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Found: Wild fruit

August 25, 2011

I know, Oregon Trail is pretty much a generational cliche at this point. But if you ever played the green-and-black version where the green ox ambles amiably across the same bland stretch of green grass (or if you played the much later, full-color versions, where the same genial man with glasses comments at every waypoint, “Fine scenery, round these parts”), you’re probably familiar with the following message.

(In the new(er) game, the “found wild fruit” message is inexplicably linked with a twittering of unseen birds every time, as if the wild raspberry canes themselves are singing.)

You can get food four ways on Oregon Trail: buy, trade, hunt, or gather. All of them are still practiced today by the settlers’ descendants– even the gathering. Or as it is also known, foraging: the act of searching for food. There is nothing quite like gathering random wild fruits and greens from your yard for meals… something you didn’t plant and have put zero effort into tending. People who have made a hobby of foraging (like this guy who taught NPR staff what they could eat in the vacant lots around their office) say that there are at least 75 different wild vegetables you can add to your diet if you know how to find them.

Last summer when we moved in, our friends who live down the alley from us discovered that the bushy, crinkle-leaved plants growing alongside our building were not just weeds or exotic shrubs as we had thought, but actually mint and spearmint plants. I assume a previous occupant installed them there, and now we’re reaping the benefits. This past weekend, it was amazing to just walk downstairs and gather a small bunch of fragrant mint leaves for our Greek salad pitas.

(They also featured cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce from the market, with feta and hummus.)

The black raspberries in my dad’s backyard are somewhat like that. After my mom established them as cuttings from my grandmother’s yard two decades ago, we’ve done very little in the meantime to keep them going. Really all we’ve had to do is stop them from spreading. They grow like weeds.

The mulberry trees are even more “volunteers.” After the apple tree in my dad’s yard died, a mulberry tree volunteered in its place and now heavily bears fruit in the early summer every year. The birds go wild for it; I’ve watched a family of finches moving through the poplar trees with their beaks stained purple from eating mulberries. Human feet will similarly get stained purple if you walk underneath a fruiting mulberry unawares. The best foraging on mulberries is when the fruits have just turned black and are hanging so heavy on the branch that they drop off at a light touch (thus why your feet get stained). They’re sweet with a light, neutral flavor underneath that’s somewhat wild and… leafy. The tree is currently at the perfect height for human fruit foraging. I admit that I grabbed berries off a low branch with my mouth this year like a deer.

There’s something visceral and beautiful about foraging — kind of captured in this Goo Goo Dolls album cover.

But while many people still forage for fruit, wild herbs and onions, morels, and other mushrooms (and have great fun doing so in Illinois), it has kind of a stigma to it in the mainstream. It’s a little “weird.” Like breast-feeding, it seems to remind people too much that we are, in fact, mammals. In reality, we’re made to nurse our young and eat things that come from the ground.

My own husband had a marked hesitation to my first offering of a mulberry handful picked straight from the tree, back when he was my boyfriend and visiting the south suburbs with me. “Doesn’t it need to be … washed?” he asked uncertainly.

As my uncle would say, “A little dirt’s good for you.” When my mom and I were weeding the flower beds side by side, we would often eat what we called “sweet-weed.” Small, clover-leafed plants with little yellow flowers. The entire plant is edible: Leaves, stem, flowers, and all. It has a half-sweet, half-tart bite to it, like the natural form of a Sour Patch Kid. It was yellow wood-sorrel– which I saw being sold at the Logan Square farmer’s market last month, but a different species with larger leaves. Dave and I were game to sample a leaf when it was offered, but why buy it? There’s plenty sprouting up between our tomatoes in the yard.

A few weeks ago, we were weeding our new city garden and I pointed out the yellow-flowered sorrel plants. “Try it,” I said, and Dave readily put a few leaves right into his mouth.

I tried not to show how pleased I was. Progress takes many forms.

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