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The Ultimate in Eating Local: My Adventures in Urban Foraging

As money has gotten tight and the local-foods movement more popular, urban foraging has become a hit. I spent a day with one forager in San Francisco.

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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 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.

 
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