I believe connecting to your food on the closest, most visceral level possible is the single most empowering step you can take towards creating genuine nourishment in your life. It is through a deeper connection to your food, where it comes from, how it is raised, harvested, prepared, stored, shipped, cooked and served that you can understand how all of these factors play significant roles in the final levels of toxicity, nutritional profile, and bioavailability as well as its appearance, flavor, texture and aroma. Even deeper connections to your food can come from learning about a food’s past, present and possible future relationship to humans through time, its biology and chemistry, and any other nuances that all help to solidify that connection.
Be an Active Member in your food system
When you are an active participant in your food system your food takes on a deeper meaning in your life. Remember, nourishment comes in many forms. It takes on its ultimate manifestation when it simultaneously meets your body’s biological needs and also satisfies your emotional and cultural needs too! At this level food is more than just fuel or a vehicle to curb hedonistic cravings. The act of eating is instead the final step in a much longer, more meaningful journey. And, at this superhero level of connection you are immune to advertising and marketing attempts – no matter how many billions of dollars are spent on trying to influence your shopping and eating patterns.
You can find this connection in the most unlikely of places.
Traveling is one way
Sure, traveling to remote corners of the world and preparing food with traditional groups can provide it. But so can more local, easily accessible activities such as shopping directly from farmers at their farms, roadside stands, and farmers markets. Cooking from scratch can offer a deeper level of connection too. Consistently sitting down as a family at meals can provide the other people in your family a direct connection to you, the person that prepared their meal and enhance their connection to what they are eating.
But, in my experience the two most powerful forms of connection come through hunting and foraging along with, of course, the cleaning, preparing, cooking and serving of meals made from the wild ingredients that you harvested yourself.
The power of a weed
Yesterday, a solitary, humble plant reminded me how easily accessible meaningful connections can be. I was in the middle of my annual urban foraging tour through Washington DC and noticed an edible wild plant growing out of the storm drain on the side of a road only a few blocks from the Capitol Building. The stark contrast between this nourishing wild plant and a sea of concrete, asphalt and metal prompted me to stop and use the opportunity to create the very connection I am advocating with everyone in the class.
We may wonder what sort of a connection a simple weed growing out of a storm drain on a city corner can provide. In reality, more than you can imagine! What follows is a short recount of the information I touched on while crouched in the street gutter, surrounded by a class of soon-to-be foragers, repeatedly looking over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t get hit by a car…
The plant was Chenopodium berlandieri more commonly known today in the foraging world by one of its other names: Wild Spinach, Lamb’s Quarters or Fat Hen. It has close relatives in a European invasive known as C. album and, a more commonly consumed relative from South America, C. quinoa (AKA quinoa – yes, the same quinoa you buy at the health food store). It is a native plant that is considered by many prehistoric archaeologists to be one of the first plants targeted in Eastern North America for domestication. In fact, one of the earliest examples of deliberate storage of plant food in this part of the world was a cache of Chenopodium seeds found in a cave in Ohio!
Have you tried wild spinach?
The seeds from this wild plant have a thick coating and take several years to germinate, while the domesticated version were selected by prehistoric farmers to have a thinner coat and therefore possessed the ability to germinate every year – certainly an advantage when using it as an annual food crop. In fact, the seed coating thickness is one of the defining characteristics used by microscope wielding archaeologists to determine if an ancient seed found during an archaeological excavation was wild or domesticated. And, while the seeds can offer a storable supply of nutrition, the leaves are more commonly consumed today by modern day foragers.
It is recommended to harvest only the youngest, most tender leaves which, like with many plants, means plucking the uppermost leaves from the stalk. The leaves are covered in a thin coat of natural wax which protects it from water loss, high temperatures and even ultraviolet light. But, for us foragers it is important to note that it also protects the plant from chemical herbicides – which is one of the reasons it is so hard to eradicate this plant. And, while the danger of modern herbicides is slightly reduced because of this characteristic, it, like every other plant on earth, produces its own toxins.
Akin to its relative, quinoa, the seeds of C. berlandieri contain saponins which need to be mitigated by soaking overnight. I witnessed this first hand while conducting research in Bolivia with an indigenous Aymara family who use the first soaking of their quinoa seeds to wash their clothes because it contains such a high concentration of saponins! The leaves themselves also contain several different toxins, some of which can be diminished through cooking. But, unfortunately, this plant also contains oxalates which, despite different attempts at processing remain a threat when consumed in large amounts.
On a positive note, this plant contains a relatively high amount of protein, vitamins A and C, and a bunch of minerals. It is delicious, mild and possesses a familiar texture that makes it a perfect ingredient in many dishes – especially those containing eggs like quiches and frittatas. And, to conclude the connection I was creating between this special plant with everyone, I shared that this was the very same plant I first harvested when I began my own foraging journey 40 years ago when I was only 10 years old.
I made a casserole with it I ate by myself because everyone else in the family was worried I was going to poison them.
One single, solitary plant
All of that from a single, solitary plant growing out of a gutter on a corner in Washington DC. After the mini-lecture I asked if anyone had questions, plucked the most tender leaves from the top of the plant and added them to our bag alongside the other wild edibles we harvested on our foray. We later returned to the teaching kitchen at the Hill Center where we used all of the Lamb’s Quarters, Common Mallow leaves, Chickweed and Field Garlic to create a frittata.
The class worked together to cook the frittata using local Lockbriar eggs, Lewes dairy cream, and homemade cheese we made from Nice Farms milk. The experience of sharing and enjoying this frittata together began with that plant growing out of a storm drain and taking the time to create a relationship with the plant, harvesting the leaves, carrying them around the streets in a paper bag, and washing them back in the teaching kitchen. It continued through the preparation of the frittata, plating and subsequent photos for Instagram, and reminiscing as a group about the entire experience while we were all eating.
This is a powerful, meaningful example of what is possible with
EVERY SINGLE MEAL when you create a connection with your food.
You do not have to be in the middle of the woods or on a week-long vision quest to connect on a deeper level.
It doesn’t require a lot of money or extensive travel.
It can literally begin on the side of the road in your neighborhood where you harvest a wild edible plant, continue in your kitchen as you prepare a meal, and end around your table and you relay the entire story with your family.