How to eat weeds
Next time you head out the door to the grocery store, make a stop in your yard first. You might be able to check off some ingredients for free! Many Oklahomans do it. It's called foraging, or "wildcrafting." You can do it anywhere-- in the city or the country. Fox 25's Kisha Henry shows us, it takes a lot of knowledge, but after a few lessons, meal time can be a whole new experience.
Wildcrafters here in Oklahoma say, if you learn how to forage, you could spend less than $50 at the grocery store each month. "I've had a lot of people that I've worked with that are food-insecure. By utilizing food from the wild, it's given them extra money to pay their heating bills," Jackie explains. Many foragers also do it for the taste. "Wild foods... the taste.. there's nothing that compares," says Jackie Dill, an Oklahoma Wildcrafter. The wild is her way of life. "I started learning this almost the day I was born," she says. She took us on a trip to her "grocery store," a variety of fields. She says Oklahoma is second in the Nation for plant diversity, which means you'll find more greens, herbs and mushrooms in Oklahoma than in any other state, except Oregon.
"Ohh, purslane!!" shouts Jackie. WIthin our first few steps, she's already found something. "You can put this in salads and you can cook it like a green," she explains.
For many landscapers, dandelions are one of the most annoying weeds, so they spray them to get rid of them. But, wildcrafter say the leaves of the plant are actually very rich in calcium, and they can be used medicinally. But, there are more than just greens in the Oklahoma wild. "Passion fruit!" exclaims Jackie, holding a long vine of green leaves, with small green fruit attached. "Smell this," she insists. "It smells like the islands, right?" she asks. And, it does! It definitely doesn't smell like it grew in Oklahoma.
"My kids love to have it in their lunch. I have a big bowl of it on the counter," says Katheryn Bieber, a wildcrafter and published craft author, referring to passion fruit. She uses foraging as family bonding time. "I made my own yeast with blackberries. We've picked dock seed and ground that up for crackers. Once you learn a few things, it's so wonderful! It's like nature's kitchen," she says.
"This is probably one of the most beautiful stands of prickly pear cactus I've ever seen," says Jackie, as we continue our walk. "We use this fruit to make jelly, and they make candy out of these," she says. "There's wood sorrel," she points out. "That grows everywhere, whether you're urban or rural. Some people call them shamrocks, but it has a lemony taste and that's really good. You can make desserts from it and you can put it in salads," she says. Continuing our walk, Jackie points out dozens of acorns on the ground, and tells us the meat of the nut can be used to make a great gluten-free flour. Also on the ground, some Kentucky coffee beans. "We roast these in the oven and then we grind them just like you would coffee beans, and you can make a coffee out of them," says Jackie.
We hop in the car and continue to a new location, before Jackie asks us to pull over. "Sometimes people will mistake these for wild grapes," she says, holding a vine of red berries in her hand. "The problem is, these aren't grapes. They're Carolina snail seed berries and they're poisonous," she notes.
"Her lifestyle is kind of my hobby," says Marc Dunham, the Culinary Arts Director at Francis Tuttle. "I can remember when I was a kid, grabbing berries off of little bushes and eating things off the ground, but it never occurred to me that I was foraging," he says. Though he doesn't forage on the same scale Jackie does, the wild is his playground, where he can find things to make his meals pop. "Wild sage, wild garlic, wild onions," he lists off a few of his favorites. Though, he says wild edibles don't always taste delicious. It's something you have to play with. "I've tried some things and I'm like- That's pretty terrible, so let's not do that again! ... Bee balm can be tasty, but if it's overused, it's like cilantro or cumin. If it's overused, it's just terrible," he explains. "But, from a freshness standpoint, you can't beat it. When you pull wild sage out of the ground in the morning and use it that day, it's like going to your garden and pulling a tomato off of your own vine, versus going to a grocery store," says Dunham.
"We picked about 100-pounds of pecans last year, so we're making our own nut-butters," says Bieber, explaining the variety of wildcrafting she and her family do. "It's organic, it's free, and it's fun! It's something that has really bonded us as a family. We'll be driving along and I'm like- Look! There's some mullein plant. I want some of that... and we'll pull over," she says. "There is so much savings in money. In this crazy economy, where people are so unsure about what's going to happen, I know I can take care of my family," she says. She does say it might take some time to appreciate the taste of wildcrafting. "If you eat fruity pebbles and fast food all the time, your body's a little desensitized to what real food tastes like, so it takes a couple days of cutting back on that sugar before you can really taste how delicious something from nature tastes," says Bieber.
For all of you meat-eaters, you may be asking, What about the meat? "I grow my own organic chickens," Jackie explains. She also hunts and does her own butchering. "You have to be smart. You can't just live on dock and wood sorrel. You still have to have a balanced diet," she says.
How do foragers survive in the Winter? "You collect everything you can, then you can it, freeze it, and you dehydrate it. And, you stock up your pantry," says Jackie. "In the Wintertime, we do have things that grow, though. Even in snow, I've went out and got sumac berries for hot tea. A lot of our greens here, you can find underneath snow and ice," she says. She also created her own heat source for the Winter. "I built a rocket stove!" exclaims Jackie, explaining that she was able to heat her two-thousand-square-foot rock home all winter for free. "It was costing us such a terrible amount to heat our house. I built it out of a 55-gallon steel drum and some stove pipe," she says.
The most important rule of foraging? Not everything outdoors is edible. "When it rains, all of the mushrooms come up overnight and people are picking them up and they all want to eat them," says Dr. Ken Conway, a mycologist. He's been studying mushrooms since 1966, and identifies whether they're edible. He says you need 100-percent identification before you put anything in your mouth. "When I say 'poisonous,' I don't mean they're going to eat them and die. You're just going to be very, very sick and wish that you would die," says Dr. Conway. He has a tip for puffball mushrooms. "Those are easy to identify whether it's edible. You simply cut them open, and if they're white inside, they're edible. If they're any other color, throw them away. And, only ever eat a small portion of a mushroom first to see how it affects you," he says. He also recommends saving some of the mushroom in case you need to show doctors what you ate.
"Have someone take you by your hand and show you," says Jackie. "On the Internet, there are plant pictures that are identified incorrectly. You need to be 110-percent positive," she says. "The most asked question I get is- What are these yellow tomatoes," says Jackie, holding up what appear to be yellow tomatoes. "These are not tomatoes. This is Nightshade and it's poisonous," she says.
The second rule of foraging? Ethics. Jackie says you should never take more than 10-percent of anything in one area. "I want to make sure it's there next year for my family and other families," Jackie explains.
It's also important to use caution where you forage. "You don't want to be around any old buildings that have lead paint. You don't want to forage next to the freeway, because the plants are like natural sponges. They'll soak up that carbon, and you don't want to be eating that, and you never eat where it's been sprayed," says Jackie.
If you're interested in learning more tips about wildcrafting, you can contact Jackie and other wildcrafters through the Oklahoma Wildcrafting Facebook page. You can even post pictures of wild items and have them identified for you. You can also visit their website.