Nature consistently provides an abundance of wild edible foods all around us—whether we live in the city, the country, or someplace in between. Samuel Thayer, author of “Forager’s Harvest” and “Nature’s Garden,” is a foraging educator and wild food gatherer who began “survival camping” at age 14.
Today, Sam introduces us to the many foods growing underfoot–from ferns to flowers to what we call “weeds.” He tells stories of his adventures foraging and offers insights into the story of Chris McCandless, whose story was told in the movie “Into the Wild.” Sam describes the bounty of his own pantry replete with wild walnuts, hazelnuts, wild rice, ramps, and plums. And he inspires us to explore the benefits and beauty found in a diverse, local diet, like that of our ancestors.
Listen to the episode here:
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda
Foraging is one of the most practical life skills we can learn, whether you live in the city, the suburbs, or out in the countryside, nature consistently provides an abundance of wild edible foods that are ours for the taking. They offer a wonderful variety of flavors along with nutritional profiles that make foraging a legitimate source of true local food. This is episode 285. Our guest is Samuel Thayer. Sam is the author of The Forager’s Harvest and Nature’s Garden. He is a foraging educator and wild food gatherer who began survival camping at age fourteen.
It was Sam’s difficult childhood that practically forced him to learn at a very young age, how to care for his nutritional needs through foraging. That life skill broadened into a lifelong quest to learn, to identify and harvest edible plants and educate others about them. Sam shared some of that knowledge with us. He reminds us of the wild food that’s growing right around us, wherever we are. He describes the bounty of his own pantry replete with walnuts, hazelnuts, wild rice ramps, plums, and more. In a lot of ways, Sam simply takes us back to our roots. He reminds us of the beauty and nutrient value of a diverse local diet like that of our ancestors.
Welcome to the show, Sam.
Thank you for having me, Hilda.
We’re here on your property and I ate the most amazing wild plum. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had wild plum before. How did these trees appear on your property here? Did you cultivate them or were they wild?
When we bought the property, there was a whole bunch of wild plums scattered all over the property. I’ve also transplanted root cuttings from my favorite ones so that I have quite a few more than I started with.
What do you do with them?
We eat them fresh when they’re perfectly right. We pop them in our mouths and suck the juice out, which is my favorite way. We also make fruit leather, jam, wine, and vinegar. We can the whole plums in a thin out maple syrup, like canned peaches, and eat those through the winter. We dry the plums and then rehydrate them, all kinds of things to do with wild plumps.
I came out here because I had gotten wind of your foraging forays. It seems like you are knowledgeable about many plants and things. How did this all get started for you, Sam?
It started when I was a little kid and I was hungry and I love to be outside. I combine those two things. I have had the blessing that I’ve been interested in it my whole life so I’ve been able to build in my adult life on the obsessions that I had as a child. Anywhere I can, I learned some from my grandmother, a lot from books, from anyone who had information about what you could eat. I listened, I remembered, and I tried it
You were scrappy. I remember you were saying something about stealing fruit from other people’s orchards. Is that true?
It is very true. I had a poor diet growing up and I craved anything other than the cold cereal that my mom tried to raise me on. Not that I didn’t like cold cereal, but I needed something else with it. I went out and I trapped, hunted, captured animals, caught fish to eat, and built fires in the woods to cook them. I gathered wild vegetables and I stole vegetables from gardens in my neighborhood. I stole apples and plums from the trees anywhere I could.
Were you an only child?
I am the number 4 out of 5.
Is anybody else’s into all this stuff as you are, the foraging and the survival skills that you’ve developed?
No, it’s just me.
At least you’ve written books to guide them. Tell me more about the diversity of plants and greens that you can harvest right here in your own backyard.
I don’t know how many are in the backyard exactly, but within walking distance of my house, there are about 170 green leafy vegetables or chute vegetables that I collect around here.
What do you do with them?
I like greens, what I call walking salad. I take a few different kinds, shove into my mouth and eat it while I’m out hiking. I also like greens fried in either the hickory nut oil that we make or with bacon or in lard. You take a variety of greens, 6 or 7 species, maybe 15 species, and put them all together or greens chopped fine and then mixed with egg and cooked into an egg and green patty. That’s a great way to have greens.
How many varieties did you say around here?
There are about 170 different species.
This jives with something Chris Masterjohn told me. He said, “Our ancestors ate a much more diverse diet than we do.”
I couldn’t find 170 species of green leafy vegetables if I went to all the grocery stores in the Midwest. We eat an incredibly deep hopper variety of vegetables across the board. All of our food, we eat, whatever we want and what we like the best. We tend to focus on 1 or 2 foods in our modern civilized diets whereas, our ancestors ate a huge variety of each produce-type. We have one carrot-like vegetable. Eastern North America has about 30 carrots like vegetables that grow wild. Foraging gives you the opportunity to broaden your diet enormously.
