Nevermind the Dog Pee: A Writer Forages for Wild Foods in D.C.
On Sunday, I arrive for a free urban foraging class held at the nonprofit Bread for the City and organized by Knowledge Commons DC. I'm 15 minutes late and perspiring lightly. I’m here because foraging is the type of adventure that I can really get behind. It’s free, quasi-dangerous and, best of all, edible. I’ve just been far too yellow until this moment to engage in much wild eating.
After telling the small class my name, I’m handed a quart of cream and told to shake. We’re making butter for the quiches that we will soon craft from wild-found food and store-bought eggs. Our instructor is Kate Clark, an inspiring, hardcore forager who tells of making wine from found strawberries and pushing the boundaries of public-domain produce. She starts naming a few of the 75 or so versatile edible species that call D.C.’s streets and alleys home: the clover-like wood sorrel, rosemary, serviceberry, and wild chamomile, to name a few. It turns out that even the scraggliest patches of District greenery might be edible—provided you’re savvy about seeking them out.
Clark tells us that urban foraging is all about using your best judgment. Are you cool with the possibility of your latest find maybe having been peed on by a local dog? Or having absorbed general city pollution? “Use common sense,” she says, never really warning us against picking much. This seems valid, but I wonder, what’s the likelihood I’ll pick up something that actually proves inedible? Is everyone going to get sick as a result of eating D.C.-foraged goods? The more we talk about foraging’s little intricacies, the more nervous I am to do it.
The class divides. Those with bikes will explore the National Mall, those without will hunt around Shaw. I set off with my friend Kalee through alleys and along quiet streets, soon finding chives and daylilies and guarding them like overzealous 49ers. Uninterrupted talking proves difficult as our focus shifts to scanning any nearby greenery for potential edibles. We cut rosemary from our friend’s front yard and find purslane and dandelion greens growing between pavement cracks and along fences. Kalee nibbles questionable leaves without abandon while I pocket debatable plants for further inspection.
After hunting, we go back to Bread for the City to prepare the food. The class’s bounty was vast and overwhelming. Others were able to find small plums and ornamental basil, kale and lemon verbena. Everything looked more palatable than fear-inducing. The group proves cooperative and automatic, simultaneously sautéeing greens, whisking eggs and preparing the crust. I help by plucking the petals off chamomile flowers for herbal tea, then chopping the orange daylilies for the quiches. The edible, plentiful flower has velvety petals and a nice subtle crunch.
As the eggs set, we tour Bread for the City’s rooftop garden. Soon, we are joined by the quiches, delightfully crumbly and tasting of everything we’d found hours before. Though a lot of the individual flavors were masked by eggy goodness, the ornamental kale was strong and earthy; the plum chunks both tart and sweet. I topped my slices with the bitter wood sorrel.
Not only did it turn out delicious, but my stomach never churned as a result.