Written by Stephan Pruitt and Stu Helm
Illustration by Stu Helm
Photos & Photo Captions by Stephan Pruitt (unless otherwise indicated)
To see even more photos from this trip, check out Stephan’s version of this post on his Blog.
I recently took a trip out to God-knows-where, and foraged around in wood and field for weird stuff to eat. If this sounds a lot to you like something that I normally WOULDN’T do, you’re absolutely right. Waaaaaay outside my dang comfort zone, Yo. So how’d that come together? How’d it pan out? Did I live to tell the tale? Below is the story that I wrote in collaboration with my buddy Stephan Pruitt from Dig Local. Let’s start with Stephan…
If anyone hasn’t noticed yet, my job with Dig Local Asheville leads me upon some very interesting local businesses. About a year ago, I met with one that would have to land at the top ten “Most memorable business models that I’ve ran across”. The man was Alan Muskat, and the concept was taking people into the woods and showing them how to identify edible, wild food and provide for themselves. I grew up bumbling around the woods of Barnardsville, right outside of Asheville, and I have always been a very outdoorsy person, so from a young age have (unprofessionally) foraged for several plants in the never ending coves of our Blue Ridge mountains. Another thing you might have noticed from my previous entries is that I really, really, like eating. I’ve ruined relationships because of how much food that I can put away. So when Rebekah, the marketing person for No Taste Like Home, invited me to come along on a tour I was obviously not going to turn down an opportunity to:
Sometimes we all just need to stick a leaf in our mouth and shut up anyway, and hope it’s not the kind of leaf that makes you go to the hospital.
Something, however, was missing. I’m already an outdoors person so I wanted to make the blog a little more interesting, something to spice it up, just one more element…like bringing along Asheville’s most notorious Food Critic and loudest proclaimer of all things he hates and loves: Stu Helm. One of the best reasons is that he has openly exclaimed on several occasions that he doesn’t really enjoy the outdoors, but since he enjoys food, then why not? If he can enjoy it, then truly anyone can.
Jokes aside, Stu writes some really great stuff. From the first restaurant roasting article that I read from him, I loved that he grills the restaurants that aren’t on their “A” game and so vividly praises the ones that are. For the most part, we are all kept in check with our jobs, and personally I don’t trust a bunch of random people on yelp as much as I do a seasoned eating professional like Stu. We have been working together on several things lately so I figured this would be a good chance to really do a great collaboration blog. I could sense the hesitation when I invited him; however my job is in sales, so I made sure I hit on the key points to close the deal. I used phrases like “Rhubarb”, “Free food”, and “I promise we won’t die.” Sure enough, I got him to agree, and after much less convincing I got our wonderful owner here at Dig Local, Flori, along for the ride too.
When Stephan and Flori from Dig Local Asheville and Food Connection invited me along for a foraging adventure with them and a tour company called No Taste Like Home, my first thought was “This sounds like a job for Jonathan Ammons.”
Y’see, Jonathan “J-Dawg” Ammons is a local food writer who likes adventures. He enjoys going places. Doing things. I could totally see him foraging through rotten leaves and bear turds for fiddle-head ferns, and hopefully non-deadly mushrooms, but me? Naw. I’ll stick to adventuring downtown, where I can sit at a table, and forage through a menu.
Honestly, looking for edible weeds and grubs and various what-not in the forest sounds like something that Doomsday Preppers do, and also, a great way to get a sunburn, poison ivy, mosquito bites, ticks, fleas… lost… eaten by bears. Any number of horrible fates could result. Did you see that movie where the guy fell into a crevasse and his arm got stuck and he had to cut it off with a Swiss army knife?!? I’m pretty sure he was foraging.
Anyhoo… The day came to go foraging with Stephan and Flori, and I wished I had said “no thanks,” but when Stephan said “yes!” to stopping at PennyCup for coffee, and Flori showed-up with three cheddar biscuits, “just in case,” I knew I was in good company with these two. They wouldn’t leave me alone in the wild, fighting with wolverines for an acorn to chew on before I die… from bee stings… and red ants… snakes!
