Planning ahead for the menu is tricky because availability of certain plant species is unpredictable, Cowley said.
“I can plan a little bit, but the weather makes certain things available and other things not — so that’s why I try to forage as close to the day as possible to keep things fresh,” he said. “There’ll be some odds and ends in there that people won’t expect and will enable us to have an interesting conversation.”
As with “regular” foods, the flavor of wild plants depends on cooking methods and recipes.
“When it comes to wild edibles, it’s like any other ingredient — it depends on how you prepare it,” he said. “I’m interested in eating things raw mostly — but for a dinner like this, you have some opportunity to prepare things differently and it depends on how the chef wants to use it.”
The forest offers many edible plants, but not all are palatable, Cowley said, as he pointed to a striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata).
“Something that’s important to know in the field of foraging is that there are many edibles out there but they don’t all taste great — sometimes we just refer to them as survival food, last-resort food,” he said. “This is one of them — it’s not particularly tasty but it is edible if necessary and it does have some medicinal properties.”
However, the availability of the plant is only one consideration in foraging — there are other factors that play into whether to harvest or not.
“Part of what I study is the ethics and sustainability of foraging and we want to make sure that we’re not over-harvesting and we want to understand relationships between plants and the environment,” he said. “So in this particular case, I just happen to know that in a lot of areas in New England this striped wintergreen is actually hard to find, and in some states it’s considered a threatened species — so let it grow, let it be.”
The “one-third” rule helps foragers decide how much to harvest, depending on the location, he said.
“One third of what you see is sustainable to harvest — but you also want to keep in mind there may be other people harvesting,” he said. “That philosophy holds true in your own backyard, but if you’re out on some other property where people have been foraging, you want to be mindful.”
Cowley said he learned the art of foraging from his grandfather, who mostly focused on mushrooming. In the last 10 years, he started to delve more deeply into the field to diversify his knowledge, and established the New-Native Foundation in 2012. The foundation’s purpose is to bring together educators of the American system of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, which is a multigenerational, cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief “that addresses the relationship of humans with one another and their environment.”
The fundraising dinner is a safe environment to introduce people to wild foods that are outside of their everyday experiences, which can lead to a deeper connection to nature, Cowley said.
“Consuming something directly from nature is a philosophical lesson — you’ve stepped out of your normal life into an environment where we are more naturally fearful and we’re taking a risk to experience the ingestion of something from nature and that’s a very powerful thing. It’s visceral,” he said. “I love the idea of bringing that to people in the fundraiser setting, where we can talk about nature and edible experiences within a space that people feel safe.”
With a maximum of 50 people to feed at the dinner, Cowley said he’ll need a large quantity of plants, and many will be weeds.
“Mostly what I’ll be foraging will be greens,” he said. “That’s what great about weeds — they just keep on growing, and depending what it is you’re working with, they can be plentiful.”
For more information about Foraged of The Earth, go to www.westerlylandtrust.org or call 401-315-2610.