The foraging potluck: Edible plants
Bored with the same old dinner menu? Challenge your palate and your culinary skills this Saturday night, Sept. 26, at the Fall Foraging Potluck hosted by Martha's Vineyard Slow Food at the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. Guest speaker Russ Cohen, one of New England's premier wild foods foraging experts, will identify some of the 150 species of edible wild plants in the area and explain how to transform them into delicious and nutritious ingredients.
"Foraging is fun," Mr. Cohen says, summing up his life-long passion for stalking the edible plant. He turned a high school edible botany mini-class into a decades-long hobby - one that now takes him all over New England as a guide for more than 36 foraging ventures each year. "Searching for wild foods is a wonderful way to reconnect with the environment," he adds. "It enriches the time you spend outdoors, whether you're in the mountains, on the Island or in a parking lot in Boston. Once you can identify edible plants it's like having friends come up and greet you on your walk."
Beginning at 6:30 pm, Martha's Vineyard Slow Food members and guests will bring their edible wild plant dishes to the table for a community potluck. Families are welcome and participants are instructed to prepare a dish that will serve six. Slow Food spokesperson Cathy Walthers encourages anyone interested in healthy, local food to attend. "You don't have to forage for your ingredients," she says, reassuringly. "You can bring a dish prepared with fresh local foods. And don't forget that fish and shellfish are foraged wild foods as well."
Mr. Cohen is also leading a Saturday afternoon walk to forage for edible plants on Chappaquiddick. Sponsored by Polly Hill Arboretum, Slow Food and the Chappaquiddick Community Center, the walk is filled to capacity but has become a popular annual activity.
The Fall Foraging Potluck will offer diners an opportunity to sample some of the bounty of edible wild plants that grows throughout the year on the Island. From soup to nuts, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Walthers enthusiastically recite possible menu items: stuffed quahogs with wood sorrel and mulberry leaves; cattail shoot soup; carrion flower, dandelion, and chanterelle quiche; juneberry-mulberry strudel; and hickory nut torte.
Environmentalist by day (he has been employed by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game since 1988), forager by evening and weekend, Mr. Cohen is the author of "Wild Plants I Have Known. . .and Eaten," published by the Essex County Greenbelt Association. A self-taught edible plant expert, the Boston area resident says that his affinity for foraging is what remains after thousands of years of hunting and gathering behaviors in humans. "Up until World War II we were still going out to gather some of the ingredients in our diets," he explains. "We're now so alienated from nature that we spend most of our time indoors shopping in malls or playing video games.
"Foraging offers us the chance to enrich and enliven the time we spend outdoors and to add more variety to our meals." Mr. Cohen likens the thrill of finding wild beach peas or black locust flowers to spotting a designer bargain at Filene's Basement: "It's the same adrenaline rush - without the sharp elbows."
Mr. Cohen advises novice foragers to proceed with caution. Potential pitfalls: poisonous plants, poison ivy, and the depletion of less-than-plentiful native species. He suggests that beginners pick up a copy of Island oral historian Linsey Lee's book, "Edible Wild Plants of Martha's Vineyard" for accurate local information.
The risk of ingesting a poisonous plant on the Island is relatively low, Mr. Cohen says. "Trust your taste buds. If a plant tastes bad it's a warning signal. Mushrooms are a different story. The wrong mushroom is much more dangerous. It's easy to recognize edible mushroom species so stick to the safe end of the spectrum."
Mr. Cohen suggests that foragers keep a notebook of their reconnoitering. "You can find an edible plant that's not in season on one of your walks. If you note where it is, you can come back and pick it when it's ready. The best time to find beach plums is in late May when they produce white flowers. It's much harder to spot the fruit when it's ready to pick around Labor Day."
Slow Food Martha's Vineyard is one of the more than 1,000 chapters of the international Slow Food movement, an organization comprised of 100,000 people who oppose "fast food and fast life" and who are dedicated to the heritage and pleasure of healthy local foods. The Vineyard chapter was founded in 2005 and consists of 100 members who host monthly potlucks, tastings, food demonstrations, speakers and other activities that support the production and consumption of Island-grown and native foods.
"We're a group of people who love food and sharing it with friends," says Ms. Walthers. "We want to invite anyone who's interested to join us. You don't have to be a great cook - just a fan of good, healthy food."
Fall Foraging Potluck, Saturday, Sept. 26, 6:30 pm, Agricultural Hall, West Tisbury. Bring a dish to serve six and your own place settings. $5 donation; free for Slow Food members. Call Cathy Walthers at 774-521-8406. For more information on Slow Food, visit slowfood.com or slowfoodmarthasvineyard.org.
Visit the Polly Hill Arboretum website for a complete schedule of activities at pollyhillarboretum.org. For more information on foraging for wild foods, visit Russ Cohen's website at users.rcn.com/eatwild/sched.htm.
Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Times.