Wild tastes : foraging for food
Imagine going on a picnic without bringing any food. It's a very possible option if you go walking with wild food enthusiast Russell Cohen. More than 30 years ago, he took a high school course in Edible Botany and it changed his life.
Mr. Cohen, who goes outside to collect his groceries, has a reputation as an expert on the wild edible plants of New England. The author of "Wild Plants I Have Known...and Eaten" (Greenbelt, $15), he will be at Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury on Saturday, May 17, where a sold-out group of enthusiasts will be trailing him around the grounds in search of edibles.
Mr. Cohen's mission in teaching a satisfying and safe way to forage for food is to, "connect people to the outdoors through their taste buds; to increase their bond, their love affair with nature."
In these times of heightened awareness of humankind's negative impact on the environment, Mr. Cohen sees foraging as "an act of celebration, of communion," and talks of "using knotberries and dandelion flowers instead of wine and wafers."
He is employed by the Riverways Program of the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game, where since 1992, he has served as Rivers Advocate.
Photo courtesy of Russell Cohen
Says Mr. Cohen: "Conservation is not just preserving the bugs and the bunnies and then locking them up."
Speaking with obvious conviction, he explains that in going out, finding, gathering, preparing, and eating wild food, people can feel themselves a part of the whole eco-system; the offspring of Mother Nature herself.
Of the over 200 species of edible wild plants one can eat on Martha's Vineyard, some are more common than others, so there is not a problem of "over picking."
One surprising treat that walkers may find at Polly Hill is garnered from the catbriers, also known as sweet or bull briar. A woody green vine covered with thorns, it is a cousin of asparagus, and has a tart flavor, although it is often thought of as "a pain."
Mr. Cohen says, "It's tough to bushwhack through," but at this time of year the "tender growing tip" with its pea-like tendrils, leaves, stems, and even the pliable baby thorns can be snapped off whole and popped in the mouth.
Cousin to the catbriers, the carrion flower gets its name from the "dirty gym socks" smell of its June blossoms. Even more like asparagus, it is also more rare and so foragers must be "more circumspect" in its harvest.
"But the easiest picking is weeds," Mr. Cohen says encouragingly. As an example, he talks about the dandelion, which he declares is his "favorite vegetable, cultivated or wild," although it is also often the one most misunderstood. Inexperienced foragers will pick the dark leaves in mid-summer when the plant is in full bloom or past blooming and get turned off by the bitter taste.
"Pick the flower buds before they open," instructs Mr. Cohen. "Look for the ones right at the base, with the stems still short. Boil them for 60 seconds; they taste like a combination of spinach, corn, and artichoke."
When asked about his other favorites he replies, "It depends on the day that you ask me." He takes a brief break to brush butter on a Japanese knotweed strudel from a recipe he is trying out for the first time. A cousin to rhubarb, he had just picked this batch in his home in Weston. "Next week will be too late," he says.
He keeps a foraging calendar, noting locations and times that have yielded good picking in the past as well as likely places to "keep in mind for later on."
Beach Plums, for example, are obvious in spring, with clusters of dense white blossoms contrasting with their dark branches, but when the fruit ripen in summer the deep purple of the plums make them harder to spot.
Although his book is published by and about the Land Trust of Essex County, Mr. Cohen has made many visits to the Vineyard and asserts that all the plant treasures in the book can also be found on the Island and indeed over most of New England, including the more populated areas like Arlington, where he lives with his wife, Ellen. Beach peas and seaweeds, ground nuts, and autumn olives, from which he makes fruit leather in his hydrator "with nothing added," are only a few of the prizes to be found here throughout the seasons. One thing you will certainly find is that after you've encountered Mr. Cohen - a walk along the beach, in the woods, or even down the street will never be the same.
Slow Food Potluck, Saturday May 17, 6:30 pm, call for location. Bring a dish with a wild or local ingredient. For more information, call 508-645-3820. The Wild Food Walk at Polly Hill Arboretum is sold out.
Fae Kontje-Gibbs is an artist and freelance writer living in Vineyard Haven, who practices acupuncture and teaches yoga.