(Originally published in Spring 2022 issue of Edible Ojai & Ventura County) By Jess Starwood
Once an outright necessity of humankind, foraging for one’s sustenance in the wild had taken a backseat to the commercial food system, fading into obscurity and lingering only in stories of past generations—all in favor of that which is fast, aesthetic and convenient. Food has become safe, predictable, and mundane for the past hundred years. For most, if you are hungry, an easy meal is never too far away.
However, with a worldwide pandemic suggesting the very real possibility of empty food shelves in addition to entire populations quarantining without much to do, folks quickly found themselves curious about how to feed themselves if the system really did shut down. For most, it was the first time they had been confronted with an empty food shelf or the near-catastrophic shutdown of the restaurant industry. Food needed to be found. Many turned to gardening, others turned to foraging. These uncertain times prompted the biggest surge of interest in foraging during modern times. Sprinkle in an dose of dopamine for instant social-media fame by posting tidbits of regurgitated factoids sidled up to a snapshot of a funky mushroom and you’ve got yourself a recipe for the latest and hottest trend circling the internet of young adults showing off their newfound hobby. Hungry not just for backyard weeds and fungi, but also for those likes, follows, and shares for their latest “discovery.”
These nascent foragers are just far enough removed from earlier generations to not be able to learn about these modest traditions of everyday life from their elders that may have harvested huckleberries and hunted morels—surprisingly, all without today’s digital fanfare. Rather, these modern foragers are garnering their knowledge (and fame) from the visually flashy video clips paired with catchy tunes on TikTok and other platforms, soaking up the sound bites and passing them on to the next follower.
With renewed interest for the little bit of nature we have left around us, are these hoards of freshly minted foragers trampling about in the woods picking every fruit, berry and mushroom in their path causing harm to the environment? Or is this practice cultivating a new perspective on how, in dire times (which we are not out of the woods from yet) that we may someday need to rely on in this fragile and shrinking natural world around us? It just as well may be opening eyes to how destructive our blind consumerist habits have been on these rich and diverse wild communities that were once seen as “empty space.” Research has shown that once people understand nature has personal value and have developed a relationship with it, they become invested in its future and see it as something worth saving.
Foraging comes at a time when a relief from the fast-paced, manufactured, ready-made virtual landscape is needed most. While the pandemic brought people outdoors, it also brought us deeper into the digital realm more than ever before as the world embraced a new way to connect in all facets of our daily lives. It’s no wonder people found respite in a walk in the woods. Finding your own food in the wild requires a much slower gait than the typical Trader Joe’s run. Foraging gets our hands dirty. It’s tactile and ever-changing. Predictable, yet often surprising, it fosters a study of nuances and opportunity. Foraging requires a discernment between that which is edible or poisonous and a real-life investigation of its growing conditions. Nothing is neatly trimmed, cleaned and packaged—just raw, natural and untamed.
Will foraging replace commercialized and ready-made foods? Most likely not. The work that goes into collecting, processing and preparing a completely wild food diet is time consuming in a modern society known best for its insatiable desire for instant gratification. But by honoring the practice for what it is and using it as a catalyst for reconnection with ourselves and the fragile yet resilient natural world around us, foraging can help people to balance the fast paced virtual landscape that is slowly taking over our lives. Modern day foraging cultivates a sense of wonder and discovery in a familiar yet strangely unfamiliar world that we live in. Will it last into the post-pandemic years? Possibly—especially as growing populations continue to increase and dwindling food choices are available, wild foods will continue to have an appeal. Will the wilds be overrun with the latest wave of social media fame-seekers trampling the fragile wildflowers and digging up native species just to make a few bucks or even more valuable—likes, shares and follows? While it may be a passing fad for some, but for others, this newly established connection with the environment will give reason to protect, support and honor the valuable land that we live in for generations to come.
