My Adventures in Urban Foraging

After spending an afternoon with Iso Rabins, it has come to my attention that I have no useful skills. And by useful, I mean the kind that could save my life if I was plucked out of the warm embrace of industrial, consumer society.

I can type with all 10 fingers, but Rabins can do me one better, much better: He can find food.

Having been successfully able to grow one, tiny Meyer lemon, in the last year-and-a-half, I have a fond appreciation for people with fruited vines tangled in their backyard, and green arms, heavy with tomatoes coming out of their pots, and a windowsill alive with herbs.

To be a farmer, even if only on the crammed fire escape of your city nest, is something special and ancient.

But Rabins is another breed, and an older one -- he doesn't grow food, he finds it, and he does so mostly around the city of San Francisco and its neighboring towns and shores.

He's also among a growing band of urban foragers who have been sprouting through sidewalk cracks all across the country as the economy tightens belts and the local-foods movement gains popularity. And thanks to Rabins, I got to spend a day seeing what's it's like to start looking at your neighborhood as a potential meal.

Gathering the Bounty

I always assumed that if I was lost in the woods, a safe bet would be to eat acorns, one thing I think I could identify for certain. But Rabins, who knows a delicious recipe for acorn ice cream, helps save me from a potentially sickening experience.

On a recent walk through San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, he explains that acorns have a lot of tannins and are poisonous if you eat too many raw. You have to take them out of their shell, and then the nut meat needs to be soaked -- either submerged in the cold water of a rushing stream for weeks as the indigenous people did, or boiled in numerous baths on the stove, a process that could take all day or longer.

But this is just passing advice -- we are not out to gather acorns. Rabins runs Forage SF, a group he started a year ago to provide foodies in the Bay area with a box of locally foraged foods.

Similar to the popular CSA (community-supported agriculture) model that allows people to buy a subscription to a farmer's regular bounty, Rabins' CSF provides members with a monthly box of foraged goodies that range from mushrooms to fruit to herbs to sea beans to fish.

Some of the foraging he does himself, and the rest is contracted from other foragers (or fishermen). Rabins is still working out the kinks and trying to get a reliable group of foragers together, which, it seems, is a lot like herding cats. For the time being though, he's stuck with me, a total beginner.

I had hoped that maybe I'd come home from my first foraging outing with pink-stained fingers from berry picking, but instead we are peering underneath long green leaves looking for snails. Snails!

I'm not even sure I want to find a snail, let along think about anyone eating it. My parents gave up on me eating any kind of meat products around the age of 12, and I'm pretty sure snails fall somewhere in the meatlike category.

These snails, Rabins says, will be used for an escargot he is planning for another one of his ventures -- monthly foraged-food dinners that he serves to groups of up to about 30 and include an ambitious six courses that are probably as close as you can get to actually eating the city of San Francisco.

In jeans and hoodies, we look more like urban hipsters than foragers. But I guess that's a good thing, because we are wandering the paths of one of the city's gardens (which will remain nameless).

We've slipped past the groups of toddlers wobbling on the front lawn and the vacationing families dutifully reading all the informational signs. We head to the winding, dirt paths, farther from the crowds, passing the occasional photographer hunched over a tripod.

Rabins looks like your average young Mission District guy -- which he is. He lives in the hip 'hood, has a film degree, shaggy brown hair and a bit of a beard. He has learned foraging from books and other people who know what they are doing, and a bit of trial and error. He doesn't own a car, so he takes the bus around the city or bums rides from other aspiring foragers.

Of course, if you're in a city garden like the one we're in, you're not suppose to actually take anything out. But we're not taking plants -- just the snails hiding in their midst, and the snails, Rabins says are pests. So, I guess we're doing the garden a favor.

Rabins has shown me the kind of plant we're looking for, although he doesn't know it by name, he just knows the snails prefer them. The plants grow in clumps and sport long, flat green leaves. Some have tall spears that shoot from the middle, armed with clusters of light purple flowers. We run our hands through the leaves, parting them to see others further inside.

I get a quick burst of excitement when I point out my first snail to Rabins, who plucks it from its green berth, making a slight sucking sound as it is pulled free. He opens his backpack and drops it in a plastic container that looks like it was probably intended for take-out soup. Just one snail, and I'm hooked. It feels incredibly rewarding and also a bit risky.

Rabins used to find huge swaths of Miner's lettuce in an area called the Presidio, which is both a neighborhood and a park and is technically a National Historic Landmark, with architecture dating back to the Spanish forts.

An article about Rabins in a local paper mentioned his foraging ventures there, and the Presidio establishment decided to nip his picking in the bud. I guess they were afraid hordes of San Franciscans would descend on the area like a pack of starved goats and eat all the vegetation.

But certainly there are some legal hazards when you're in urban areas. Just ask "Wildman" Steve Brill. He's probably the country's most well known forager who has been leading foraging trips in the New York area since 1982.

Brill got his big break in 1986, when the New York City parks commissioner planted undercover agents on one of his tours in Central Park. When Brill popped a dandelion in his mouth, he was handcuffed and arrested. The incident made national, and even international, news and the city was forced to not only drop the charges but then hire him to lead foraging tours through the parks department.

Brill spent four years as a parks naturalist before he went back to freelancing. Now he leads tours for all kinds of groups -- schools, birthday parties, garden clubs, and anyone else interested in learning what you can find to eat in New York City and its environs.

It turns out there is a lot. Brill tells me some of it: wild watercress, mulberries, wild persimmons, raspberries, Juneberries, various species of bramble, parsnips, burdock root, wild carrot, giant puffballs, chicken mushrooms, honey mushrooms, white oak acorns, black walnuts, lambs quarters, and even kelp if you venture out to the shores of the Long Island Sound, which is where I grew up.

Click here to read the full article on AlterNet.