So why did I agree to go? They promised me a meal at Rhubarb afterward. Yeah, Man. My motto: “Feed Me.”
Actually, the whole thing was pretty dang pleasant and I didn’t encounter anything more dangerous than a tree stump… that I bumped into… and got a huge bruise on my knee… true story… Anyhoodles, We showed up late, with our city-slicker biscuits, but tour guide / forage master Roger was super mellow, and wasn’t even mad at us. He immediately started telling us what the heck we could eat from all the weeds and such growing out of the dirt all around us….
Inevitably, when you combine a marketing guy, a writer, and a business owner, there will be vast amounts of lateness, so after Stu and I got distracted by much needed coffee at Pennycup Coffee before realizing that Flori was waiting on us, we shot over to meet up with her. In the YMCA parking lot I was so excited that Flori bought us City Bakery Biscuits/panicking about being late I started driving off when Stu only had one leg in the back seat of my car. This worked out great because then Stu realized he should be far more worried about my driving record than anything living in the forest.
Sure enough, we were some of the last ones to show up. My plan for the whole day was to play photographer so all of you at home could have plenty of pretty pictures and a nice visual experience along with the written portion of the blog, and the trade off is that like most other things in my life, my attention span prevented me from remembering a lot of the specifics of the trip. Most of which would be the names of the plants that we were eating, but I will do my best to remember what I can, even though there were a lot more edible plants than I even imagined within walking distance. We then gathered our little foraging baskets and got to listening to Sensei Roger, Master and Tamer of All Plants. Seriously, he kind of knows everything about wild plants. He went over his background, which seemed to span back at least thirty years of foraging. He then said that he could guarantee us that there was several plants within ten feet of us that we could eat, in which moment I promptly scanned the grass for anything that looked like I would enjoy eating, to no avail. I was about to be in for a big surprise though…
I started yanking stuff out of the ground and chewing on whatever Roger told us we could chew on. I found most of it to be pretty dang good, but to my surprise, Stephan — who grew up around here, so I naturally assumed he would be used to eating things like knotweed pie — seemed less impressed with the flavors than me. I couldn’t get a read on Flori. She just seemed to be having fun. I also foraged into my hoodie pocket, found, and ate my cheddar biscuit.
Well, I did grow up in the sticks, and as a kid I ate a lot of plants I probably shouldn’t have. This inevitably made me a little gun shy on just throwing a bunch of green stuff in my mouth, but I was pleasantly surprised when the first plant that Roger suggested I eat straight out of the ground was, well, so edible. It was bitter, strong, but still nothing like eating a plain ol’ blade of grass. I can’t remember what the first one was called, but I believe it was an ancestor to the modern day “mustard green”. We then found a plant that I enjoyed far more, and it was the “oxy-eye” daisy. This one tasted like straight up lemon grass! This was the part of the trip where I really let my guard down and realized that this stuff growing all around us could legitimately be used in every day meals. I only wish that about five years ago when my college bank account was consistently in the negative numbers that I would have known that I could walk outside and eat instead of digging through the couch for change so that I could eat Ingles brand canned ravioli and drink High Life 40’s, a meal that has the nutritional equivalent of a vacation at Chernobyl.
While Flori and Stu dug through just about everything growing, I intently avoided whatever we thought was poison ivy and proceeded to pick whatever my heart desired while I snapped as many pictures as one can while eating a cheddar biscuit.
Multi-tasking with food is actually one of my most endorsed skills on Linkedin.
When the group had went around and foraged for a while, Roger called us back to the middle of the field, where we laid down a blanket and went through all the plants our group had gathered and sorted what could and couldn’t be eaten. It was really interesting to see all the different things that the group had gathered just within a hundred yards of each other, and once we had sorted everything out we headed out for the next part of the tour, where we went into the woods and out of the field with the beavers and the bears.