My life, for the most part, seemed to be pretty typical and average. Degree. Job. Married. House. Fancy car. Up until one life-changing day that I held my two month old first born child, who cried nonstop in my arms for an endless twenty-four hours after an adverse reaction to a routine vaccine. Reality hit like a brick wall in those turbulent, panic-ridden hours. I was inextricably linked to this human in a way that I never had been connected to another. Sure, a marriage vow was one thing, but this. This was a connection, a love so much deeper, dare I say karmic. Her life, her very existence depended completely on me. Who was I to take on such a responsibility? I barely knew how to take care of myself. During my pregnancy my diet was the worst in my life, I had gained over 75 pounds, and was on the verge of becoming diabetic. In those dark, endless hours of comforting her alone that fateful day, and feeling the most helpless I ever had in my life, I ruminated on the meaning of my life and questioning my early motherhood at 25.
One month prior, my newborn also suffered from severe eczema that riddled her skin with angry and irritated boils. She was not a happy baby. I knew something was not right, even though the doctor passed it off as normal and from my nascent research I suspected it was due to a dairy allergy. But she wasn’t drinking cows milk at one month old. It was me and my addiction to cheese and ice cream. Her incessant crying made it quite clear to me then the relationship of what we put in our bodies—be it foods, medicines or other non-natural chemicals—has a drastic effect on us. Not only that, I needed to be strong and healthy to raise her in the best way that I could. But, it was only the very first step on a long and winding journey ahead.
I suffered immediately from an abrupt and serious descent into post-partum depression those first few months, several times seriously plotting to run away with my daughter and to never be seen again—or worse. My husband at the time insisted that I somehow “fix myself” and nudged me in the direction of pharmaceuticals. Without knowing any better or having any support in alternatives, I was promptly prescribed high doses of drugs that numbed every last bit of feeling and emotion out of my existence. As a naturally highly sensitive and emotional person that needs to sense the world through deeper meaning, creativity and feeling, I was nothing but an empty and robotic shell. The days went on and on—I mechanically moved though the actions of what I thought I was supposed to do, never again crying, but also never smiling or laughing. Days, months, years went trodding by, every day just like the last. I lost any passion or interest I had for life—the only things that vaguely interested me was food and my nascent garden.
After the success of relieving my daughter’s severe eczema by removing all dairy from my diet, I switched to a completely plant-based diet and bought my very first cookbook. I explored every recipe in that book and to this day it remains one of the most stained and tattered tomes from those relentless early explorations in the kitchen. Each meal was an adventure to look forward to, an empty creative canvas. And, I was getting healthier and what seemed like endless, uncontainable energy. By removing dairy, my chronic pain and environmental allergies nearly completely disappeared. I had spent most of my childhood and young adult years embarrassingly suffering from chronic sinusitis, likely contributing to my introversion and shyness. Had I only known.
While nearly all of my ailments disappeared with this initial change of diet, it didn’t quell the depression. I was terrified to go off the drugs without knowing what the other side would be like. Yet, there was this pressing, relentless voice in the back of my mind pleading with me to realize I was finally strong enough to release them.
I continued to study food and nutrition, burrowing deeper into the rabbit hole of how the foods we eat interact with our body, mind and even our spirit. I leaned into raw food diets and everything they promised: weight loss, increased vitality, improved mental clarity, and boundless energy. Carefully tracking everything I ate, it came nearly to an obsession. I began to make everything our family ate from scratch—breads, crackers, chips, sauces, granola, condiments, desserts—and every meal was carefully crafted and thought out with organic ingredients from the farmer’s market or the garden. Often times I made several different meals, from something only moderately healthy my then-husband would tolerate, something simple for the kids, and then I would thoroughly enjoy my latest culinary experiment. Exploring food was the only thing that kept me going in a loveless marriage and the lonely, exhausting, and monotonous days of toddlerhood. Every waking day felt excruciatingly the same as the last, for years on end. The only memories I have of those years are in memorized recipes and hard-earned meals.
At long last, I came to a point where I felt that I could finally free myself from anti-depressants in 2012. I felt that no matter what life brought to me, I could nourish myself and those I loved through food. Despite recommendations, I abruptly quit taking the medication and as my body detoxed the pharmaceutical, I began to see the color, hope and passion not only to return to life again, but in a new way that I had never dreamed of.
