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Eat Me

City Gardens

Harvesting Dinner and Snacks From The Grounds Around You

Frank Klein
Dese Nuts: Ginko Nuts in Their Natural Habitat--North Calvert Street.

By Henry Hong | Posted 11/7/2007

I have a friend who refuses to go to farmers' markets. Here's a reasonable woman whose ethical and culinary judgment I generally regard highly eschewing a practice that I hold very dear. What possible reason could there be?

Turns out to be an ugly run-in with one of them. You know the type (if sensitive to baseless stereotypes, look away now): usually a couple, Crocs/Birkenstock-wearing, Prius/Subaru/Volvo-driving, probably just reproduced and carting their spawn around in a stroller equipped with shocks and off-road tires, and, for some reason, both possessing well-defined calf muscles. They're typically folks who have perverted the notion of supporting local food producers beyond even fetish and into dogma-which is OK, I guess, until the proselytizing starts. Suffice it to say, my friend avoids farmers' markets because, as she put it, "It would be like I'm going just to prove I'm a good person to those douchebags."

I, too, have had encounters with "local food" zealots, and my ethics have been impugned. Usually all I have to do is point out their bottle of artesian water shipped from 10,000 miles away and the battle is over. I actually invest a great deal of thought into the food I consume, and try to keep it local whenever possible. My whole family has run a local food business-liquor counts as food, right?-at some point or another, so I'm particularly sensitive. I've even worked for a nonprofit that advocates local business and food producers. And I drink water delivered to me by plumbing and gravity, not trucks and boats.

But I also recognize that if you were to go completely local for food, life would suck, especially around now when the growing season is winding down. It's important to realize how vastly improved life is because of our ability to transport food great distances cheaply and quickly. It's what allows us mere plebes to eat like only the very rich were able to not so long ago. Here in Baltimore, even "local" food travels hours by truck to get to market. And which is more local, a Pennsylvania farm one hour away or an Eastern Shore farm two hours away?

The only way to truly "go local," in my opinion, is foraging (well, hunting, too, but that's a topic for another day). Urban foraging, a term used by so-called freegans to describe grocery-store Dumpster diving, doesn't count. I refer to harvesting food growing within a few miles of your house, the seeds of which having been transported naturally, by wind or animals-which are also CO2 emitters, but oh well-with the exception of trees transplanted by humans in city parks or along streets.

Eating wild plants is not that foreign a concept-I remember first trying honeysuckle when I was about 4 and learning how to spot the tall, dark green blades of grass that, if pulled out correctly, yielded a tender white stem that was savory and oniony. I have a vivid memory of a breezy fall day when my whole family stopped somewhere on the side of a road under a big tree to eat after church and trying to clear away all the spiky little balls on the ground to sit. They were chestnuts, of course, which my grandmother gathered up so later that night we could roast them in the fireplace.

Back in the day, around this time of year, you'd see a bunch of Korean grandmas picking up ginkgo nuts along Calvert Street, near the Social Security building where a row of the trees stand. My grandmother was famous among her peers for her ability to hull the nuts without gloves (the outer flesh is slightly caustic). The nuts are delicious roasted, herbaceous and resilient, eaten as a snack, and also used to relieve chest congestion.

These same ladies have been known to gather so many acorns from parks like Druid Hill as to be evicted by park rangers, who feared the squirrels would not have enough to eat. The acorns are ground into flour and made into mook, the translucent, gelatinous rectangles sometimes served as panchan (the little side dishes) at Korean restaurants. Fresh acorn mook is deep brownish gray, crumbly in texture, with the faintest whiff of sweetness and wood.

One Thanksgiving, I remember swinging by a house off of York Road in front of which I had noticed a huge bush of purple sage a few days before and snipping some off as nonchalantly as possible. I still feel guilty about that. Right around the corner from my house in Butchers Hill, there's a big apple tree that gets looted occasionally, and all over the city there are mulberry trees with exceedingly tart fruit that stain the sidewalk reddish-purple in summer.

In the spring, it's easy to spot tiny wild strawberries growing along the paths at parks like Robert E. Lee or, for more advanced foragers, there is frilly wild asparagus that likes to grow next to utility poles along highways. And if you are extremely lucky, you know where to find a patch of garlicky ramp, now ubiquitous on seasonal menus and thus increasingly rare.

Not long after first immigrating to the U.S., my mom was driving up Dulaney Valley Road and suddenly caught something out of the corner of her eye, compelling her to mash the brakes and pull over. It was a patch of perilla plants, sometimes called black sesame (a misnomer since they are not part of the sesame family) or shiso, which is actually a distinct variety with smaller leaves. It is common in Korea but was an utterly unexpected and welcome sight in this strange new land. This was more than 30 years ago, and I was curious to see if the plants could still be found up there. Sure enough, right after the bridge over Loch Raven Reservoir, a vast patch of dark purple and green perilla still grows. I compared the leaves to some bought from the Waverly farmers' market for $8 a pound, and the wild leaves were more flavorful than the farmed, like strong basil without the anise, but more astringent and a bit tougher.

Perilla, in fact, grows all over the place-I found it growing in every city park I visited, along the train tracks Canton, and even on the side of the road along Fallsway. I also had success in locating chestnuts, walnuts, and, of course, acorns, even pulling a two-foot-long burdock root (aka gobo, like you might find in a futomaki sushi roll) out of the ground at Lake Roland. Interestingly, an herb called epazote, which my Guatemalan sous-chef uses in his chilaquiles recipe, can be found everywhere in Baltimore simply growing out of the sidewalk. Apparently, the plant is known as wormseed in the U.S., and Baltimore was once a center of wormseed oil production. We make chilaquiles at the restaurant to soothe hangovers, and the epazote adds a sharp but pleasant high note to the dish.

In these cases the motivation for foraging is anything but ethical. Sometimes it is simply a matter of availability (though foods such as perilla and ginkgo nuts are now beginning to become available retail), other times a matter of convenience. In any case, setting out and harvesting truly local food is a cool undertaking and renders you unimpeachable to even the most self-congratulatory zealots.

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Eat Me archives

More from Henry Hong

Barbecue By Any Other Name (6/30/2010)
Or how to make Korean barbecue at a cookout

Air of the Dog (3/31/2010)
Will adding oxygen to alcohol keep you from getting hung over?

The Meat Generation (2/17/2010)
Reclaiming meatloaf before it becomes extinct

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