What are we missing when we don’t?
We’re missing great flavor experiences, but we’re also missing this nutritional diversity. Almost all vegetables are nutritious, but you get the most well-rounded diet by having a great variety throughout the seasons.
That makes sense and I liked that you said that you sometimes do it in bacon fat or cook in lard because I understand that sometimes the animal fats can make the nutrition and greens more bioavailable.
You find that even in many parts of the world, leafy greens are traditionally cooked in pork fat. In fact, one of the key components of the actual original Mediterranean diet, as it was discovered before it was co-opted and changed by the American media, was a variety of wild greens collected by villagers in the Mediterranean region and cooked with lard. Lard or animal fat makes Vitamin A and many of the other vitamins more bioavailable.
Let’s get specific about some of the greens you showed me on your property. What are some of your favorites?
One thing we collected that’s in season now in early fall is called sochan that’s the Cherokee name for it. This is a sunflower relative. The young greens come out three times a year, once in the spring, in the summer, and the fall. They’re excellent fried with fat particularly, when they’re mixed with a milder green and an onion of some type.
Did you start experimenting like, “I looked up sochan. Now, I’m going to start cooking it this way,” to see what you liked or did you look into recipe books and stuff?
I did both. All the traditional Cherokee recipes that I’ve seen for sochan are pretty uniformed. It was traditionally eaten, cooked and fried in lard. I look for the cultural guidance and then I experiment following the directions I was pointed.
Earlier we were talking a little bit about eating locally and seasonally, and it seems like an easy thing here, but not for those of us who are surrounded by buildings instead of trees.
In urban areas, you still have a great diversity of plants that can be gathered. I grew up mostly in the city and I’ve collected wild food in New York, Chicago, DC, and in small towns. The great thing about urban foraging is it doesn’t vary a lot, according to the size of your metropolitan area. It’s the same plants in urban areas. There’s a lot of stuff. If you can find a safe place to forage where it’s clean, no herbicides being sprayed, and not a whole bunch of exhaust from vehicles right there. There’s a lot of good food to be harvested in the city.
What might I find I live in DC?
Many of the things we’ve looked at, the lambs quarters, the amaranth, another thing common in the cities is a nettle-relative called pellitory, which grows along walls and house foundations. There are brushy areas in most cities that have things like wild grapes, wild plums, and elderberries. The diversity is incredible.
Sometimes, it’s right underfoot and we don’t notice it. I’m bringing this up because I remember going to some farmer’s market and they were like, “This is purslane.” I’m like, “This is good. They put a little olive oil or something on it,” then I go home and I see it growing between the bricks in my patio.
That’s quite common. I guarantee you, you could take me to where you live and within half a block, I could find you 30 different wild edibles.
It’s important for us also to start to identify the plants and experiment with cooking them because we don’t know what the future holds.
I liked the security of knowing that I can feed myself, but I always tell people, “Don’t do this out of fear.” Do it out of excitement because you start collecting these wild fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, and you’re going to find that you crave them and you want them. You can’t imagine life without them once you get used to them.
Are they more appealing to you than the packaged foods on the supermarket shelf?
They’re more appealing because not only they are fanner to acquire, but they’re more nutritious and they’re free. I get to have flavor experiences that I can’t buy in the store.
You mentioned sochan. What other grains are some of your favorites here that you’ve harvested? The one we tried, that was like a celery thing.
That was clear weed and it is a relative of nettles and the stem is stiff. It’s made stiff by water pressure and because it doesn’t use fiber to hold that stem up, it stays tender and crunchy all through the growing season. That is not a well-known edible, but it’s delicious. It can be eaten raw. It’s all over the Eastern part of this country. Almost everybody has it grown near their house.
What was the golden one that you pointed out? It was like some weed too or fern. You said, “This is all yellow. It looks like some flowers.”
That was the sochan. It has sunflower-like flowers. We eat the greens, but it’s also worth growing for its beauty. In fact, most native plant nurseries carry it as a decorative plant.
There was something else that you said that you call edimental because it’s edible and ornamental. What plant was that?
That is the same one the sochan. That term was coined by Stephen Barstow. He’s a Norwegian forager/gardener. He talks about these edimental plants that are edible and beautiful. Sochan is a great example, so is the Angelica and pokeweed. People think of that as an obnoxious weed, but it is gorgeous.
Do your kids also enjoy the greens, the nuts and the things that you harvest?
