This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things. I originally started eating this way to heal from chronic health problems and...it worked!
I looked in the mirror with dismay. Right on my left eyeball was a blood vessel that had swelled to the size of a small red lightening blot. I knew I had been spending too much time on the computer, working on server migrations and slogging though the process of learning PhP. The effects were written all over my poor eye.
Last year I lived in Uppsala, Sweden and whenever I had such a problem with stress, I would always eat some seabuckthorn. I had gathered it from the agricultural school's garden, a free bonanza in the autumn of currants, apples, rosehips, and wide assortment of berries. As I child I had always loved the Edible Plants field guide, even though my mother warned me it was unwise to wander around and eat things from the yard. Since then I've learned enough about agriculture to know that your yard is probably a better and safer environment than where most grocery store foods are grown. But Sweden was a gatherers dream and I was immensely lucky to live there. It's downright prohibited in Sweden to spray in the forest and people regularly go there to gather wild mushrooms and berries. Unlike in the United States, where planting sterile trees is considered a wise thing to do because it prevents rotten apples from dirtying the streets, there were wonderful fruit trees everywhere.
In the autumn much of my food was free. I never managed to get much in the way of mushrooms given the competition for the beautiful yellow chanterelles and the fact that unlike the Swedes I had no experience in spotting them. Some of my Swedish roommates gathered bushels and bushels of that forest gold. The other major gatherers were the Thai immigrants, some who had come to Sweden expressly to be hired as gatherers for the various companies that sell wild products in Sweden. In the Uppsala Saturday market they sold them next to Thai specialties like sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. I usually bought my mushrooms from them and spent my time gathering apples and berries.
The berries were like free medicine, all of them not too sweet, but rich in medicinal and health-giving nutrients. Sea buckthorn was my favorite, a rather bitter berry, but a beautiful bright orange color with a creamy interior rich is delicate fatty acids. I ate them fresh and froze a store for the winter. I also gathered rosehips, which I dried, and a wide variety of currants. It was wonderful after class to just wander for hours finding these and always new surprises like a small withering looking tree that somehow managed to provide tiny golden plums with a unique musky fragrance. The apple trees in the college genetic garden were a goldmine. I remember my favorite, a tart apple with a pale dusky pink flesh. Tantalized, I went to the library and checked out all I could on wild edibles, ätliga växter.
Come colder months and I ate the frozen berries from my store, but when I ran out I simply bought wild berries at the grocery store. Once I treated myself to a box of frozen cloudberries, a rare beautiful mottled pink and orange berry I never did find in the wild. They had the most unusual texture: a mild honey-like sweet bursting flavor mixed with white "stones" that yielded to my teeth with a muted crunch. I also bought wild moose and reindeer often. I marveled at the fact that wild foods could be sold in any grocery store. In the US to suggest such a thing is to be told how the forests would soon be stripped of everything and the population soon crippled by terrible bouts of worms. But the forests in Sweden were verdant and the population far from sickly, had fewer cases of food poisoning than in the US.
Come warmer months and I bought gloves to harvest the nettles that feature in many Swedish recipes, either cooked and eaten as a green or dried to make tea. Back in New York nettles recently came up in a meeting as a potential candidate for our food education program, but most people were surprised that they were actually edible. They are nutritious and grow like weeds, probably because they are weeds. Actually, they are sacred as a medicinal and spiritual food in several cultures. It's a shame that more people don't consider them edible. They play a fairly important role in biodynamic agriculture, so it's possible that they will show up more and more at farmers markets as the biodynamic movement grows in the US.
Did I mention the wild onions and the wild strawberries, more delicious and wonderful than their cultivated cousins. I am always a little miffed when people say that wild fruits aren't sweet, because wild strawberries certainly are, though their lilliputian size keeps them from providing much in the way of total sugar.
But I realized later, after talking with more experienced Swedish gatherers, that my own harvest was the tip of the iceburg. I had missed cattails, hazelnuts, and sloes, but still had enjoyed quite a bounty.
Since moving back the US I had often missed this culture. The "forests" in the parks are fenced off from people, who are relegated to cultivated lawns sprayed with god knows what. American friends tell me that without those fences the park were certainly be destroyed. I now recognize this as part of the nature vs. man disease that afflicts so many Americans who view nature as separate and man as not part of it. With this philosophy being so prevalent, the only hope for wild foods is to know a good landowner who might let you gather and to learn how to hunt. I not only miss eating these foods, but the psychological benefits of enjoying nature. The same part of my brain that hunts php code for errors was hunting the forest for porcini.
Myself, if I stay in the US, I would like to have some sort of permacultured land. I have some tree catalogs and I often find myself perusing them, selecting in my mind the variety of chestnuts I would plant. At a permaculture workshop I recently attended, I even learned it is possible to grow a variety of kiwi this far north.
I write this because this morning I read an article featuring Ray Mears, an expert on primitivist skills, chiding paleo dieters for "pigging out on meat and pretending to have hunted it." One of my goals in this site and in my actions as a co-organizer of the Eating Paleo in NYC meetup group is to get people beyond this. So many paleo dieters think of it as just a way to lose weight and end up eating a bunch of chicken breasts, steak, and coconut milk ice cream. They not only miss out on nutrients, but on the overall holistic benefits of thinking evolutionarily and rewilding not only the self, but the world around you. I want to exhort people to think harder about where their food comes from, how much is out there that we should be eating and we aren't even thinking about whether its sheeps eyes or wild nettles, and how they can be involved in actual hunting and gathering.