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The Logistics of Urban Food Foraging

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Philip Stark, center left in a black shirt, leads a group of amateur foragers
Philip Stark, center left in a black shirt, leads a group of amateur foragers

Photos by Kristen Rasmussen.

Philip Stark is the Statistics Chair at UC Berkeley, as well as an avid forager of wild foods: yes, even in the urban landscape of Berkeley and Oakland. He appeared in the first episode of California Matters, showing Mark Bittman what to look for and what to avoid -- and what not to be afraid of -- when searching for edible weeds. We talked to Stark to get more information about the practicalities of foraging, and to find out what inspired him.

Your work seems pretty wide-ranging. When and how did you get involved in foraging and nutrition?

Stark: I've enjoyed cooking since I was a kid. My mom was a follower of Adelle Davis, so I was exposed to ideas about fresh food and nutrition early on. I'm a long-time foodie, including roasting my own coffee, pickling, baking (including grinding my own grain), and so on. In my 40s, I got interested in endurance sports; that increased my interest in nutrition and led me to conduct "n=1 experiments."  My interest in foraging also arose from long-distance trail running. I started to notice seasonal variations in flora and fauna, and became curious about what the plants I saw on the trail are good for.  Food is obviously a good thing!

What should we know about the Berkeley Open Source Food project?
Stark: My colleagues Tom Carlson, Kristen Rasmussen, Eric Berlow, and I are interested in wild and feral foods from a wide range of perspectives, including: understanding urban ecosystems; improving nutrition and improving food equity and access expanding gastronomy -- wild edibles aren't "starvation food." Many are absolutely delicious and unlike anything you can find in a grocery store or farmers' market. Chefs we've worked with are excited to have new flavors and textures to work with.

Also, increasing farm and garden productivity by restoring a wide range of traditional foods to our diets and raising awareness of wild foods decreasing food waste wherever it occurs: neighborhoods, gardens, farms, and municipal lands reducing or eliminating the use of herbicides to decrease toxic exposure and to increase the availability of nutritious food; decreasing the carbon and water footprints of our food supply; promoting farming practices that embrace "weeds" to protect and restore the soil, sequester carbon, reduce water needs, and reduce erosion

Among other things, we'd like to see public policy changed to make it legal to forage non-native, invasive species on public lands. Instead of spraying herbicides on "weeds" (and suffering the ecological consequences) we can eat the aliens!

Clams and nasturtiums
Clams and nasturtiums

Do you have any recipes that make use of foraged food?
Stark: Almost everything I cook ends up with a wild garnish at the very least. #PutAWeedOnIt

Most of the things I forage are great raw -- no cooking required. Some benefit from a little heat to wilt them, especially late in the season. Some of my favorite recipes with feral and wild ingredients include mole based on California bay laurel nuts instead of peanuts and chocolate, wild plum and sweet fennel compote, cow parsnip chutney, dandelion pesto, chicken roasted with mustard flowers under the skin, and salmon broiled with California mugwort and yarrow. 

But my go-to dishes are salads based on whatever is thriving at the moment. Combining and balancing flavors from different parts of the spectrum -- aromatic, piquant, mild, bitter, sweet, and umami -- is delicious fun. A salad with black mustard, wild radish greens, sow thistle, chickweed, oxalis, miners' lettuce, sweet fennel, bristly ox tongue, and dandelion, dressed with homemade vinegar or Meyer lemon juice, is hard to beat. 

Sweet Fennel
Sweet Fennel

How practical is it for the average person in California to make foraged food a regular part of their diet?
Stark: It's easier than you could possibly imagine. You probably already know one or two wild edibles -- say nasturtium and dandelion. That's the start of your "green list" of wild foods. If you harvest them even once, it will change how you perceive your environment, and you will start to notice them everywhere. A little curiosity will get you very far in no time at all: you probably have a dozen edible species growing in your own yard or sidewalk. If you "grow" your green list one plant at a time, very soon you'll have something to eat year-round.
If you'd like a brief introduction, Berkeley Open Source Food will send you a pocket guide to the Bay Area Baker's Dozen Wild Edibles, with some tasting notes, for a donation of $15 or more.

Watch: Take a Walk on the Wild (Edibles) Side

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