American Survival Guide
If self-proclaimed “mushroom guy” Alan Muskat has his way, foraging for food will become a major means of sustenance across the country. Owner of No Taste Like Home, a “slow food” program in Asheville, North Carolina, Muskat provides hands-on education on foraging and the benefits of wild foods in workshops from coast to coast.
“Foraging is a profound alternative to the past 10,000 years of living in and eating out of boxes,” Muskat explains. “Few people realize the wilderness is both a pantry and a pharmacy.” In plain terms, foraging means gathering food from the wild. This can range from collecting greens and insects to flowers and mushrooms. And surprisingly, the practice is a viable means of putting food on the table.
WILD FOOD BENEFITS
“From an early age, we’re taught not to value what’s natural,” Muskat says. “We’re taught that if we didn’t grow it, it’s unsafe. But that can’t be further from the truth.”
Foraging provides a number of benefits, mainly providing healthier food. Biodiverse areas such as Muskat’s Asheville are lush with a wide variety of plants that are free of pesticides and other chemical and genetic modification. The practice is also better for the planet, even during the current “farm-to-table” food boom. “True local food is wild food,” Muskat points out.
But foraging is not an all-or-nothing practice—Muskat encourages people to supplement food from farmers markets or supermarkets with gathered goods. The practice is good for adding variety to a diet and experiencing new flavors, too. “The same plants can taste different each time you eat it,” Muskat says.
Gathering wild foods also lays a foundation for self-sufficiency. Knowing how to survive off the land in times of emergencies can literally be a lifesaver. By practicing foraging and being familiar with the wild plants in a region, people can have a means of food in survival instances as well as a way to supplement freeze dried and canned goods while backpacking and camping.
During his classes, Muskat leads students through active foraging exercises, which are the best way to learn which wild foods are edible in a region. Students are given a set of tools: a basket to keep items from getting crushed during collection, small wax or paper bags, and a “brife,” a knife taped to a small brush. Students can use the brife to clean off mushrooms, nuts and other wild food as well as to trim off bark or stems.
Muskat is huge proponent of classes and other hands-on learning. In fact, his biggest piece of advice is not to buy and follow a book. Most edible foods, especially mushrooms, have a lot of variation within a species. On average, books only have a single page per species, which doesn’t allow a lot of room to illustrate differences.
EXPERIENCE: THE BEST TEACHER
Across the country, there are many edible plants that are highly common in wild areas. Among them are dandelion, mushrooms, plantain, sarsaparilla and wild onion. Experience is the best way to learn about the specific wild foods in a region. Muskat likens learning about various plants to being able to determine cabbage from lettuce—they look very similar in pictures, which is true of many wild plants.
“Relying on books to learn about foraging is a good way to make a mistake,” Muskat explains. “Look at humans—we’re just one species, and there’s a great deal of variation. If we were to treat humans like wild food, who among us would be the single picture for our species?”
When embarking on a foraging trip, a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is to see ten of something before you pick it. Knowing what plants look like in all stages of growth as well as keeping a few tips in mind about when to harvest can also help you identify edible food. Generally speaking, leaves are ideal for gathering in spring and summer, roots are edible in late fall, and winter and fruits are in season in late summer and fall, as are seeds.
And if you’re unsure of what you have and whether it’s edible, ASK. Take pictures of the plant or mushrooms, top and bottom, and send it to a local expert for identification. But even the experts can make a mistake. During a recent class, Muskat even shared a story where he mixed up two different mushrooms, one of which wasn’t easily digestible.
While it’s difficult to tell if some plants and mushrooms are toxic, many have warning signs. These can include a milky sap, thorns, a bitter taste, an “almond” scent, and a three-leaved growth pattern, among other indicators. Some edible foods, such as the dandelion, exhibit some of these characteristics, so experience with the plants in a region is the biggest indicator of what is safe. In survival situations, however, you may have to test unknown plants by sampling a small bite and waiting several hours or even a day or two to see if the item was tolerated.
