By Ian Karl and Garrett with assistance from Holden,
Photographs by Weston and Dylan
The young men at Passage I spent an afternoon on the Ice Age Trail with best-selling author and national expert on wild edibles, Sam Thayer . The day with Sam was the third in a series of community member interviews Passage I is undertaking, to meet with outdoors experts from our region who are passionate about regional wild foods. Northwest Passage Program Coordinator, Ian Karl, worked with residents, Garrett and Holden, to conduct the interview.
Sam became interested in Wild Edibles at a very young age. He said that he grew up with a lot of siblings and food around the house wasn’t necessarily that abundant and his parents weren’t real interested in cooking. “Eating mostly cereal, I was always hungry and looking for something better to eat.” At four years old he got tired of it and decided to start taking matters in to his own hands. That is where his passion started. As, “necessity is the mother of invention;” the cards we are dealt in our youth, when properly played, can lead to successful careers. This was just the case for Sam. His childhood interests led to a hobby which led to years of research and study and ultimately authoring two of the most successful books on wild edible plants.
A group of our kids from Passage I had the privilege to spend some time with him on a beautiful spring day on the Ice Age Trail near Straight Lake State Park. When choosing our location for our hike I wondered if there would be anything for us to find. Sam later assured me: “I never worry about the location because there is always food in the woods.” As the warblers sang in the treetops and the sun filtered down through the newly emerged leaves, we set off in to the woods and discovered exactly how much food was out there just waiting to be found.
Garrett: How many plants have you investigated or identified?
Sam: Probably around 800
Garrett: What percent of plants out there are edible?
Sam: I’d say, roughly one-third have some edible part at some point in their growth.
Sam then talked with the group about the safety and risks of foraging wild foods. He tells us that in the 40 years he has been alive there have been only two documented cases of plants being misidentified by foragers and causing severe illness. “That seems like a pretty safe hobby to me” he says and takes a bite of wood nettle. Sam then adds that you should never eat a wild plant until you are absolutely certain of its proper identification. “You have to be as confident that you know that wild plant as you would be if you were picking up a banana in the grocery store and knowing it’s a banana…then it is safe to eat that particular plant.”
Garrett: How much, do you rely on wild foods for your diet…do you ever shop in stores?
Sam: I’m not a purist about it. I shop in stores plenty for my family and me. I probably eat about 50/50 store bought and wild foods. . Last year my wife and I harvested 83 gallons of Blueberries, however last year was exceptional blueberry year. When it comes to certain wild foods, though, it’s really important not to overharvest. Many people don’t realize that a small patch of wild leeks for example take many years to grow, but only a minute to dig up.
Garrett: What is your favorite wild plant to eat.
Sam: That’s a really hard question to answer. But I guess I would say, either wood nettle (which we ate today) or black locust blossoms. You can make all sorts of things out of black locust. Each year I make black locust ice cream for my daughter on her birthday…which happens to fall just about the right time for harvesting them.
Garrett: What is a cherished memory you have from your experiences foraging?
Sam: I have so many, it’s really hard to choose just one. But, one time when I was exploring near the south shore of Lake Superior I was walking back to a creek to trout fish. I walked in to an opening and saw over an acre of wild leeks on the ground in front of me. I was amazed.
Garrett: Are you going to pass your passion for wild foods on to your kids?
Sam: I already am. My kids don’t know that foraging in the woods isn’t “normal.” It’s just part of what we do as a family.
Garrett: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not foraging?
Sam: Woodworking, cooking, photography, hunting, and fishing …and looking for snakes (he says with a chuckle, since we had been looking for snakes behind rocks and under logs throughout our hike).
Garret: Is there a recipe that you would like to share with us?
Sam: I like to make soups because it’s ok to make mistakes with your recipes when making a soup. If I get enough leeks today I am going to make a simple soup of Morels, leeks, and wood nettle. I’ll steam the nettles to remove the stingers, then add butter and salt and pepper and cook the other ingredients with it in a vegetable broth.
The day proved to be nothing short of amazing. Our group (myself included) was captivated by the fascinating details that our eyes were opened to on our hike. Many thanks to Sam for his generosity and time. It was a day that will not soon be forgotten.
Sam grew up in in Wausau, WI. He later spent some years on the south shore of Lake Superior where he began writing his first book, Forager’s Harvest. He now lives near Birchwood, WI. More information on Sam Thayer, his books, and workshops can be found at www.foragersharvest.com