Is Foraging The New "F" Word?

I first met Nova Kim in a cemetery. But it was surprisingly full of life.

The occasion was a fundraiser for the New Amsterdam Market, an organization dedicated to promoting regional food with a now-weekly market on the site of the old Fulton Fish market in downtown New York. The event, a summer garden party, was set in the verdant Marble Cemetery, located behind a funeral home in the East Village. Kim was there to represent her company, Wild Gourmet Food, one of the market's popular vendors.

My friend and I were drawn to the array of greens and roots that surrounded her; familiar and unfamiliar edibles found in the woods of Vermont, where Nova Kim and her partner of 30 years, Les Hook, collect, gather, harvest, tend, protect and verify wild plants. What they don't do is forage.

If you make the mistake of using the "F" word, as my friend did quite innocently that day, you will get a terse lesson on why that word is offensive. It's hard for many of us who revere the people who gather wild edibles to understand how the widely used word could be construed as anything other than positive.

The problem with the label "forager," according to both Kim and Hook, is that it has connotations, dating back to Medieval times, of poverty-stricken outcasts who were doomed to sustain themselves by scratching out a meager existence from what they could find growing in the woods, often on other people's property. "The landed gentry figured that you were not intelligent enough to be educated," Kim explained. "It's always been used as a term to put you down and put you in your place." It's easier to see how the word scavenger could be viewed as negative.

To further clarify her point, Nova Kim, who has shoulder-length gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, will look directly in your eyes over her fashionable, foldable reading glasses and explain that just as one might not like being called a "kike," or she, as a Native American woman doesn't like being called a "squaw," those who have studied for years to identify and protect the hundreds of wild edible species that can be found in nature, don't like being called "foragers."

Instead, they insist on being called "wildcrafters," even demanding the signage to be changed when they were guest speakers at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2005. At Terre Madre, the Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy, they made the contacts that led to their participation in the New Amsterdam Market.

Nova Kim and Les Hook have earned the right to their opinion. Hook has lived in Vermont and gathered wild foods all his life, while Kim, who grew up in Wyoming, has probably read every field guide and reference on identifying plants.

Vermont is a particularly good place to find variety, but the couple traveled around the country and "discovered that there is no place we couldn't do what we do." Though if they had to choose a region in the U.S. as the best for their quests, they'd pick Vermont, North Carolina, Oregon or Northern California.

That first day in the cemetery, I tasted and then purchased a bundle of wood nettle, more succulent and less prickly than stinging nettles, and a clump of crinkle root, a small, young root with the pungent flavor of horseradish, also known as pepperwort, or when used medicinally, tooth wart.

The second time I saw the couple at the New Amsterdam Market, I bought an egg crate of black walnuts, one in each of the dozen holes, lightly dusted with soil, so carefully packaged that they seemed more like truffles than a sturdy nut that required a lot of loud banging with a hammer to open. The meat inside was worth the effort, deeper in flavor than typical walnuts, and lent richness to pasta that was akin to the effect of black truffles. I also took away a brown bag full of milkweed pod, which look a bit like okra, but which, when boiled briefly, yield a sweet cheese-like interior and a tender green vegetable with no bitterness.

The third time, the couple was behind a table, piled high with wild mushrooms. I couldn't resist buying one of each variety, each one so different as to seem to belong to a different species. Each mushroom was packed in its own paper bag and labeled with both the botanical and common name, including Lactiporus sulphurus aka Hen of the Woods; Hericum ramosum or Comb Tooth (which is frilly and soft, with the flavor of crab when it's cooked); and my favorite, Gomphus clavatus, otherwise known as Pig's Ear, which looks like a darker chanterelle and has an earthy flavor.

Kim defines wild food as "that which is not under direct cultivation," but their method is not so simple as to just go into the woods and pick at random. "When you are tending wild plants and collecting," she says, "you have to use certain techniques to make sure that the plants can grow back. For example, you don't cut or tear out mushrooms; you twist them out gently and cover the earth back up to protect the mycelia bed. It's also crucial to see the foot so you can properly identify it. It's imperative — if you value your health and life — that you not eat anything if you are not absolutely certain of what it is."

Jimmy's No. 43 restaurant in NYC will host a Wild Gourmet Foods dinner with Nova Kim and Les Hook on August 29. Check here for details.