As I examined intimately each bite I took throughout the day, I began to look at foods and ingredients in a new way and how they made me feel. I wanted to know more. Where did they come from? How were they grown or processed? How many hands have they touched? What resources went into its production and its transportation? What air did it breathe when it was growing? Most of us have no idea how our processed foods are stripped of nutrients and real flavor, then artificially manipulated to seduce our taste buds and neural pathways into an endless cycle of cravings and addictions. For what? More, and more fake food until we no longer remember what real was or even that a carrot grows in dirt. I wanted to know what real tomatoes tasted like, what an in-season heirloom watermelon smelled like when it burst open from its unbridled ripeness. So I grew them. Whatever seeds I could manage to get my hands on, I planted in my front yard. One year, I had 75 individual plants of 20 organic heirloom tomato varieties were growing in my garden. With a great array of other heirloom vegetables and unusual herbs, I transformed our insipid suburban lawn into a food forest.
I was after real foods and real flavor.
Through my questing and research for real food, I experienced first hand the results of our entangled connection to the foods that we eat. With a newfound drive for a better way of living, I kept digging deeper. This unprocessed organic whole food diet was great and all that, but that voice started whispering to me again. These foods are good for me, but are they good for the planet? Where are they coming from and what are our options? I turned to my garden. And I turned to higher education, pursuing a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and finished with a degree in herbal medicine where I focused on the nutritional and medicinal aspects of herbs and, specifically, mushrooms. I still couldn’t quite find the answers I was looking for.
At the beginning of my schooling, which was enormously difficult with two children under the age of 6 and the dismantling of a nine year marriage, I encountered a single plant that changed my perspective one more time—Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. It seemed foreign, strange and incredibly uninviting—something I could not connect with in any of my memories of being in nature which was rooted in the Arizona desert and forests. I learned all about this plant’s nutrition and medicinal benefits and was astounded that a single plant could be capable of so much. It was more than something to eat or make into a tea. I began my search for this plant as I learned that it was found only “in the wild.” It did not need to be coddled by a farmer, fed artificial nutrients and watered regularly. It was self-sufficient. It didn’t rely on any humans that thought they knew better. It was real. This one plant sparked a whole new raging wildfire of passion for real food.
This concept of “wild food” had not been completely unfamiliar to me, as in childhood I had devoured the book My Side of the Mountain multiple times and had longed to run away to live in a tree and eat right off the land as Sam Gribley did—to make acorn pancakes and dandelion salads. Well, let’s be honest, it was mostly about the pet falcon. I’m still waiting on that one. But alas, I grew up in the Sonoran desert at the time and making a home in a saguaro and lack of water did not seem as enchanting. I digress.
On my quest, I escaped to my local trails during the day, dragging along my two restless children, touching most any green leafy plant, looking for stinging nettle’s identifying characteristic and lasting sting. (Admittedly not the best way to go about it, regarding the dense populations of poison oak in our area) The day I found it, a most memorable moment, was incredibly empowering. I could find and identify a single nutritious and medicinal food in the wild on my own. I’ve since seen a similar wave of excitement wash over folks who learn about and identify wild foods for the first time—or is it more a remembering? There’s something innate and primal about our connection to these same plants that have fed us for millennia and it is only recently that we have forgotten that connection through our domestication and disconnection of our food.
Since then, my journey spiraled rapidly into an adventure of all that wild food has to offer. From new and unique flavors of native and non-native plants, hunting for wild mushrooms across the United States and exploring exotic fruits in Mexico, deeply studying herbal medicine and nutrition with many different and inspiring teachers, investigating new culinary possibilities, connecting with some of the world’s greatest chefs, and not to mention how the simple act of collecting acorns on my daily walk becomes an integral part of the forager’s life.
I found a little bit of myself in the foods that I collected and tasted. Wild food escapes our attempt at their domestication. It doesn’t need us, nor follows any of our rules or bow to our attempts to contain it. We, however, need wild foods. We need them and their land to thrive. We need them to remind us of our own not so distant wildness. And that this wildness is too quickly slipping away. I’m not suggesting we all become foragers, but somehow cultivate a renewed connection to this invisible land that is so quickly poisoned and polluted, plowed over and pushed aside by shopping centers and sprawling suburban neighborhoods. It is not another hip product to be bought and sold. And that is why it escapes the capitalistic nature of our contemporary mindset. If we try to put a price tag on wild food, we cannot afford it. We have to change our thinking about food. It is the rudimentary foundation of life itself. No matter who we are or where we came from, it is our history. And our future. It is real food.