In addition to staying away from poisonous plants, Muskat also advises avoiding areas where pesticides and other toxins are present. These include roadsides, cemeteries, and railroad tracks. Surprisingly, some national parks and other natural areas use sprays that can coat or be absorbed by plants. Mushrooms, for example, easily absorb toxic heavy metals that are in the surrounding soil.
MYTH BUSTING: POISONOUS ‘SHROOMS
Contrary to popular belief, many wild mushrooms are not, in fact, poisonous, Muskat says. Of the more than 10,000 species of mushroom in North America, fewer than 10 are known to be deadly. Rather than being poisonous, most mushrooms are just poorly digested.
“Mushrooms are made of chitin, like crustaceans,” Muskat explains. “Eaten raw, that is hard for the body to break down, so it’s best to cook mushrooms or ferment them before eating.”
The most deadly wild mushroom is the Amanita, which looks like a stereotypical red toadstool with white flecks on the cap. The mushroom is a known psychoactive and hallucinogenic food, and it also produces an enzyme that is detrimental to the liver and kidneys. Despite this, there are very few recorded deaths attributed to mushroom consumption, even with the Amanita.
With a little bit of practice and guidance from a local expert, foraging and adding edible wild foods to your diet can be an easy task. Not only can foraging help you survive in an emergency, it can be a means of diversifying and supplementing your diet with fresh, truly local foods.
12 EDIBLE WILD MUSHROOMS
Beefsteak Polypore (Fistulina hepatica)
Boletes (Boletus spp)
Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.)
Chicken Mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Hen of the Woods (Grifola frondosa)
Morel (Morchella spp.)
Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
Puffballs (Lycoperdon spp. and Calvatia spp.)
Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus)
Milk Caps (Lactarius)
Honey Mushrooms (Armillaria)
Lobster Mushrooms (Hypomyces lactifluorum)
20 U.S. EDIBLE PLANTS
Wild Onion (Allium bisceptrum)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
Common Plantain (Plantago major)
Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album)
Brambles (Rubus sp.)
Currants and Gooseberries (Ribes sp.)
Blueberries and Cranberries (Vaccinium sp.)
Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Red Clover (Trifolium pretense)
Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata)
Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Violets (Viola sp.)
Common Chicory (Cichorium intybus)
Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
So now that you’ve gathered all those ’shrooms, what do you do with them? Make an easy stew!
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds mushrooms, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 pound red-skinned potatoes cut into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon minced rosemary (if you can find it)
1 tablespoon minced sage (if you can find it)
1 tablespoon minced thyme (if you can find it)
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Heat a large pot over medium-high heat. Swirl in the olive oil, then add the onions and cook until soft and fragrant, about four minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the cremini and shiitake mushrooms. Cook just until the mushrooms begin to give off their liquid, about three minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in potatoes and add herbs; cook for about 30 seconds. Stir in the stock, cover and simmer until the potatoes are soft when pierced with a fork, about 12 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper, and cook for another two minutes to bind the flavors. Note: The stew can be varied with almost any kind of mushroom. Good choices include oyster, lobster, honey, hen of the woods or any combination thereof, as long as you have a total of two pounds.
Talk about comfort food: A hot bowl of this soup would go a long way in making you feel at home in the wild.
½ pound dandelion greens, washed and drained well, roots trimmed, stems chopped small, leaves chopped
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter
2 carrots, diced small
1 small onion, diced
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
½ tablespoon Dijon mustard
Salt and white pepper
Prep the greens. In a large skillet, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add the greens, stir to coat with fat and cook until they begin to soften. Add the stock and continue cooking until greens are cooked but still bright green; remove this mixture and set aside. Melt remaining butter in pan and add carrots and onion; cook until softened.
Stir in the flour, creating a heavy paste. A tablespoon at a time, stir in 1⁄2 cup of the milk, incorporating completely into the paste before adding more. Let cook for two to three minutes. Put the greens and the white sauce into a cone colander and blend until smooth. Return to pan and stir in mustard and remaining milk (or cream); season to taste with salt and pepper, heat and serve.