Since reading Of Mice and Men way back, I’ve nursed a distinct wish to get a little stake together, retire from field laboring and live off the fat of the land. Of course, George and Lennie existed in prewar California: a landscape of large estate farms where all you had to do was vault a split-rail fence, gather a few cabbages, kidnap a sheep or some rabbits and (spoiler alert) it still turned out to be a pipe dream. We live in the most populous city in the nation, where scarcity is a word used for bedrooms under $1,200. Forget about food just lying around to be taken, right? Well, for botanist and wild edibles expert Leda Meredith, the nearest leafy, twiggy surroundings is as good as any common grange. In advance of upcoming tours of Prospect Park, Meredith tells us why hunting for food in the urban wild beats Dumpster diving any day.
Beginning Earth Day Weekend, April 23, Meredith teams with Green Edge NYC for a series of urban foraging tours in Prospect Park. The tours cost $20, but Meredith shows how to bob as much off your weekly grocery budget by scoring vegetable greens, fruits, nuts and other delicacies all over the place. Meredith’s lessons continue throughout the early fall, and tours often sell out weeks before the scheduled dates. “It’s a good idea to come on the tours in more than one season as the ingredients that are available change dramatically,” Meredith says. Brokelyn emailed Leda Meredith in the twixt of her busy spring to ask about the foraging movement.
Did you grow up in Brooklyn? When did you first realize you could live off nature’s abundance even in the city?
I grew up in San Francisco, and that’s where I first learned to forage in an urban environment. My great-grandmother was from Greece, where it is still common for people of all ages to forage for wild edibles, particularly spring greens. She used to take me to Golden Gate Park to collect dandelion greens, miner’s lettuce, and wild mustard. I’ve lived in Brooklyn since 1995.
How much of your diet do you manage to fill with just foraged foods? Can a person live eating entirely what they find at the park?
A person could theoretically live entirely off what is available in the park, but I don’t actually demand that of myself (or the park). I do find nuts and berries to snack on as well as herbs, salad greens, root vegetables, and other ingredients. I’d say about 20-30 percent of my diet is wild edibles. The rest is from my garden, farmers’ markets, and my CSA share, plus a very small percentage of non-local store-bought ingredients.
How much money does foraging save?
That really depends on how much foraging the person does and what their tastes are like and what they find. A fun example was last year, when I collected almost $300 worth of Maitake (a.k.a. Hen of the Woods) mushrooms [pictured above].
I came out of the park that day laden with as much as I could carry. The greenmarket was in full swing, and there’s a guy who cultivates and sells mushrooms. He was hawking his wares, and one of them was the same kind of mushroom I’d just scored big time in the park for free. I opened my bag to give him a glimpse, and he started laughing. “You’re not going to be my customer,” he said. “Not today,” I replied.
I made some amazing risottos and other dishes with [the mushrooms], but also dried some for winter use and to give away as gifts and swaps.
Do you harvest any other materials that can be made simply into useful goods, or replace items most people purchase?
I don’t have much experience harvesting for textile fibers, etc. But, yes, I own a hat made out of tree bark (it’s from Uganda, not Brooklyn, but still). I do swap some of my finds for other items at the BK Swappers parties.
Are there places foragers should avoid?
Avoid harvesting directly beside heavily trafficked roads or anywhere that has been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.
In addition to helping the environment and local economy, most locavore activities tend to encourage local-food resources and opportunities the more people get involved. But if everyone in Brooklyn foraged, wouldn’t the availability of wild food run out?
With some wild edibles that would be an issue, and one thing I emphasize on my tours is how to harvest sustainably. For example, if there are very few plants of a particular species, I’m not going to harvest them, no matter how delicious I know them to be. I’ll leave those plants to multiply. But many wild edibles are actually invasive species that are crowding out native plants, and those can be harvested freely without endangering those plant populations.
Any other resources you would suggest for folks interested in becoming foragers?
Well, here’s a shameless book plug: The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. It includes a hefty section on foraging, as well as how to preserve some of what you harvest and other essential topics if you want to eat a primarily local, seasonal diet.
I also recommend Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, Sam Thayer’s The Forager’s Harvest, and John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants.
[Legal disclaimer: The NYC parks rules say: “No person shall deface, write upon, sever, mutilate, kill or remove from the ground any plants, flowers, shrubs or other vegetation under the jurisdiction of the Department without permission of the Commissioner.” But Meredith says she’s never had any problems with authorities. “I’m very respectful of harvesting ethically and sustainably and not causing any damage,” she says.]