Last weekend I hosted the incredibly knowledgeable Enrique Villasenor, local healer in training, who taught all about how to use Opuntia species of cactus (aka prickly pear) for healing a vast array of health conditions. It all goes back to “balance” he says, and this plant helps us do that. Even if we aren’t suffering from a chronic disease (such as Type II diabetes which it helps to reverse), it helps the body stay balanced and maintain health. For the event I offered a tasting of what you can do with the leaf pads also known as nopales.
One of my favorite things to eat is tacos and I have been experimenting lately with making them out of different flours and unusual ingredients. For this event I opted to try adding them to a basic corn tortilla recipe. Because I like things to be colorful, I added a generous handful of spinach for added green color. Way better than any sort of artificial food coloring.
Tortillas de Nopales
4¼ cups masa harina
4-5 cactus pads (nopales)
2 cups water
2 sprigs cilantro
1/2 bunch spinach
1 tablespoon chia
salt to taste
Combine together the cactus, cilantro and spinach together in a high speed blender which will create a thick liquid.
In a bowl, add the masa harina and slowly add the cactus mix and the warm water, until the dough is soft and is not sticky.
Once the dough is at its desired consistency, add the chia seeds, and lastly, the salt.
Separate the dough in even, small balls. Refrigerate for 10 minutes to an hour.
Flatten each ball between two sheets of plastic wrap with a tortilla press, or with a wine bottle or roller. Cook each side for 1 to 2 minutes, or until they puff, on medium-high heat, with a lightly greased skillet or comal. Keep in mind, nopal burns a little easier so keep your eyes on the tortillas so they don’t burn!
These go great with grilled or sauteed nopales, salsa, avocado and cashew cream with a bit of lime. Enjoy!
Welcoming springtime also means the onset of weed season. While many reach for their choice of mass plant destruction (with herbicides being of greatest concern), there are gentler and more sustainable ways to manage the green overgrowth in our yards and public spaces.
Many of our wild plants that find their way into our gardens and every crack and crevice in the concrete are full of nutritional and even medicinal benefits. For example, the ever resilient dandelion is an excellent blood cleanser and liver detoxifier while also being a fantastic source of vitamin K, A, potassium, calcium, iron and rich with antioxidants.
One never forgets stinging nettle once they encounter it as it brushes against bare skin. This prickly annual green has 2-3 times more nutritional value than either spinach or kale, which are considered some of our top green superfoods. It can be made into many foods most especially soups and pestos.
My yard has a small patch of it, everywhere else there is mallow and sow thistle… maybe a few dandelions. As I wander our country neighborhood, I notice that other folks had a bit more luck as I would call it. My introverted self hesitates to knock on someone’s door to ask if I can harvest their weeds… sure to be met with an awkward silence and then the stuttering of explaining myself. So alternately, I posted on our local social media (NextDoor… have you heard of it? Pretty handy for us shy introverts who want the inside scoop for neighborhood going-on’s.) My intriguing post started off with “Got weeds..?” and then inquired more about nettle and how to identify it. Quickly I received responses such as “why in the world I would want such a nasty plant” and “please!!! take as much as you want!!” Therefore, an opening to introduce myself and my work appeared to a whole new audience… Hint to herbalists and foragers: don’t be afraid to hit up your neighbors for unsuspecting herbs and wild edibles! Because chances are, you’ll definitely make some new friends. You get local free food/medicine, they get their yards weeded. Its a win-win.
Medicinal Uses of Nettle:
Nettle leaf is a potent revitalizing and nourishing diuretic herb, helpful in situations affecting the urinary tract and adrenals. It assists in reducing excess mucus such as with hay fever or seasonal allergies. When treating allergies with nettle, it is best to start treating with fresh nettle tincture or freeze-dried capsules a month or so before the onset of allergy season. Topically, the fresh plant can be used intentionally to sting the skin surrounding an arthritic or painful joint or area in need of healing.
I tried many different nettle soup recipes this season and came up with my own version that I was rather happy with. If you try it, I’d love to hear your feedback!
