend Sharon and I learned to make blackberry jam together which started my love of food preserving. I was taking classes at the Junior College and walked to school from my house early in the morning for math class. After the first storm that year I noticed walnuts on the ground.
I know a walnut when I see one. Who doesn’t? The Stemples had several walnut trees in their back yard and they always had huge bags of walnuts in their mud room. The truth is – I never really liked walnuts. They were “okay”. I’d eat them if someone put them in baked goods but I always wished people would stop putting walnuts in their cookies because I thought it ruined them. When I first saw the walnuts on the ground I wasn’t that excited about them but I was curious to know if all walnuts are edible and if you could eat them fresh out of the shell or did you have to do something to them? I picked up a few and carried them around with me. Eventually I ate one of them and didn’t get sick.
The walnuts were all over the ground and I started picking them up as I walked, filling my backpack with them. I still didn’t really like them but I couldn’t resist collecting them. Something clicked (I think it’s called OCD) and the repetitive activity of collecting nuts and hoarding them in my garage was soothing and fun and addictive. So I ended up with an enormous quantity of them. All picked up from my neighborhood streets. It was free food. Food I didn’t like, of course, but FREE. And satisfying to collect.
Eventually I had to force myself to stop. A person who doesn’t like walnuts doesn’t need a year’s supply of them. I decided to try eating them in different ways to see if I really didn’t like them. What I discovered is that I really dislike walnuts in baked goods. Period. I won’t shun your gift of banana bread with walnuts in it, but only because I’m used to my mom baking nuts in everything and I’m pretty polite about gifts. But I’ll wish you hadn’t polluted your banana bread with walnuts. I tried walnuts in other ways and discovered that I love them lightly roasted and put on salads. When you do that they remain crisp. To me – an uncrisp nut is an abomination. I also discovered that I love candied walnuts – just to eat out of hand or on a pear salad. Deborah Madison introduced me to walnut sauce and it is one of my favorite sauces in the world. It’s creamy and rich and wonderful. I make it very smooth – no grit.
Every year for 5 years I collected a year’s supply of walnuts and ate them all. I was lucky that when I lived in Oregon a dear friend of mine had access to free walnuts and gave me tons of them because there weren’t a lot to forage in McMinnville. But I missed foraging for them myself. I missed the yearly activity that signaled deep fall. They nearly always start falling after the first real rainstorm. Which we just had a few days ago. While foraging for olives with my friend Sharon she mentioned that she was finding walnuts on the ground and I very nearly dropped the olive project to go collect nuts.
Instead I stuffed down the panicky feeling that I would miss my chance to gather nuts and hoard them in my tree trunk… and waited one whole day to go out looking for them. Yesterday Chick and I walked to my old favorite walnut trees and I gathered a bag full. Many of them are smaller than I like but will still be good. Chick didn’t think much of the walnut collecting. She would much rather forage for poop. Still, she did her best imitation of a patient dog and I felt right again. Like time is flowing in the right direction after being stopped for years. I know I keep saying shit like this – but it’s true. This is where it truly started for me and to walk the same path I’ve walked year after year to the same trees, trees that I’ve come to think of as quiet personal companions, it makes me feel like I just found something that’s been lost. It feels wonderful. It feels peaceful and makes me happy.
Once you get into the foraging mode it’s impossible not to see food all around you. Or to wonder about things that MIGHT be edible. To someone. This old cactus in our neighborhood caught my eye yesterday as it has caught my eye every time I’ve walked by it in the last 12 years. But this time I saw it differently.
Are those “prickly pears”? Can you make jam out of those? And is this the kind of cactus you can make nopalitos from? CAN I EAT THIS CACTUS?
I wouldn’t dream of trying to take any part of it because it is a masterpiece in this yard – it is clearly not food hanging over the sidewalk waiting to be plucked at by strangers. Taking any part of this plant would be grand and mean theft. But it amuses me how you look at things differently after years of foraging.
Cheers to my fellow foragers out there!
Things I’ve foraged for so far:
gooseberries (only the once but it was memorable)
hazelnuts (for others, I hate hazelnuts)
Indian plum (my friend Nicole introduced me and Max to it – it’s a leaf that tastes like a cucumber)
mushrooms (not very successfully – I did find an old bolete, an old chanterelle, and Philip and Max found me a lobster mushroom)