To my kids, this is normal. This is food. Like any children, they have their preferences, but it hasn’t occurred to them that not eating this stuff is an option.
We’ve been hanging out a little bit and I feel like they have vibrant energy and natural beauty that comes from the nourishment that you’ve been given them.
I hope I’m giving them a better diet than the one I grew up on.
Let’s say, I live in the city. I know there’s food around me. What would be a handy guide or a way to start getting familiar with the plants that are right around me?
The most important thing with beginning to forage is to understand that you’ll learn one plant at a time. There’s a lot of places you can learn about that plant. It might be from another person. It might be from a book, but you do it slowly, carefully, and thoroughly, so that you’re comfortable that you have the correct plant and you start with that one. Once you learn it well enough that you’re eating it, you’re not going to forget it. You’ll have it for the rest of your life and then you move on to the next one.
Sometimes I think we get afraid like, “I’ve heard that some mushrooms are poisonous.” That makes us want to stay away from all of it.
Some mushrooms are poisonous. Don’t worry about it. You just don’t eat those. We have this fear of poisoning ourselves and dying from it, but this is something that happens infrequently. It’s incredible. I have a file folder where I have case studies of plant and mushroom poisonings. What you find is that the vast majority are when people ate a random plant without making any attempt to identify it. It wasn’t a miss identification. It was a non-identification. As long as you have a reasonably good head on your shoulders, you know that you’re not supposed to eat things without knowing what they are. If you follow that rule, you’ll be okay.
I always think of the guy who they made the movie about. It was called Into The Wild. He died from eating some berry that he hadn’t properly identified.
The plant in question there was Hedysarum alpinum, which is a wild legume. We have this archetype of this fable that we like to hear. The truth is that is not what happened. Chris starved to death. In fact, the plant that he was eating, I’ve eaten both the seeds and the roots, and they’re both delicious. There is no reason to suspect that this plant killed him. This is a fabricated story to sell a book and a movie. That’s not what happened to Chris.
Why would he have starved to death if there’s food all around us in nature?
Chris didn’t know what the food was. He didn’t put in the time that he would have needed to be successful at that endeavor trying to feed himself in the wild. There’s a lot to learn here. You don’t pick up like a Japanese translation book and look at it for a couple of days and then go to Japan and expect to speak fluently. Chris went to Alaska with a little bit of forethought and a little bit of research and thought he was going to be fluent and living off the land. He wasn’t yet and he got into a real bad situation.
That’s such a good word for all of us. We get overconfident with little knowledge and suddenly, we see something on Instagram and I’m like, “This is how I need to eat from now on,” picking up that little bit of information, but perhaps it isn’t telling us the whole story.
There’s a myth that hunting and gathering is something that doesn’t take much intelligence, but the intelligence of the human mind came from the crucible of hunting and gathering. There is a lot to learn here. I’m not trying to scare people away, but I also don’t want to minimize it. I don’t want people to think that it’s a piece of cake and you can learn in a weekend because you can’t. It takes many years to become proficient. I spent my whole life learning this and I’ve been slow because I didn’t have a tradition and elders to teach it to me, but I’m still learning new plants every year.
Is this why you decided to write books because it’s one way in which you can impart your wisdom and knowledge with others?
It was. I spontaneously started leading plant walks when I was in my late teens and it developed into something more formalized. I realized that I had knowledge that other people wanted. I had a great time acquiring the knowledge and some of it was tricky to get to, so I couldn’t help but share it with people. That’s why I wrote my books.
Do you feel like there’s more interest now than before, Sam?
I’m not sure if there is. At any point, I’ve heard that the interest in foraging is increasing. If you read books from the ‘60s, they say it’s increasing. From the ‘70s, they say it’s increasing. People are saying it’s increasing and it seems to fluctuate to go up and down. I hope it’s increasing, but I’m not certain.
To a large degree, we are wed to convenience nowadays. We think we’re eating locally and seasonally when we to the grocery store and something, our berries are not from Chile or there’s a sign over that says, “Local foraging is a whole different level.”
This is as local as it gets. I love it when I can go to somebody’s house and show them 5 or 6 wild edibles right in their front yard. I was traveling a few years ago and it stopped at a laundry mat. For giggles, I went out and there was a little strip of dirt between the building and the sidewalk. I counted 28 edible plants in that strip by the laundry mat while my clothes were drying.
Is your wife and are your friends into this as you are?
My wife and I love foraging together. I have a lot of friends that are into foraging, but I don’t choose my friends according to how much they gather wild food.
That’s good. I think you wouldn’t have maybe as many friends if you did it that way. You showed me your pantry laid in with foods that you’ve canned greens, fruits, and so forth. Can that carry you all through winter?
