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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.

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 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.

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