I came to Martha’s Vineyard in the autumn of 1978 to visit my new boyfriend in the camp he built off North Road, near the Brickyards. The weekend was spent fishing off Noman’s Land, raking up clams in Menemsha Pond, and picking enough wild grapes to make a pie. Not only did I marry the boyfriend but I’ve been a dedicated forager ever since.
The woods around our camp were full of blueberry and huckleberry bushes, and blackberry and grapevines sprawled abundantly alongside the dirt road. Beach plums grew in the shadow of the Brickyard chimney and if I could avoid the poison ivy and Preston Harris’s cows grazing among the ruins, they were mine for the picking.
Friends took me to collect hazelnuts on Peaked Hill or cranberries in Aquinnah. One even showed me a secret spot for gathering watercress in the spring.
Nuts and berries weren’t our only harvest. At low tide, we’d scour rocks along the North Shore for signs of mussels, we raked for oysters in Tisbury Great Pond, and we brought our crab nets and buckets to Chilmark Pond in the fall.
High summer often found me with a child on my back and a coffee can on a string around my neck, deep in a secret thicket of high-bush blueberries. At first the berries pinged against the metal of the can, but soon the sound thickened to a quiet, satisfying plop. I’d make jams and coffee cakes and put bags of blueberries into the freezer hoping to capture the season’s essence. Blueberries smell like summer as they thaw.
Foraging has been an important part of life on the Island as long as people have lived here, although it tapered off in the middle of the 20th century, when refrigeration and improved transportation made more “fresh” food available throughout the year.
With the publication of Euell Gibbons’s “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” in 1962, foraging became popular among a wider audience. Today, thanks to the current interest in farming and Slow Food it is popular with a new generation. More and more people are curious about collecting and experimenting with wild foods and their tastes are adventuresome.
Last winter Billy Manson, a seasonal Edgartown resident, organized a Local Wild Food Challenge, which was held at Detente restaurant. A prize was awarded for the best dish created using wild foods. The response was extraordinary. There were 33 entries using wild foods such as Hen of the Wood mushrooms, cranberries, venison, and wild goose. The winner, Dan Sauer of 7a Foods, went so far as to make his own sea salt. This year’s event will be on October 16 at the M.V. Rod and Gun Club.
In comparison to this new generation of foragers my efforts are modest — plebian, really. I stick with shellfish, berries, and a few easily recognized mushrooms. This year, I’m focusing on what I can find right from my own backyard in Lambert’s Cove where we moved in 1998 from the camp in Chilmark. Our lot, just over an acre in size, is a mixture of grass and trees.
There are plenty of dandelion greens, but I find them bitter. Tiny green grapes are swelling on the vines climbing the huge Norway spruce in our driveway. With luck there may be enough for a batch of spiced wild grape jelly. I’ve been ambivalent about the Russian Olive that invaded our yard, but thanks to last year’s Wild Food Challenge I know I can make a delicious sorbet with its berries. Chestnuts are ripening on our lone American chestnut tree and after I finish writing I’ll check to see if there are any remaining blackberries behind the garage.
I’m not a purist, and we have no blueberries or huckleberries here so I’ve foraged for them at Blackwater Preserve. Wandering the trails in mid-August with my two small great nieces, we grazed as we walked. Our baggie was empty when we came home, but our fingers were stained a deep purple, and our bellies were content.
With so many of us gathering wild foods it’s important that we forage with sensitivity — mindful of how much we take and what our impact is. A July article in The New York Times reported that foragers are picking whatever is edible in New York City parks. In Central Park, wild leeks, known also as ramps or spring onions, have been yanked out and their habitat destroyed.
Where possible, pick things that are renewable and pick them in moderation. And pay attention to legal limits when taking fish and game, including shellfish.
Watercress gathering is an early spring ritual on the Island. No one says where he or she goes but we all know. Last spring Jan Burhman wrote on her Kitchen Porch blog (www.kitchenporch.com/culinary-experiences) about collecting watercress and coming upon someone who was filling a large garbage bag full of the cress. She said it is one thing to collect for your personal use and quite another to stuff a garbage bag full and sell it. I agree.
I had a similar experience last summer. Our home is near the Lambert’s Cove beach, which can be a great spot for harvesting beach plums. Last summer the plums came early and they were plentiful. I picked a small bucket to make a batch of jelly for my family. On my way home I passed a man lugging two 10-gallon buckets overflowing with beach plums, one in each hand. It seemed greedy. Let’s each of us commit to foraging responsibly, keeping it fun, and remembering to share.
Spiced Wild Grape Jelly
Makes about 12 jelly glasses
4 quarts wild grapes, removed from stems
1 pint vinegar
1/4 cup whole cloves
1/4 stick of cinnamon, broken up
3 pounds sugar (approximately)
Do not wash grapes. Place in a large kettle, crush with a potato masher, add vinegar and spices, mix and crush again. Cook mixture 15 minutes. Let sit overnight. Dip out carefully, leaving sediment on the bottom Measure juice and sugar cup for cup.
Heat to boiling, stirring sugar to help dissolve it. Cook until jelly sheets from a spoon. Cool slightly, skim, and pour into clean hot containers. Seal at once.
Recipe adapted from “The Martha’s Vineyard Cookbook: A Diverse Sampler from a Bountiful Island” by Louise Tate King and Jean Stewart Wexler, 1971.
Laura Wainwright, who lives in West Tisbury, is a frequent contributor to The Times.