There Is No Hamburger Tree

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“Nature is like a banquet,” many of us have heard. “One has only to learn how to eat it.”

I beg to differ. Nature is NOT like a banquet. It’s not like a supermarket, either; it’s not even like a well-spaced produce stand with most of the stalls hidden in the bushes.

At a banquet, the prepared meal is laid out before you; If you find that in the woods, you’re raiding someone’s picnic. At a supermarket you find food that’s already been processed — the grain is threshed, milled, and baked, the fruit is juiced, and the vegetables are canned. At a produce stand you don’t have to dig potatoes, twist off ears of corn, or pick raspberries.

I’m all for extolling the bounty of the Earth, but let’s be realistic. If you really need an analogy, let’s say that Nature is like a garden where you don’t have to plant, cultivate, or weed. You still have to dig, pick, wash, peel, and everything else.

Many people seem to lost interest if any wild food that requires work beyond gathering and perhaps washing and cooking. This includes most wild food authors. That limitation basically leaves us with salad greens, potherbs, shoots, small-seeded berries, and mushrooms. You will find that the wild food literature focuses heavily on such plants.

I often say in my workshops that the more useful a plant is for subsistence, the less information you can find about it. I wish I were kidding. The wild food literature normally pays only lip service to staple foods because they don’t fall into any of the easy-to-use categories listed above. Authors commonly try to make staple plants sound more appealing to the armchair forager by understating the time and effort required to harvest and prepare them and oversimplifying the instructions for doing so. Such naive, sugar-coated accounts may make pleasant reading but they have little practical value.

I eat salads, berries, potherbs, and mushrooms too — but what about the roots, tubers, nuts, legumes, starchy vegetables, fruits, and grains that have always comprised the vast majority of the human diet? Well, here’s a fact that you may have heard from your mama: if you want to eat, you’re going to have to work. I can’t figure out why so many people suppose that this rule shouldn’t apply to foraging. Again and again I’m amazed to hear frustrated foraging “enthusiasts” complaining that wild foods take “so much work.” What did they expect? Ready-to-eat, delicious, abundant, and nutritionally complete high-calorie food that grows on trees? You already know what I am going to say: There is no hamburger tree.

How many fisherman do you know who complain about the hours they spend on the water? How many miles does a deer hunter walk or drive for each animal he shoots? How many hours does a gardener spend tilling, weeding, and tending each pound of vegetables? Yet none of them complain; they know that effort is part of the deal. Effort is what makes these activities satisfying; without the effort, they would just be shopping. I hate shopping.

I certainly hope that armchair foragers enjoy this book, but I wrote it for people who actually plan on going afield and coming home with food to prepare. Thus I have included many plants even though they require effort, skill, and equipment to harvest and prepare.

Many wild food authors ignore or dismiss any plant that requires significant processing before consumption. Perhaps they are unaware of the large number of domesticated foods which require extended processing, and of the even greater number whose wild ancestors did. Olives are poisonous are they come off the tree; they are subject to at least a week of leaching before being consumed. Wild almonds are toxic, yet they were gathered and prepared for millennia before domestic, nontoxic forms developed. Manioc, a staple for millions in the tropics, can be deadly in the raw state. In fact, to dismiss a wild food because it requires processing — whether leaching, winnowing, parching, shelling, or some other method — would be to dismiss the ancestor of nearly every major crop plant on Earth.

…Foraging is something to do, not just dream about. I will give you the tools to do it — but you must provide the work.

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