Urban Foragers Turn City Parks Into Produce Aisles

Urban foragers are taking
Urban foragers are taking

On a bright spring day, Iso Rabins wanders through the brush atop one of San Francisco's highest peaks. "Wild radish over there," says the 29-year-old, pointing to a leafy plant with small purplish flowers. A few steps later, he pauses in front of waist-high plant with silky green fronds. "That's wild fennel. I use it a lot."

This is Rabins's foodie twist on the nature walk. To most of us, his discoveries might look like weeds that we'd readily douse with Roundup (if they were sprouting in our yard). But to this bearded hipster, they are ingredients for his next meal. Actually, make that his next banquet: an eight-course, $75-per-person affair called The Wild Kitchen that showcases all the edibles that can be found in and around America's 12th largest city.

On the menu for a recent dinner was a soup made of wild onion, fiddleheads and heirloom potatoes and desserts including a variation on the French mille feuille -- this one made with flour from milled acorns gathered in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"Once you start to realize that the things you see around you every day are edible, it changes your relationship with nature," says Rabins, a film major who moved to San Francisco from Massachusetts in 2007. "It becomes even more important to protect it when you really understand its real value in producing food."

'People Like the Idea of Eating Snails'

Rabins is considered a pioneer in the growing urban foraging movement. Foraging is an offshoot of the locavore trend that has been sweeping the nation over the past decade. Only instead of eating food from family-owned farms located within a day's drive, urban foragers stay even closer to home, collecting and eating the fruits, vegetables and animals (snails, mostly) that are found growing in the sidewalks, street medians and urban parks just feet from their homes. "People like the idea of eating snails that could be in their backyard," Rabins says. "We actually have the same genus of snails here that are found in Europe."

Those snail-loving foragers aren't just living in picturesque and eco-friendly San Francisco. They can also be found combing the urban landscapes of much grittier metropolises like Chicago and New York. While there are no figures on the number of urban foragers nationally, foraging blogs lately seem to be popping up like the very Morel mushrooms they chronicle. What's more, Stalking The Wild Asparagus, the book by Euell Gibbons long considered the forager's bible since it initially appeared in 1962, was recently updated and reprinted to keep up with the rising demand.

"For me, it's about enjoying the fact that there really is a whole lot of local food that is right under your feet," says Ava Chin, who writes the Urban Forager blog for The New York Times. "I've found the Mexican herb Epazote in a parking lot in Brooklyn. I smashed it up with some avocado and made the best guacamole ever."

Turning Wild Mushroom Gathering Into a Business

For Rabins, a graduate of Emerson College in Boston, the interest in foraging traces back to 2007 during a visit with his father in Humboldt County in Northern California. That's when he got his first taste of wild mushrooms that some family friends had just picked. "I had this moment when I realized 'Wow, someone actually went out and found these,'" he says.

Rabins started helping mushroom foragers in the area sell their fungi to restaurants in the Bay Area -- a fateful move that set him on his unconventional career path. "I decided I didn't want to be waiting tables," he says. "What I wanted to be doing is hanging out in the woods a lot and talking to people about wild food."

Rabins has turned his foraging hobby into an expanding enterprise called ForageSF that, among other things, sells "Community Supported Forage" boxes of wild foods to 25 customers once a month.

For $20 to $80 a month, depending on the box's contents, subscribers to the CSF might get foraged Black Trumpet and Chanterelle mushrooms, chickweed and Miner's Lettuce, huckleberries and blackberries. Rabins works with area fisherman to add locally-caught fish to the mix. "I'm trying to keep the CSF business a small part of what I'm doing as it's an astounding amount of work," he says.

An Underground Market for Home Chefs and Growers

More time is going into The Wild Kitchen dinners, says Rabins, who also leads Wild Food Walks in and around San Francisco several times a month for $30 per person.

But perhaps Rabins's biggest success so far is the SF Underground Market, a venue for area locals to buy food grown and cooked by ordinary citizens. "There are a lot of people who have been making things like jams for years and years, but can't get into a regular farmers market," he says.

The first market day held earlier this year drew just eight vendors and 200 customers, he says. But word spread quickly. By the time the last one was held in April, the event attracted some 70 vendors and 2,000 customers. Labeled a "food rave" because of its warehouse setting, the shoppers could purchase Hawaiian baked goods, salumi, Jewish deli fare and jams from locally foraged fruits, to name a few items. "It was pretty epic," Rabins says.

Chef Dontaye Ball, who peddles his specialty pulled pork at the market, credits Rabins for turning a city already obsessed with chasing the latest culinary trends onto wild edibles. "He's definitely educating people about the fact that 'Oh, there's wild fennel or dandelion greens in my backyard and they're edible," says Ball, who has worked in some of San Francisco's hottest restaurants and runs Good Foods Catering.

The Debate Over Foraging: Safety Versus Taste

Not everyone is gaga over foraged foods. Officials with the San Francisco Department of Public Health warn that eating foods found in the wild can be risky. Some mushrooms are toxic, says Richard Lee, director of the department's Environmental Health Regulatory Program. And then there is the issue of pesticides. "No one knows how much pesticide has been applied to certain spots," he says.

Rabins insists he goes to great lengths to assure his wild foods are safe. "We're really careful about the places where we harvest and about thinking what has gone on in the areas before and what industry may be located nearby," he says. What's more, he says he steers clear of species of mushrooms for which poisonous ones can resemble the edible ones.

Safety concerns like the ones Lee mentions don't easily deter urban foragers.Even while working full-time as a professor of nonfiction and journalism at the College of Staten Island-CUNY, Chin manages to spend two to three hours a week foraging, no matter the season. Last winter, she tapped her first maple tree -- one growing in a neighbor's yard. She boiled the sap down into maple syrup, which she used on pancakes.

Besides blogging for the New York Times, Chin has no plans to make foraging a commercial venture. She is, however, planning a wild foods dinner with chef Louisa Shafia, author of the cookbook Lucid Food. "Some people think this is totally cool," she says. "Others think it's totally whack. They say, 'the next time you come over for dinner, you're not going to bring anything foraged, are you?'"