When it comes to mother nature, I prefer the cool, closed, dappled embrace of the forest to an open field, where the blazing hot sunshine has unfettered access to my last nerve, so I was glad when scout-master Roger took us into the woods. I wandered off by myself, picking some green stuff along the way, but mostly hoping I could stumble into the secret entrance to a magical world of fairies, dragons, and elves. Instead I found some ferns, a couple beer cans, and a pleasant little river, with evidence of real live beavers! Cool! I closed my eyes and wished I that would become one of them, to live out the rest of my days chewing on trees, building dams, and giving the finger to society. When I opened my eyes, no luck, I was still me, so I foraged a little more, then rejoined the group, where Stephan and Flori were already laying out their finds on the white blanket.
I tend to be a pretty competitive person, I’m one of those people that will compete with really stupid things in the name of entertainment. So when Roger said it wasn’t looking good for finding mushrooms because of the dry weather that we had been experiencing, my first thought was to walk a lot faster and further in our twenty minutes to find whatever mushrooms were hiding out. This inevitably lead me off the path and all the way to the top of the ridge looking for whatever mushroom fungi-thingy thing I could find. I barreled through a laurel and brier forest like that ridiculous Grizzly from the 70’s horror movie, but instead of chasing helpless hikers I was after elusive fungi. I was ecstatic when I came across a couple white mushrooms towards the top of the ridge, and barreled back down the mountain hoping that the group hadn’t left me behind to fend for myself, because I wasn’t trained nearly enough for that yet. My excitement would soon turn mediocre when I showed my prized mushrooms to Roger and he said they had been dead for a while, like, a really good while. I guess I should have guessed that they weren’t in ideal condition when their consistency was that of titanium. We did have a really eclectic collection of plants that the group had gathered by this point of the trip and after having some pretty awesome natural tea that Roger had brewed from wild plants, we gathered up our plants in baskets and headed back to Asheville with our finds to have it cooked up proper from the chefs at Rhubarb.
The one thing that we didn’t find in the woods was a coffee substitute, so I was thrilled that I still had half a cup waiting on me in the car. The day I can find wild caffeine is the day you will be seeing a lot less of Stephan.
Despite my grumblings and discontent, I had a really fun time on this foraging field trip, and truly enjoyed learning cool stuff about eating weird plants from good ol’ Roger and the other folks on the tour. Good times for sure, and just about right when I was feeling like I couldn’t frickin’ wait to go back to Asheville, we went back to Asheville! Then came the cherry on the sundae, and the real reason I agreed to go on a foraging tour: Big City Chefs cooked our weeds, and leaves, and wildflowers, and served ’em up, YUM! Holy moly. Now, this is what living is all about. The chefs at Rhubarb out-did theyselves, combining my fistful of foraged fronds with actual ingredients, like meat, eggs, and flour… y’know: Food. Ha ha! I kid I kid, the foraged food was food too, and tasted awesome in combo with the ingredients provided by Rhubarb. All three of us ate to our hearts content, and I was very full by the end of the meal. It was de-effing-licious, and just in case you’re wondering, the meal at Rhubarb was included in the cost of the field trip. Please tip your servers.
I was under the impression that the cooks at Rhubarb were going to take all our wild food, throw it in a big ol’ pot, and serve us some kind of green stew that I would smile and pretend to enjoy while eating beef jerkey under the table. Well, I was very wrong. They cooked our findings into some wonderful dishes, such as sweet potatoes and beef belly, a beautiful salad, and even a cornbread and egg combination with some of our findings on top. I will let the pictures do the talking, but in complete, 100% honesty, it was one of the best meals I’ve had in Asheville. Overall, this experience went above and beyond what I expected, and I suggest that you take the time to get this trip on your agenda. It’s truly a one in a kind experience and about as Appalachian/local as you can get. And just think about the possibilities that are growing out in your backyard, FOR FREE!! Talk about sustainability. Big thanks to No Taste Like Home and Rhubarb for taking Stu, Flori, and I out and introducing us to the world of wild food foraging. Keep up with their going-on’s here on Dig Local. I made a little collage going through the whole food preparation process, big thanks to the crew at Rhubarb for doing what they do so well, and Chef/Owner John Fleer coming out and saying hello to us! Make sure you go eat at Rhubarb whenever you can, you will not be disappointed.
