A Black Girl’s Guide To Foraging

 

WORDS BY DR. FUSHCIA HOOVER

PHOTOGRAPHS BY GAËLLE ELMA

For Dr. Fushcia Hoover, foraging has always been a means to reconnect to her upbringing. But, as she details in a definitive foraging guide for Black women, parsing through and collecting what nature has to offer is as spiritual as it is resourceful—an act of resilience and a way to reclaim her roots.

WORDS BY DR. FUSHCIA HOOVER

PHOTOGRAPHS BY GAËLLE ELMA

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Many of us likely have a childhood memory of picking a crab apple or bright red berry from a bush, taking a bite, and immediately spitting it out upon discovering its sour, tart and unpleasant piquancy. I did this frequently as a child, picking things up, wondering if they were food, and giving it a taste. A childhood curiosity combined with my love of fresh foods and eating were natural outcomes of growing up with a mother who gardened. She was the first to break off a rhubarb stalk and hand it to me to chew. Her stories and introduction to plants were my gateway into foraging.

 

I love foraging because it offers me a chance to look closely at what the Earth has to offer, to explore my surroundings. It feels intimate, like holding a special secret, discovering that what others overlook is actually an offering from our home. It also makes me grateful for how rich and bountiful our Earth is, and how she is always providing in the most consistent ways. These reminders are important, especially as climate change reshapes our access to nature and our ability to grow with, connect to, and rely on Earth’s resources. And as pandemics expose the fallacies in a food supply chain so streamlined and rigid that pounds of produce are buried while livestock are euthanized in the thousands. I forage to figuratively and literally stay rooted to a source of abundant life and reclaim my ancestral heritage of using the least harmful of ways to access what the Earth provides.

 

Our ancestral connection to foraging is twofold and exists in the past, present, and future. In her groundbreaking work Black Food Geographies; race, resilience, and food access in Washington, D.C., Dr. Ashanté Reese details the importance of self-sustaining practices and independence as being critical to making spaces our own, centering the voices of Black residents in a northeast Black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. In the book, Reese explains that, for many residents, self-reliance became “a strategy, a manifesto for building communities that were not wholly reliant on white philanthropy or support.” In other words: Foraging and its cousin, gardening, provide a means of knowing you gon’ be alright. Similarly, the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Parable of Sower leads the way to building a safe and sustainable community using her knowledge of the things around her including her self-taught foraging skills. Ancestrally, we’ve been hunter-gatherers for millennia, walking and scanning the landscape for foods that could sustain us and our communities; the practices of which still exist among Khosian, San, and other African-Indigenous tribes. Despite the rise of modernity that led to ever-increasing ‘efficient’ practices of animal husbandry and agriculture, we are rooted in this practice and it is still there waiting for whenever we are ready to return.

 

While my mother taught me many things about gardening and identifying plants, I had (and still have) so much more to learn about foraging. Moreover, not all of us have an accessible doorway into nature and exploration, which is why I wrote this guide for you. The Black girl’s guide to foraging is meant to help you return to the soil and re-sow your roots to Earth, spirit, and self. The guide is here to get you started and in it, I invite you to come as you are, with what you have, and venture into foraging no matter where you live.

Start With your own Backyard or Neighborhood

 

I have two salient memories of foraging as a child. The first was discovering morels (a type of wild mushroom) growing around the tree stump in my backyard. I remember feeling excited and amazed that something ‘wild’ could grow in the city. The discovery felt special, both because it meant the soil was rich enough to nurture the growth of morels, and because it was in my yard! I later learned that morels tend to grow near or around trees and send up caps when the tree is dead, dying, or threatened in some way. After confirming they were nontoxic, my sister and I harvested, cleaned, and pan-fried them with salt, pepper, and butter. I don’t remember their taste, but I do remember feeling excited about this offering of the Earth and wanting to discover more.

 

There are so many things you can find in an urban environment that we typically don’t expect. Walnut and oak trees, blackberry bushes, ornamental kale, dandelions, and wild herbs like chives or garlic mustard are scattered across the city landscape! Because most folks don’t know what to look for or don’t pay attention to them, they usually get eaten up by the birds and squirrels. That’s why the best place to begin is by taking a walk through your neighborhood or city and observing what plants, trees, and seeds you see. You can even bring a notebook to record their locations, leaf shape, or other characteristics to look it up when you get home. I will go on multiple walks along the same route over the year to watch a particular plant and see if it flowers, what the flowers look like, what the leaves look like, and make note of the people and things around it to plan out my harvesting approach.