We can go through the year without purchasing food, but we do purchase food. We’re not extremists or trying to push ourselves, but it is comforting to know that we have plenty of food to get through the seasons.
Tell all of us some of the things you have in your pantry.
We have a lot of wild rice. I have hazelnuts, butternuts, black walnuts, Lotus nuts, Hickory nuts. I’ve got Hickory oil. I’ve got different vinegar that I’ve made. I have amaranth seed and lamb quarters seed. I have dried nettle greens. I have powdered ramp leaves. I’ve got canned wild plums, frozen blueberries, blueberry juice, blueberry fruit leather, and serviceberry fruit leather. I have several different species of mushrooms, dried. We’ve got maple syrup and maple sugar. The list is long. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of things.
I’m sure you’ve got meats and things like that in your freezer.
We raised a couple of pigs now. We have ducks for eggs. We raised a few chickens to butcher. We hunt squirrels, deer, ducks, rabbits, and snowshoe hares. We have a lot of wild meat and home-raised meat in our diet.
I think you’re a wildatarian.
I say, I’m a wild eater.
I’ve heard that term before, wildatarian and it struck me that you’re talking about it. It’s a great way to live and to eat. I feel like you must get a tremendous amount of satisfaction in knowing that you’re self-sufficient and that you’re providing for your family, but also in showing other people they can do the same.
It is exciting. This is a sacred process of feeding yourself. When you put your hands into the earth and onto the food and you put that food into your body, you feel the sacredness of that cycle of feeding yourself. It’s magical to be able to bring somebody along and give them that experience makes me happy. I’ve seen it over the years. I’ve seen it bring about changes in the lives of people. I know what it does in my heart so it makes me feel great to see it happening in other people too.
Talk to me about the changes you saw in one person as a result of what they learned about foraging and how they got going into it.
No matter what you do with the rest of your life, foraging gives you this focus that allows you to come back to yourself, your world, your environment and your health. It brings that sacred cycle of life back into your life. It seems to engender a general feeling of happiness and overall health to anybody that does it. I had a lot of people over the years tell me that my books have changed their life and that’s humbling. It’s also awesome. That’s why I did it because it’s changed my life. I didn’t have a good childhood. It gave me an outlet for my energy, it gave me food and it gave me health. I learned that nature would never let me down as long as I played by her rules. That offer stands for everybody.
It sounds like it nourished you in more ways than one.
It is nourishing to the soul. I feel like this is what we need as a society. We need more of the sacred in our lives. We need to be reminded that we don’t make food. Nature makes food. We need to be reminded that once we have our basic needs met, this is the stuff that matters, health, love, wellness, and living in a vibrant world. That’s what matters.
Walking through the orchard with your daughter and eating an apple picked off the tree, I get a sense and a taste of what that life and that living looks like.
I’m glad I could share it with you.
I want to ask you a question I often pose at the end. If the readers could do one thing to improve their health, and you might want to say one thing they would do to get started with foraging. If they could do one thing to move in the direction of the life you’re describing, what would you recommend that they do?
I do have a canned response to that. The easiest way you can make your life better with foraging is to eat fried greens. It doesn’t have to be lard, but that’s a good option.
Thank you for your time.
You’re welcome. It was a pleasure.
About Samuel Thayer
Sam was born in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he first learned to gather wild food in vacant lots, backyards, city parks, and at the edge of town. Later, his family moved to rural southern Wisconsin, and then to Madison. His first presentation on edible wild plants was to his seventh grade science class, demonstrating the foods that he collected regularly on his three-mile walk to school. He began “survival camping” at fourteen and led his first wild food walks when he was 19. After graduating from high school, he moved near the south shore of Lake Superior and built a rustic log cabin on an abandoned farmstead, chasing his childhood dream of “living off the land” while working part-time at a variety of jobs.
Since 2000, when he won the Hazel Wood National Wild Foods Cooking Contest, Sam has been teaching regularly on edible wild plants, giving workshops across the United States. In 2002 he was inducted into the National Wild Foods Hall of Fame at North Bend State Park in West Virginia. His first book, The Forager’s Harvest, has won a Midwest Book Award, IPPY Book Award, and was a finalist for the USA Book News Best Books 2007 award. It has been a steady Amazon category best-seller and has sold more than 100,000 copies. His second book, Nature’s Garden, has received similar acclaim and has sold over 75,000 copies. He currently lives in the woods of northwestern Wisconsin with Melissa, their daughters, Myrica, and Rebekah, and son, Joshua. Along with speaking and writing, he is also a maple syrup producer, wild rice harvester, and owns a small organic orchard.
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