Free Foraging in the Big City  

How many times has this happened to you? It’s three weeks since your last paying gig, it’s Saturday, and you’re starving. If you’re anything like me, just about every weekend, right? But, wait. Put down that sad package of stale almonds. It’s time to eat again. In fact, it’s time to live again.

Hey, I’ve been there, to that dark place where you’ve gotta skip two meals a day to make rent, where you’re forced to cut down on extravagances like cable television and toothpaste to keep the lights on. OK, I’m exaggerating. But it can be rough out there, especially if you possess a useless degree in film and television production like I do. To eat and drink well these days, you’ve gotta be creative and just a little bit lucky. Urban foraging takes skill and preparation. You can’t just waltz into the local organic butcher and say, “Gimme a tenderloin.” But with forethought and a big appetite, you can be eating for free in no time.

Let the Unemployed Gourmand show you the way…

Look the Part

Before setting off on an urban foraging expedition, take a moment to consider your surroundings. If you’re in an unfamiliar city, you may want to take a short stroll to get acquainted with the local customs and trends. Blending in is paramount.

Just the other day, after a brief examination of the Craigslist job postings and their relation to my diminishing sense of self-worth, my growling stomach alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t eaten in quite some time. Thinking on my feet, I recalled that my corner wine shop (Devine’s) had recently opened a small food annex next door. Why, I bet some locally brewed beer and a handful of wasabi pickles might be just the thing.

By wearing the correct style of beard and taking great pains to outfit myself in the style of someone who either works in a creative industry or at the very least enjoys roots music, I was able to engage in some flirtatious banter with the shop girl, who on the basis of my outfit took me immediately for one of her own. Let’s just say several pulls of the growler taps later, I was half drunk and on my way, belly full (handfuls of organic pretzels!) and wallet none the lighter.

Dressing the part can reap great benefits in the field. It’s worth the effort.

Adopt an Attitude

Above all, it’s important to keep in mind that free samples are meant to inspire purchases. Sure, you’re treating them as a meal in their own right, but the shopkeeper believes you’re there to buy. Go with that. No, you can’t actually afford the 3 oz. jar of Rhubarb & Hibiscus jam priced to move at $12, but they don’t know that. So adopt a detached air. Don’t appear overeager. Act as if you just happened upon the free samples by chance. Of course you didn’t come just for the samples. Who would do such a thing? Browse around a bit. Window shop. And once you’re done stuffing your face, be certain to imply you’re merely opting not to buy anything. Of course you could, you’re just not going to.

Feign Interest

In situations where free samples are kept under watchful eye, it helps to pretend you’re interested in how the food was produced/harvested/forested for/crafted. Especially in such environs as a greenmarket, odds are you’re interacting with the producers themselves. Feign interest in their passions and I guarantee you’ll be stuffed by the time you leave. You wouldn’t believe how many free pickles I’ve scored just by pretending to be interested in pickling. Ask a few simple questions (“What’s in your brine?”; “Is this cheese made with locally sourced milk?”), get them talking, and keep munching. When in doubt, try one of these handy buzzwords: local, sustainable, artisan, handcrafted, small batch. Works every time!

Stay Focused

You’ll sometimes encounter competition for a limited amount of free food. In such times, you need to dig deep, gather your resolve, and remind yourself that it’s you (yes, you!) who deserves those free samples. Don’t let anything stand in your way. Here’s an illustrative example from my own urban foraging, excerpted from my dining journal—

BKLYN Larder, my preferred dealer of locavore treats (and only a short stroll from my Boerum Hill hovel near downtown Brooklyn). The towering mason jars of pickled cauliflower and assorted arrangements of imported French chocolates mocked the paucity of my unemployment check, so I make a beeline for the free cheese table against the rear wall. I poke my wooden toothpick hither and thither, spearing delicate squares of raw milk cheeses with the accuracy of an Olympic archer on a very good day. I’m unable to describe each individual cheese in detail, but suffice to say they taste glorious when taken together, stuffed inside my greedy mouth until the limits of its space are sorely tested. Too much to request a glass of Pinot Blanc, preferably on the house? I dare not inquire, opting instead to keep both eyes firmly glued to the cheese table, guarding the delicate morsels like a mother bear protecting her cubs. My only competition: a precocious four-year-old, who with a simple hip check I dispatched squealing in the direction of his $900 designer stroller. He would have to indulge his taste for non-pasteurized dairy products elsewhere. Some of us had not eaten since the previous afternoon, if you can call the handful of sugar cubes I’d pilfered from the corner sustainable coffee roaster ‘eating.'”

Sure, it’s not pretty. But urban foraging isn’t for the squeamish. Remember: those are your free samples.

Urban foraging may not be for the light of heart, or for those with any sense of shame. But if you’re hungry, poor, and unwilling to compromise on quality, there’s no better way to fill up while keeping up appearances. Sure, you could just grab a crude handful here and there, but follow my advice and you’ll be freeloading in style.