 

My foraging adventures have included harvesting dandelion leaves to make a summer salad, cracking open walnuts, discovering a self-seeded tomato plant in an alley, and collecting acorns for flour…all in the city.

Identify and Confirm

 

Identify it before you taste it. My foraging definitely started as picking and tasting, picking and smelling. If it smelled tasty, I’d take a nibble and spit it out. I do not recommend this method as a dear friend once kindly pointed out that a poisonous plant can have toxins that activate with your saliva and enter your system (even if you spit out the piece you nibbled). Imitation plants can also be dangerous—and even deadly—to the novice forager: If you can’t identify it or you can’t determine if it’s the toxic imitation, please don’t eat it. Unless you’re comfortable testing a leaf or berry on yourself, it’s best to assume it’s toxic and ignore it.

 

An absolute benefit of foraging in 2020 is technology. I rely on Seek, a flora and fauna species identification app that allows you to take or upload pictures to determine what it is. Its partner app iNaturalist is another great option, but requires access to your location whereas Seek does not. It doesn’t always give you the exact species but it can get pretty close! This has made things much easier, and helped me identify the species of oak acorns I recently harvested. You can also bring things to a nursery or garden center in your area to ask for their expertise, and look things up on university agriculture extension websites or google it.

Bring some Tools, Know your Surroundings

 

Having a bag on hand is key. You never know what you’ll come across so having a bag in your pocket makes it easy to load up on whatever you find. You’ll want to wear comfortable but protective clothing like jeans, and comfortable tennis shoes or boots. Other useful items to bring include a small pair of scissors to cut trimmings or stems, your phone (charged) for safety and to help identify what you find, maybe a pair of gloves for prickly things, and snacks or water if you plan to be out for a while.

 

When I decided to collect acorns and had found a block with producing oak trees, I planned out my day as such: Go for a walk with the dog and bring a bag. Walk the dog in the early evening or late afternoon when there’s plenty of light. Stop to harvest acorns from the ground or street as quickly as I can (so as not to look too strange) and then continue walking the dog making my way back home. I figured, if anyone asked what I was doing, I’d explain I was collecting acorns and pray that all the BLM signs in the majority white neighborhood would buffer any possible racist responses. (My dog is also small and cute and always elicits a positive response from everybody.) It can be daunting to venture out into the neighborhood or forest as a Black girl, for sure. But when I tell y’all how big my smile was as I carried my bag of acorns in one hand and the dog leash in the other… I couldn’t stop beaming from the excitement.

 

Also, a note on individual versus group foraging: I usually collect things on my own but there are groups across the country that can teach you how to forage. I go by myself because I like the alone time, many local foraging groups are predominately white, and when I didn’t own a car, it was impossible for me to get to the meet-up spots.

Prep and Enjoy!

 

We don’t need expensive tools to forage or prepare what we find. All that is required is curiosity, patience, and time. And you can start with looking up recipes online or experiment on your own. If you’ve found something that requires processing or serious prep—don’t be discouraged! Remind yourself that even if you don’t have the items listed on a forager webpage, neither did your ancestors and they figured it out! So, what do you have? Or alternatively: what can you borrow?

 

I didn’t own a lot of the things that were recommended for making flour from scratch. Instead of a nutcracker I used cookie sheets, paper bags, and my mom’s rubber mallet to crack the acorns. I don’t have a flour grinder, but I do have a blender and food processor (even a coffee grinder would work). Because red oak has a higher concentration of tannins that meant I had to soak them for at least a week. Instead of placing them in a bowl and changing the water every 12-24 hours—which, to be honest, I knew I wouldn’t remember to do—I used a mesh laundry bag and placed it in the filling tank of the toilet. Every flush meant fresh water for the acorns. In case you’re concerned, the water in our tanks (if you’re on municipal water) is potable, which means it’s been treated to the same standards for the water that comes out of your faucets. But you do probably want to tell anyone who lives with you as it will change the color of the water going into the toilet bowl.

 

And there you have it. Foraging in the spirit of fun and exploration will get you a long way. Embracing an abundance mindset and manifesting the things you need will pick up the rest.

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