Martha’s Vineyard nimrods bring game to the kitchen

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Is foraging the new web surfing?

Though it’s unlikely to take hold as an international craze, it seems that in a number of communities, including the Vineyard, people are getting in touch with their primitive hunting and gathering nature and are discovering that the famously elusive “free lunch” can be a reality, courtesy of Mother Nature.

The signs are everywhere. Last month, a mushroom expert led folks on an identification walk through Polly Hill Arboretum. Native Earth Teaching Farm has begun a community project to develop an edible forest, and starting tonight, Oct. 13, ACE MV will hold a five week class on identifying and preparing wild edibles.

Then, there’s the Local Wild Food Challenge.

This Sunday, Oct. 16, for the second year in a row, a cook-off will pit professional chefs as well as amateur cooks against each other in a contest that rewards ingenuity and effort in gathering wild ingredients, as much as culinary skills.

The contest, which will take place at the Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown, is the brainchild of private chef and world traveler Billy Manson. Last year Mr. Manson organized a Local Wild Food Challenge in his native New Zealand. Mr. Manson’s friend Kevin Crowell owner/chef of Detente restaurant in Edgartown, was a judge. It was a great success and Mr. Crowell encouraged his friend to try the event here. Now, along with the Vineyard challenge, there are annual events in Easbourne, NZ and Punkaharju, Finland, a small municipality in eastern Finland.

Last October at Detente, an impressive 36 Vineyarders entered dishes using ingredients ranging from the predictable (scallops, clams, bluefish, venison, rose hips) to the unusual (snapping turtle, sea snails, salsify root, dandelions) The winner, Dan Sauer, owner of 7a Foods and 7a Farm, and previously chef at the Outermost Inn, dug deep into the Island’s bounty to create a dish that incorporated wild goose, chicken of the woods (a wild mushroom), stinging nettles, and Russian olives (a type of berry). He even harvested his own sea salt for seasoning. As last year’s winner, Mr. Sauer will be judging this year along with Mr. Crowell and Mr. Manson.

Although Mr. Sauer has been utilizing wild foods in his cooking for quite some time, he notes that since last year’s challenge, he and other chefs have become more aware of foraging opportunities. Mr. Manson concurs. Since launching the events he’s been urged by participants to check out new discoveries, both here and in his seasonal home in New Zealand. “I’ve found myself fishing and hunting and gathering with cool people all over the place,” Mr. Manson says.

And that’s the kind of response Mr. Manson was hoping for. He says, “We’re trying to push a conservation mission through. If you get deeper into your environment you’re getting more interested and understanding it better. For the individuals entering and watching there’s an indication of what is out there and what is possible and and why it’s important to protect.”

However, Mr. Manson cautions participants to “Understand the legal limit, tread lightly where you go, and, if in doubt, leave it out.” That last warning applies not just to mushrooms and berries, but also to foods that may not be toxic, but just unpalatable like the horse chestnuts that someone served up last year in lieu of wild chestnuts.

Mr. Manson stresses that the judges take more than just culinary talent into account. “We judge on taste, ingredient, presentation, and effort,” he says. “Each of these categories is worth the same amount of points. This means the amateur can take on the pro easily.”

“The more descriptive the story of how the ingredients were procured, and how Island bounty has been tapped into, the better. We encourage people to use Island farms and gardens to augment their dishes.”

The kitchen facilities at the Rod and Gun Club will be available for last-minute cooking but Mr. Manson instructs participants to do as much prep work in advance as possible.

The grand prize, for which every entrant is eligible, is a trip on a motor yacht to Nantucket. Second and third place prizes will be awarded in both professional and amateur categories. There are a number of other categories including best effort, wildest ingredient, and best story behind ingredients. A kid’s prize of a pizza and gelato party for 30 at Lattanzi’s will also be awarded. All in all, the prizes, all provided by local businesses and individuals, are valued at a total exceeding $5,000.

Jellyfish jelly?

The Finnish and especially the New Zealand participants have shown a good deal of ingenuity. Among the unusual dishes from New Zealand were jellyfish jelly, carmelized cicadas, and wild boar caught by a young woman. The winner from Finland prepared wild barley and chanterelles wrapped in grape leaves and also wild thyme biscotti and arctic raspberry wine. The Finnish entrants included a lot of wild mushrooms.

“The Finns have multigenerational knowledge,” Mr. Manson said. “They have foraging in their blood. They are all very close to the land.”

Vineyarders may not know the forest as well, but they do know the sea. According to Mr. Manson, “The average Vineyarder knows a lot about what’s on the coast. Each place seems to have their own expertise that’s passed on through the generations.” He adds, “Each time we do it, it’s a really great local feeling.”

Mr. Manson and his wife Sarah are winemakers and amateur gardeners in their winter home in southern New Zealand and they often barter wild foods with their friends there. Mr. Manson has established a website,, and he hopes for the initiative to grow. He says, “From a little embryonic idea we’ve put a plan together.”

Local Wild Food Challenge, Sunday, Oct. 16, 4 pm, MV Rod and Gun Club, the Boulevard, Edgartown. Free. Entrants are strongly encouraged to preregister through the website or by email to

ACE MV class Wild Edibles will take place at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary on 5 pm Thursdays from 4–6 pm starting on October 13. Fee is $135.