June 19, 2009

The Hunt for Connection: forageSF

Note: A while back we featured an article about wild foods that can be found at the farmers’ market. This week we bring you a dispatch from volunteer Jacky Hayward about another emerging wild food trend.

isoWhen I first met Iso Rabins, he was handing out flyers for his then nascent project, forageSF.  

“Have you been going out with the foragers?” I asked. He said he had been.
 “How? Aren’t they reticent to show off their ‘spots’?”
“Well, yes. But I guess they trust me, it’s all about building relationships,” he said.

I continued asking questions about the plants he foraged — not only mushrooms, but “uncultivated” nettles, greens, flowers, berries, and stone fruit. I was also curious to know what drew him to foraging. What interests Iso isn’t just bringing wild foods into the cityscape, it’s the dialogue that foraged foods inspire. Indeed, since the launch of forageSF, the increasing awareness of foraged foods has added a new element to many locavores’ conversations.

Foraging is not a new culinary tradition. A number of Bay Area restaurants buy directly from individuals who gather wild food outside urban areas and/or on open public land. What makes forageSF unique in this area is its CSF (Community Supported Forage) boxes, which are made available twice a month to subscribing members. An example box, described on the forageSF website, lists the following: four kinds of wild mushrooms, New Zealand spinach, wild onions, miners’ lettuce, sea beans, and oranges.

Iso coordinates the CSF and works with a small, rotating team of foragers. I spoke to one, named Justin Vallone, when he was dropping off wild nettles from Mt. Tam at Iso’s house recently. “What we need is to feel more connection with nature so that we realize a place is worth saving,” he told me. “[When we only eat] food we buy from stores, we have no idea.”

Foraging appeals to many counter culture eaters, because it further challenges today’s broken food system. Leif Hedendal, a local chef who regularly uses foraged, wild foods in his cooking, puts stock in the foraged foods movement because he believes in creating ‘an alternative economy.’ Iso agrees. For him, purchasing foraged foods, similar to shopping at the farmers’ market, has the potential to bring trust back to the food economy. As he puts it, ”When you look a farmer in the face, chances are, he isn’t going to lie to you.” The same, he believes, goes for building relationships with foragers.

wild kitchenIso has also extended his efforts to a new project, the Wild Kitchen. Founded last February, the Wild Kitchen offers Bay Area residents lessons about foraged food followed by a dinner made with wild ingredients. At the first of these dinners I went to, we were served foraged greens in a foraged citrus dressing, followed by a variety of wild meats (including elk sausage, wild boar, and venison) and acorn ice cream. I sat next to feralKevin, an East Bay forager, who had collected the acorns.

As the popularity of foraged and wild foods increases, so does the scrutiny. Gathering food in public parks is most often illegal—while one person picking a side salad worth of minor’s lettuce from the Presidio is unlikely to be noticed, large scale harvesting of wild greens from state and city parks is considered poaching. ForageSF is not currently legally sanctioned or regulated, either, despite Iso’s efforts to navigate some legal gray area. Iso did try to register his business legally, contacting city and state officials for best practices, but unfortunately there are few laws regarding the sale of wild foods beyond mushrooms, rendering Iso’s business unregulated and thus illegal. He has recently found a commercial kitchen and storage space where he will be able to legally store and prepare some foods. In addition, he has recently created partnerships with individuals who own the land on which some wild foods are growing.

Foraged food also raises questions about toxicity. Even when food is grown in what appears to be a pristine natural area, there’s no telling how clean it is. That’s where Iso hopes the partnership with land owners will comes in. “When people forage [food] for me, I always talk to them about where it comes from,” he says, adding that he also plans to do regular testing for heavy metals and other toxins.  

rampsLike shopping at farmers’ markets, eating foraged food ties us more directly to the land upon which it is raised. This is an important element to Iso’s Wild Kitchen dinners. A lot of the greens at the first dinner came from the Presidio, a fact he hopes had an impact on that night’s diners.

“People at that dinner will never think of the Presidio in the same way again,” he says. “That’s my interest: creating a connection between people and their environment through food.”

Read more:

Neighbor, Can You Spare a Plum? The New York Times (June 9, 2009)

Jacky Hayward is the managing editor of Chef’s Blade and blogs at OmniEater. You can find Jacky at the Ferry Plaza every Saturday morning, talking to her favorite farmers about dried fruit and fertile chicken eggs.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »