Friday, May 21, 2010

Nature's Garden

Following in the footsteps of Euell Gibbons, Sam Thayer has inspired a generation to get outside and find wild food delicacies waiting beyond the back door. His first book, The Forager's Harvest, was a hands-on guide to the bounty around us, with an emphasis on those species found near his midwestern home. This April Thayer published his second volume, Nature's Garden, a guide that is at once more wide-ranging and yet also focused in a way that the average how-to book is not.

In an introductory section called simply "The Purpose of This Book" Thayer lays out his vision: This is not a guide for the armchair enthusiast, he writes, it is "a guide to actually foraging." (Italics his.) Rather than bombard the novice with countless species and terse descriptions, he compiles a sort of Forager's Hall of Fame, with something to please everyone, from beginners to experts and home cooks to chefs. Thus, while there are only 41 plants discussed in Nature's Garden, these are all winners, and each one receives detailed treatment, including multiple color photos of wild plants at various stages in their life cycles; lengthy descriptions of identification, habitat and range, harvest and preparation; and in some cases history, lore, and ecology.

The acorn chapter, for instance, gets no fewer than 50 pages devoted to this important though tricky food source, with acorns broken out by individual species and helpful notes about separating the good from the bad and the many ways of processing. The section also illustrates the author's no-nonsense approach. Of the "sweet acorn" myth—that is, the El Dorado-like idea of an acorn that doesn't require leaching to remove bitter tannins—Thayer writes: "Dream of these tannin-free acorns if you wish, hope if you like, but don't waste your time looking for them. No acorn myth has bred more disillusionment."

For those wondering whether such a focused and personal treatment will work for their own region, Thayer includes a relevance chart by U.S. state and Canadian province. My own state of Washington is on the low end of the spectrum, with 76 percent applicability; at the other end, with 95 percent or higher, are Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Clearly his expertise is concentrated in the Midwest and East Coast, but those of us from the western states won't be disappointed. Even the desert state of Nevada is represented by half the entries.

Some well-known wild foods are here: hazelnut, prickly pear, huckleberry, wild strawberry, dandelion, and others. Of greater interest are those less publicized foods that beginning foragers want to know more about: amaranth, garlic mustard, Jerusalem-artichoke, sow-thistle, salsify, and many more.

Nature buffs, would-be foragers, and even experienced wild foods aficionados should all have a copy of Nature's Garden in their libraries—or better yet—at the ready. Stock market investors might see it as a hedge too.

9 comments:

Thag said...

Langdon, We are big fans of Samuel Thayer's work (and yours). He's made the idea of actually making wild foods into a regular part of our diet seem possible. In fact, his first book was part of the inspiration for our Foraging Family project . There's another book coming out soom that we have high hopes for: John Kallas's From Dirt to Plate. Have you seen it?

Storm said...

ARRRGH.. another foraging book? But I am in rehab.. I am trying to quit buying them.. I am just holding it for a friend.. :)

Thanks for the heads up and for feeding the addiction..:)

Confused said...

I read the descriptions of both Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden which were at the links in the original post and it looks like there is much overlap and many similarities between the 2 books. Which would be the better choice for a rookie? Or is there an even better choice?

Anonymous said...

Funny, this post came at perfect timing. I was going to ask your reccomendations for some foraging books (besides your own, of course ( -; Haha!) Thanks!

Amber

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Thayer is full of shit on the acorn thing. There are several Southwestern species that are "sweet," as well as several that grow in Spain and North Africa.

I have Thayer's first book and will prolly buy his second, BUT, his sarcastic, opinionated, know-it-all attitude gets old in a hurry. I had to resist the urge to strangle him (figuratively speaking) while reading the first volume -- that said, he knows his Midwestern plants...

Jack said...

Perfect timing - my copy arrived yesterday. A very interesting book, but disappointing not to see anything on some of the local favorites - stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns, or any of the more common mushrooms.

But certainly worth the price.

LC said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. I'm travelling sans laptop and getting spotty service. Will respond to your individual comments when I get home tomorrow. Cheers, Lang

Jack said...

I went to the book looking for salmonberries tonight, but they obviously aren't a midwest favorite.

I only mention it because as I was walking home from the bus there were a bunch of what looked like salmonberries along the side of the street (the King/Snohomish county line near I-5). I tasted a big bright red one and it was, err, bland. Not sour but not sweet either.

Seems very early for berries (of any sort) to be ripe doesn't it?

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

OK, I bought Sam's second book, and after reading the first 50 pages, I can say he's toned down the 'tude he had in his first book. This is a MUCH more enjoyable read. He still needs to try the low-tannin oaks from the desert Southwest, though...

I also bought Kallas' From Dirt to Plate. Who knew there was so much to know about weedy edibles a lot of us take for granted? Cool book.