Rebecca Lerner has come a long way from her initial goal (and failure) of trying to eat for week using just the wild foods growing in her city, and the story of her journey of learning the art of urban foraging is an entertaining and inspiring read.
Equal parts self-discovery, wild food foraging manifesto, and food history, with herbal lore and practical bits at every turn, Dandelion Hunter also offers a side-serving of wit and is sprinkled liberally with interesting characters. It's not a guidebook or how-to, although there is plenty of useful information on wild food plants and methods for harvesting or processing them throughout the book, along with some recipes and anecdotes from Lerner's early attempts with wild foods in the kitchen.
In 2009, Lerner attempted to forage for a full week from the streets and yards and parks of Portland, Oregon, but after five days of subsisting on just a minimal amount of food, including attempts to eat ant eggs and a disappointing slug experience ("snot globs"), she called it quits on her challenge. But this experience led her to wonder how local indigenous cultures, such as the ones that previously lived in her area, were able to feed themselves all year long on just what was nearby, while she was starving.
One answer, which seems obvious after the fact, was that it was May when she tried to eat only wild foods, and as any gardener will tell you, May is a great time of year for tender green things, but most of the fruits, veggies, nuts, and berries aren't ripe until much later in the season. With that understanding, Lerner delves into learning about gathering and storing wild foods for later in the year, which is a skill that was once essential to survival, but has now been replaced by easy access to all sorts of foods in the local grocery store.
But why would you want to forage for stuff to eat from your neighbor's yards or local parks and wild spaces?
As Lerner puts it on her site, foraging for wild foods has a lot going for it:
- It’s the ultimate in local, sustainable food.
- It’s healthy: Wild plants are packed with nutrients.
- It’s free: There’s no checkout counter on the sidewalk.
Dandelion Hunter is full of insights and musings on topics as diverse as archeology and the apocalypse, along with some tasty tidbits on public (and personal) health and why our modern urban landscapes seem to be perennially at war with potential food items that we disparage by calling them weeds. Lerner's prose helps us to re-frame the way we view the urban wilderness around us, and could serve to inspire many of us to take a closer look at the plants and wildlife in our local environment.
"I think the most fun aspect of foraging is the gathering itself, the wildcrafting. It’s a great way to develop a deeper relationship with the land around me and a sense of the changing seasons. And not just the land — I like to experience wild animals as my peers and feel something in common with the people who lived here before modern times." - Lerner
For those wishing for a more intimate relationship with their urban habitat, those who want to eat as local as they can, those interested in the DIY and hunter-gatherer ethic, and those who just want to eat for free, Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness is a compelling and empowering read, and it might just have you asking your neighbors, "Can I eat your weeds?"
For a taste of what's in store for readers of Dandelion Hunter, Lerner offers a free PDF excerpt from it about her first survival experiment at her website, and she can be found on Twitter as @UrbanForager.
[I was sent a review copy of the book, but all opinions in this review are mine.]