I have to admit, I enjoyed this town-and-country day trip tremendously, and I’m glad I didn’t fob it off on ol’ J-Dawg Ammons after all. I’m super grateful to Flori, and Stephan, and Roger, and the chefs at Rhubarb for providing such an incredibly unique and — for me at least — once-in-a-lifetime experience. I may never choose to forage for food again, but if I end up having to do so in order to survive one day… like after the collapse of society… now I know that it’s possible. More importantly, I’ll do whatever it takes to get into the same post-apocalyptic tribe as Roger, and the kitchen crew from Rhubarb.
I was happy to let Stephan take most of the pictures on this field trip, because he’s a pro-photographer with a fancy camera, but I did manage to take a few pictures, including some of the food and folks at Rhubarb, which you can see full-sized on my FaceBook page.
Flori was smart, and asked the chefs at Rhubarb to write down what they made for us, and I wrote to No Taste Like Home and they provided me with some of Roger’s recipes. I would really recommend this foraging and feasting tour to just about anyone. It was fun, informative, relatively healthy, and tasted great!
1 pound asparagus, trimmed and washed, coated in olive oil
1 dozen morels chopped finely
2 wild ramps (or 2 cloves garlic chopped)
2 tbsp. butter or olive oil
2 tbsp. heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
Sauteé morels in butter with chopped ramps (or garlic) for several minutes. Add heavy cream, salt, pepper and cook until thickened slightly. Set sauce aside.
Grill asparagus spears until tender and pour more sauce over them!
4 cups packed chickweed
4 cups wild violet leaves, or lamb’s quarters or (about 6oz) mix in any proportions
A few dandelion greens and or/young yellow dock
15 wild garlic scapes (about 3 ounces)
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup nuts, finely chopped (pine nuts or walnuts are favorites)
1 cup parmesan cheese /have also used romano
juice of half a lemon, optional
salt as needed
Blend nuts in food processor. You can also use a mortar and pestle-much more work but does a good job! Remove to a bowl. Add all ingredients and blend until pureed. Adjust seasoning as desired, adding more cheese or garlic or lemon juice or salt. This is a mild pesto, the spiciness will depend on the mustard greens, scapes or other spicy wild herbs. Serve with thinly sliced Jerusalem artichokes, whole grain crackers, freshly baked bread or use in pasta or as a condiment to a milder soup. This freezes well and is a great way to store fresh wild greens for later use. A favored tradition is to serve on crackers with a violet flower on top or any other edible flower…
Gather about 10 large, red sumac flower clusters. It is best to make sure it has not rained for several days as the oils are more concentrated Bring a 2 quart pot of water to a boil-turn off. Drop sumac berries into pot and add either honey or maple syrup to taste-outstanding lemonade like tea
Total Time: 20
Yield: 8 servings
You can substitute rhubarb for knotweed, but use the knotweed if you can find it — you’ll be richly rewarded.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. In a medium bowl, toss together strawberries, knotweed, sugar, and cornstarch. Prepare pastry for the bottom of the pie; arrange in pie plate. Pour filling into shell and dot with butter. Slice remaining pastry into 3/4-inch strips and lay over pie in a lattice pattern. Brush crust with egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until filling is soft and bubbling and crust is nicely browned (if necessary, cover pie edges with aluminum foil for the final 20 minutes to prevent over-browning). Serve warm with ice cream.
— END —
Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.
Sweet Baby Jeebus……..I thought we’d seen the last of Stu “Will Eat Free Food for a Great Review” Helm. Please oh please retire him – he has certainly surpassed his 15 minutes.
I never realized how short you are.