My mom believes that one of the important duties of parents is embarrassing their children. I am not extrapolating this idea from her behavior. She has said those very words to me multiple times, though now that I think about it I recall that she added the words “in public” to that sentence. She went about this practice in many ways during my childhood. Singing in the grocery store was a favorite, but not just singing along to the piped in pop muzak. She preferred madrigals, or better yet a round during which she would command me to sing my part. One of my favorite photos of her comes from a trip we took to a nearby fish hatchery, which attracted many birds. She had stuck egret and heron feathers in her hair, a bunch of them too. She looks beautiful, but also as strange as you might imagine. She did it in fun, to be silly, but we also took a walk that way in a public park. So.
We took many walks together. When I was five and six we lived in a rental house that backed up to open space along a stream near some power lines. She would take me and my brother on “adventure walks,” which meant we didn’t really have a plan or direction. We would just walk and see what we saw. Sometimes our cat, Flower, would walk with us. Sometimes we took adventure drives, going down roads not always on maps or with a plan. We even took an entire vacation that way one year. The plan was Drive North. It was one of my favorite vacations, actually.
On these adventure walks and adventure drives, we often engaged in another embarrassing-to-children activity: collecting food. I want to say “wild food,” but that is not entirely true. It was food in public. We swerved off the road more than once when we saw a blackberry bramble by the side of the road or in an open field. Now, someone owned that field, but there was no fence and you could only barely see a house. No one was maintaining that thicket. And those blackberries were not going to be wasted on our watch.
We picked low blueberries on Cape Cod out by a power line. We collected bags full of black walnuts from a city park. We never asked permission. Most of the time there was no one to ask. We just saw food lying around in public and so we gathered it. The one that always got the most stares were the persimmons. Wild persimmons are delicious, but they are not good until they are really squishy, usually just fallen to the ground. Picking up something gooey and orange-brown from the ground with your bare hands is highly likely to elicit stares from strangers. Or to prompt the question, “Is that . . . poop . . . or something?” Preteens love this question, I can tell you!
At first, I was pretty sure we were stealing. My mom, like me, is a Rule Follower, though. If it says “Stay on Trails,” then by god we are going to stay on the trail. We are not stepping off the trail. But if there is no sign, well, then we are free! And in some instances we feel the rules are very wrong, such as “This Is a Private Beach.” That is crazy, right? You can’t own something that is always moving. In that case we will walk right along where the waves meet the land, because that is fair. “Private beach,” ha!
Back to food! In addition to instilling in me the value of embarrassing my child (more on that later), my mom also managed to teach me what food looks like. I grew up in a city. While we had a little backyard garden, I wasn’t a country kid. It took me a while to realize that not everyone knew what I knew – that food was around me and should be taken if it isn’t being used. I moved to Portland, Oregon after college. We had a grocery store two blocks away, so we walked to get our groceries. On the way one day, I noticed a very messy sidewalk. When I looked around, I saw that there was a plum tree in the hell strip, that space between the sidewalk and the street. After watching for a couple of days, I concluded that no one was harvesting that tree and plums were just rotting on the ground. So, I brought some home. Some of my housemates were dubious at first. Perhaps it was an ornamental plum, not meant for eating. I bit into one – nope, super sweet! Happily, my housemates were an opportunistic and foraging bunch, so we ate the plums.
In Phoenix, where I lived later, many streets are lined with olive trees. Olive trees that make olives. Sure, you have to learn how to brine them and get a good recipe, but I had a friend who had grown up in Tucson who was happy to oblige me with one. So, I made olives! By that time, I was living with my now husband. We used to hike a lot and he has said that it seemed to him that I always found something to eat on those hikes. Look, ripe thimble-berries! (Are thimble-berries a thing, he would ask?) He says today that he really didn’t know anyone before me who just knew the names of plants who didn’t actually study plants. Thanks, Mom!
I had this lesson most profoundly driven home to me in Italy. I was teaching about observing local cultures to a group of students. I had them read an article about the landscape of Tuscany being shaped by food production, and then I assigned them to an hour-long walk down the road by our school. They had to take notes about what they could observe. We all went at our own pace, stopping to make notes in different places. When we came back, I couldn’t contain my excitement at all the food plants I had seen. In fields?, they asked. No, by the side of the road! They demanded a walk with me after lunch, on the same route, so I could show them the plants.
Some of them had not yet even noticed the ripening fig tree growing out of the wall at the end of the driveway. It was a big tree!
They certainly did not know about the rosemary next to it, nor the asparagus by the side of the road, nor the oregano, mint, and thyme, nor the caper bush. We walked along and I pointed out a peach tree, an apple tree, and a plum. They did see the olive groves and the grapevines, but those belonged to someone. These others were wild, volunteers by the side of the road.
What I loved, though, was how eager they were to know about the food. They tried everything! We ate some berries that looked like blueberries but were not blueberries. No one got sick later. Their enthusiasm for the hunt made me love them in a new way. On my course evaluation, several mentioned that walk as the highlight of their class. There is something so fun about gathering! Maybe it’s because humans have been doing it since before we were humans. Once you see the food, you want to see more food.
And it is delightful to share this food as well. In my family, we often gave the juiciest and most enormous blackberries we found to the person collecting alongside us, to eat warm right then and there. Seeing them moan with pleasure at its perfection was the best part of picking. Once, I discovered a patch of delicious wild strawberries on a hike with a boyfriend in New Mexico. We were picking and eating, and he held a huge one up for me to see and then popped it in his mouth. I knew we would never stay together at that moment.
In Italy, I would regularly see older women in untended areas with a kitchen knife and a grocery sack, cutting some greens to prepare that night.
In the U.S., I find I am collecting next to recent immigrants or alone. Mulberry trees, persimmon trees, walnuts, berries, wild greens. They are all out there, and I mean in big cities as well. But too many of us have been trained not to see them AS FOOD even when we can recognize them. We think we can only buy food in the store, or grow it in neat rows and raised beds. I write this blog post to entice you to see the food again. Get attached to your landscape! Discover what someone before you may have planted and abandoned. I promise you a great recipe for persimmon cheesecake in the late fall in return.
And if you are wondering, I totally embarrass my daughter with this today. When I told her what I was writing about, she said, “Remember that time when you were getting persimmons by the ‘No Trespassing’ sign?” It was for the other side of the fence, I protested! “Welllll,” she said, “Still.”