September 11th 1916, the doors of the first grocery store opened in Memphis Tennessee under the name Piggly Wiggly. Today there are over 40,000 grocery stores and supermarkets in the U.S. alone. Over the years, America has began to depend more and more on the glossy isles of perfection instead of the obvious backyard garden. More overlooked than the home garden? The public forage.
Appalachian people have traditionally heavily relied on food crafted from the earth instead of by way of dollar exchange. As one of the poorest regions of the country, we were the inspiration for the nation's first food stamps. Now, on the cusp of a national nutritional nightmare coupled with grocery shortages and not-so-new monetary struggle, foraging has the perfect horse to ride back in on, shining armor and all. The problem is, yet another skill that was once commonplace is now severely lacking in experts. That isn't to say there are none, but once upon a time, the average person off the street could recognize the plant above as Poke. Now, I see pokeweed posted incessantly by people asking if it is elderberry, blackberries, if it is edible and more. The answers on such posts range from "Ahhhh!!! Burn it!!! Highly toxic!!!!" to people suggesting the poster eat it and find out. I reside somewhere in the middle. No, the common lad should not be in the business of preparing a rather tricky Appalachian forage for his family dinner. But also, this native species isn't the boogie man. The toxicity resides in the berry seeds, mature leaves, and roots. Year after year, poke shoots were collected in early spring for dinner tables all over the mountainside. They're boiled a few times and tossed with fat and vinegar. The berries have been deseeded and made into jams by more than a few Grams, and the roots have been used as a crucial medicine to folks who know what they are doing.
The problem is, VERY few people today KNOW what they're doing. Knowledge on wild foods has been willfully removed from our culture, as dependence grows on others to tell us how many pills to take each day to live, how to avoid fats, and reasons to replace real food with synthetic ones. The less people gathering free food and medicine, the more money dumped into a broken system.
With an annual inflation rate of over 5.5% this year (the highest rate since the 2008 financial collapse) food is becoming more of a commodity than it should be. Yes, I know, I'm one of THOSE people with the extremist belief that food is a human right. Sorry bout' it, ya'll. Food can be free. Anyways, back on track. With food acquisition becoming a freedom hindrance, it's time to crack open a big ol' can of Acts of Food Freedom. There's no better way to opt out of the system than to harvest your food for free, on land owned by the public. Let's name a few in season goodies, shall we?
1: Goldenrod. This beauty is often wrongly blamed for seasonal allergies, but she's far from guilty. A tea made from goldenrod actually seems to help calm the sneezes. Kidney troubles and urinary struggles also balk at the site of goldenrod medicines, and the best part is you can make a tincture once in the fall that will last all year.
2: Autumn Olive. Stop! Please, put down the pitchforks and torches. Before you come for me, realize that the more berries you gobble up from this extremely invasive species, the less it spreads!
3: Chestnuts. As I type this, they're beginning to fall from our trees by the bucket full, much to my barefoot heart's dismay. They freeze well, in fact I recommend any that won't be eaten immediately be stored there to kill any larva and stop rancidity.
4: Usnea. This frizzy forage makes a great upper respiratory aid when made into a tincture.
5: Staghorn Sumac. A great seasoning and tea. Harvest when the berries are nice and bright, dry, and use for tea whenever the mood strikes. High in vitamin C!
6: Hickory Nuts. Walk along any parkway trail and you're sure to find the hickory hulls littering the ground as squirrels munch them apart in preparation for winter.
7: Kusa Dogwood. Yes, those bizarre fruits are edible! Makes an excellent jam.
8: Acorns. These require some work, such as leaching the tannins out, but they're worth the effort when you break out the acorn flour bread at Thanksgiving!
9: Apples. Apples are one of the best forages for new learners. Unmistakable and versatile, no special treatment needed! Bring a bucket and a picking pole, they'll be handy.
10: My favorite of all forages; Mushrooms. Whether its chicken of the woods, maitake, turkey tail, oysters, chanterelles, old man of the woods, lion's mane, or any other of the dozens of delicious and medicinal fungal goodies, they are so worth the effort.
There are a few rules of foraging that one must heed. Don't trespass, don't harvest from areas that can be contaminated, and always confirm your harvest IDs with a few trusted resources. Know your laws and rights as well! It is perfectly legal to harvest wild food on any public land. Some areas have specific rules regarding amounts and seasons, so confirm those first. Be respectful and don't hoard an entire batch of food, make sure you leave a little to replenish the spot season after season. Most of all, make sure you help spread the knowledge around. It is important to help others gain food freedom if we are to keep our own.