Did you slip out the back door on a luminous summer eve, eyes to the ground in search of snacks? Did you tug at what looked like over-achieving grass to find tiny onions on the end? Then rub the dirt off with your shirt and crush the white bloom between your teeth? Did you somehow discover that the ends of those big curly green leaves growing in the alley, looking like so much red celery, had a bite that made your whole mouth pucker? I ate stalks of rhubarb and foundling chives as I caroused around our neighborhood, at the adventurous age of six.
Finding things to eat from the bushes and vines and sidewalk cracks near our home on Oxford street was adventure in the same way building dams out of sticks and stones in the rain-filled gutters was, or learning to trumpet through a single grass blade held taut between my thumbs, or setting maple seed pods a spin like so many helicopters. All of nature mystical, with secrets to be discovered just for the meandering.
But eating from the earth made me feel especially clever and free and somehow in tune, and at the same time, wild. There was something clandestine about it – I had a suspicion that my mother wouldn’t approve, like, perhaps she’d think it was stealing. So, I didn’t tell her. Or anyone else, for that matter. And when I broke out in a case of hives, everyone was stumped. The doctor said it was too many acidic foods, so my mother forbade me pickles and tomatoes. But I kept on with the rhubarb until a second outbreak, and my six year old sense made the connection.
At the time, I was enthralled by Jackie Jackson‘s book The Pale Faced Redskins (actually, by all her books) that told of children’s wild imaginings on hot summer nights. So, I started my own gang of makeshift natives, myself the appointed chief. We learned to short-sheet beds, and I tried it out on my brother. We braided our hair and drew our mother’s tubes of lipstick in red lines across our cheeks. And we ate flower petals, nibbled on early fruit from the trees out back, and stocked up on rhubarb and berries.
Somehow, I heard about Euell Gibbons. By the time I was six and enjoying my food foraging, Gibbons had already written three books, the first of which, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, was a national best seller and established him as the father of the wild food movement. Later, he appeared on the Sonny and Cher show and made a commercial for Grape Nuts, but although I have vague memories of both, they happened long after my food foraging days. Perhaps I heard stories of him at the dinner table. In any case, I recognized a kindred spirit, and must have asked my mother to tell me more because I definitely associate my coming out as a food forager with Euell.
My coming out came one autumn afternoon. Entering the kitchen, I announced to my mother that I had a new recipe I wanted to try. She looked down at me, her hands dripping over the sink, with evident surprise. I hadn’t shown much interest in the cooking department, except for helping my father make chocolate chip cookies (the tale of the quest for the Impossible Dream Tollhouse cookie is for another day). When she asked what recipe, I told her it was one of my creation, and I’d named it Pine Chips. My older sister overheard this and off-handedly let me know just how stupid it sounded. But mother, for some reason, took up my case and handed me an apron.
Exhilarated, I asked for a frying pan and some butter. From my pants pockets, I dug out the “chips”, which were thin, dried scales I’d pulled from small, fragrant pine cones that afternoon. I explained to my mother, with my sister hovering like a dark cloud behind us, that these were cooked in butter and spices. My sister hissed, “You can’t eat pine cones – they’re wood!” I considered for a moment, and then replied confidently that they weren’t for eating; they were for spicing, meat to be exact.
My sister started explaining in an arch tone that if all they did was spice, then why didn’t we just use the spice directly? What need for the stupid “chips”? Although her logic did begin to undermine my confidence, with my mother’s support, I turned back to the pan and began my ministrations. As the butter sizzled, I dropped the scales in several at a time, stirring them about. I added salt and pepper, and some oregano, garlic and chives (also from my collection). That evening, my mother made steak and my pine chips were served on the side. Bursting with pride, I took a few in my mouth and sucked on them. They tasted delicious and smelled of heaven. But they were hard and, without a great deal of mastication, inedible. My sister beamed.
That night’s pine chips were both debut and finale in my foraged food recipe creation. I kept foraging on the sly for a few more years, until age distracted me with less whimsical pursuits. Years later, when I lived in Italy, I went mushroom hunting with a friend, who also gathered almonds from where they fell along the roadside and picked cherries and apples in heirloom orchards. My early foraging passion was rekindled, but when I returned stateside, I left it in the Italian soil.
But after following the renaissance of the foraged food movement and René Redzepi, its most famous forager and creative genius at Noma, the world’s top restaurant for three years running, I’m pretty sure I was onto something with those pine chips. After all, Redzepi’s menu includes asparagus and pine, pear tree! (his punctuation), moss, and rhubarb and milk curd! (mine) Perhaps with a mother more adroit in the kitchen (the pine chips needed to cook longer to get them soft) and a sister less rigidly logical (the instinctive brilliance of the chips was infusing the meat with the pine scent), my love of foraging might have grown into something more than child’s play – and my pine chip recipe into a culinary sensation.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. So, I’m content eating sweet baby strawberries from our garden and tending my chives planted in a bright blue pot.
But I’m thinking of sending my recipe to Redzepi…now that would be satisfaction!