Wild Nettle Soup Recipe (vegan)
Prep time: 15 min
Cook time: 30 min
3 tablespoons oil (I prefer avocado or coconut oil for their health benefits)
1 cup chopped onion
2 cloves of garlic (or more if you’re a garlic aficionado like myself!)
1 quart vegetable stock
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Cayenne to taste
Salt to taste
1 large red potato, diced
1 pound nettles, blanched
1/2 cup cashews, soaked for 1-2 hours, but not necessary
1. Cook onions in oil until soft and translucent in a large soup pot. Add garlic, thyme and cayenne, cook briefly another minute or so.
2. Add the stock, salt, potatoes and nettles. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 15-20 minutes until nettles and potatoes are tender.
3. Adjust spices and salt to taste.
4. Add cashews.
5. Transfer to a high speed blender and blend, in batches if necessary until smooth. If you want a super silky soup, you can strain through a fine mesh strainer.
6. Transfer back to soup pot and warm until ready to serve.
It’s getting to be that time of year when its more likely to catch the common cold or the flu virus. Why is that? With the change of seasons and the quickly approaching holidays, family expectations and never ending to-do lists, we become more susceptible to illnesses as we burn the candle at both ends, attempting to get more done with the same number of hours we had during the summer months. How can we boost our immune system to avoid illness for ourselves and our families this season? We could just take a plethora of supplements purported to boost our immunity and hope that it get us through the season so we can keep plugging along.
And we’ll still get sick.
Unfortunately, our immune system doesn’t quite work that way. Throwing a bunch of herbs and supplements at it may help, but there’s more to the story. Our immune system is a complex and multifaceted system that is continually working in the background as we go along with our lives and plays a major role in our overall health.
Building and sustaining an effective immune system is essential for avoiding disease. While there are many factors that affect this system, stress can be a key component in the body’s ability to fight disease. Stress increases corticosteroid and catecholamine levels, as well as inflammatory cytokines which leads to the suppression of the immune system leaving the host susceptible to infection, carcinogenic illness and altered adrenal responses. Numerous clinical studies have repeatedly shown that immune suppression is proportional to the level of emotional and physical stress which leads to poor health and significant disease. To counteract the effects of stress, it has been well documented that maintaining a positive attitude, employing stress reduction techniques (yoga, meditation, time in nature), laughter and guided imagery can be greatly effective (1).
Improved immune function and natural killer cell activity increase when healthy life habits are practiced. These include not smoking, increasing green vegetable intake, regular meals, maintaining a normal body weight, at least seven hours of sleep per night, a vegetarian diet and regular exercise (2). Adequate hours of sleep is essential as immune function can greatly deteriorate with sleep deprivation.
Nutrition is also a crucial factor in supporting the immune system. Nutrient deficiency, excess sugar and allergenic food intake and increased cholesterol levels have negative effects and compromise the immune system, while adequate consumption of essential nutrients, antioxidants, carotenes and flavonoids can greatly improve immune function. A healthy and immune supportive diet includes whole and natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, seeds and nuts, without added sugars and excess fats. High quality protein should be consumed in adequate rather than excessive amounts. Sometimes, however, certain minerals and vitamins are lacking and a high-potency supplement may be required (2).
Nutrient deficiency that leads to suppressed immune function is related to decreased intake of vitamin A and carotenes, vitamin C, D, E, pyridoxine, folic acid and vitamin B12. Additionally, minerals that play an important role in immune dysfunction are iron and trace minerals such as zinc and selenium. Zinc supplementation can be especially important for the elderly.
When restoring a depressed immune system back to health, stimulating thymus function can be very effective. Increasing nutrients such as antioxidants (carotenes, vitamin C, E, zinc and selenium) help to protect the thymus from damage and oxidation caused by stress, chronic illness, radiation and infections. Herbs that can be supportive include elderberry, echinacea, astragalus, and medicinal mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, and reishi. While these won’t cure an acute viral infection, they will shorten the duration and lessen the severity of symptoms, helping us get back on our feet and feeling better sooner. If taken proactively during times of high stress, these herbs can help us move avoid infection altogether.
So what’s the bottom line? Eat a healthy diet, free of processed foods that include a generous amount of green vegetables, don’t smoke, get plenty of sleep, exercise and maybe throw in a few supportive herbs for good measure.