The signs weren’t good, but I remained hopeful.
The newly risen sun’s rays were piercing between the trees nearly horizontally, offering an appearance of warmth this mid-March morning, but it was still so cold my breath left me in gusty wooshes of steam. As I strode along the still-frozen ground of the trail, my hiking boots elicited gentle crunches from the crystallized dirt, sounding like they were chewing mouthfuls of granola. Could ramps really be coming up in conditions that felt more like the end of winter rather than the beginning of spring?
My fingers were crossed. A year earlier on the same date, I harvested the wild onions in abundance here in Northern Virginia. They should be up.
Then one of my foraging companions, Jonathan Till, pointed to the merest hint of greenery sprouting through the crackly cover of dead leaves carpeting the forest floor.
“They’re up, but they’re still little.”
My hope slipped out with my next exhale. Rushing to get out the door that morning; the hour-long drive; putting up with the cold; all that for no ramps. But that is the deal you make when you are a forager. Sometimes you come home with a bounty; many times you return empty-handed. No matter what, you are always rewarded with good exercise, fresh air and the calming power of the woods. I comforted myself with that thought as we headed back to our cars.
“Give them a week or so,” Till reassured me as we parted ways. “They’ll be up.”
As I started my long drive home, I began thinking how I ended up in the woods that morning. My journey took a looping, meandering route, beginning as a young boy when I didn’t even know the word foraging, much less what it meant. We lived on an untamed 200-acre spread in the western reaches of New York. My younger sister and I would grab our blue enamel pails to pick raspberries from unruly tangles of brambles. We’d eat them scattered over vanilla ice cream or underneath dollops of freshly whipped cream.
When my grandmother visited, we gathered young, tender dandelion greens and she would toss them with sweet-sour Pennsylvania Dutch bacon dressing. As the spring thaw set in, I would head into the woods with my father to collect sap from the towering sugar maples that proliferated our property. In the smoky, steamy wooden shack by our garage, he boiled it down to make rich syrup we wantonly poured over pancakes and into our milk when our mother wasn’t looking.
The mythology of foraging continued to seep in through the books I most loved growing up. They were stories of survival, like “The Swiss Family Robinson,” “Robinson Crusoe” and Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” which follows a boy who runs away from home to live off the land in the Catskill Mountains. The idea you could sustain yourself solely with food gathered in the wild was a powerful one, and it stayed with me — though more as an abstract idea, rather than something I would pursue — unless I found myself shipwrecked on a deserted island or stranded in the woods.
As I grew into adulthood, foraging faded from my life, except for the occasional handful of wild berries picked on a hike.
That changed over a decade ago when I began writing about food as a full-time job, which coincided with the rise of foraged ingredients showing up at some of the most celebrated restaurants in the world. Foraging with a chef seemed like a great story, so I spent an afternoon looking for morel mushrooms with Patrick O’Connell, chef-proprietor of the renowned Inn at Little Washington. It was like being a kid on an Easter egg hunt. Each time we spotted one of the distinctive honeycombed caps, I felt a zing of electric joy, a shiver of excitement.
From that moment on, I was hooked.
There was one problem: Between parenthood and work, I didn’t have much time to devote to my new interest. To learn what I could — albeit in piecemeal, slapdash fashion — I reported foraging stories whenever I could.
There was a trek through Vancouver Island’s backwoods on the hunt for chanterelles with Ian Riddick, a gentle bear of a chef with a keen eye for the golden hued mushrooms. Another jaunt took me through Northern Virginia with Jonathan Till, then the chef of Evening Star Café in Alexandria.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that walk in the woods was pivotal in my foraging journey.
With the onset of the pandemic, my writing work dried up in a bone-chilling instant. There was one upside: I suddenly had an excess of time. A month after the shutdown began, I was taking my young son for a hike when I spotted what I was sure was a morel. I posted a picture online, where my instinct was confirmed by several knowledgeable foragers. I was elated.
That single find gave me the confidence to begin hunting morels on my own. Sometimes I’d bring my son along, luring them with bribes like, “Find 10 morels and I’ll buy you a Lego set,” an offer I learned to regret as I quickly realized just how sharp their eyes were.
I reconnected with Till, who became my foraging sensei, teaching me how to identify half a dozen mushrooms and other wild edibles like garlic mustard, wineberries and ramps. He had an uncanny eye for not only spotting stuff when we were out on rambles, but also knowing when things would start popping up — which is why I found myself back in Northern Virginia a little more than a week after our first failed expedition for ramps this spring.
As we headed into the woods on the same trail, my heart sank. All the signs pointed to another failure: It was see-your-breath cold, the ground was hard and I spotted a patch of infant ramps no higher than the week before.
But then we veered off the trail and came over a rise. Spread out before us for almost as far as the eye could see were ramps, their green leaves the perfect height for harvesting. I felt a zing of electric joy, a shiver of excitement. Jackpot!
I pulled out my knife and a mesh bag and began working.
Get a taste of the wild side. These backwoods edibles are listed in the first month they are usually ready to harvest, though most will be available for two months or longer. Remember noobs: Go out with a knowledgeable forager and never eat anything that hasn’t been verified by an expert.
March // April
Chicken of the woods
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