Grazing in “Nature’s Secret Garden” With Kids
A treasure hunt for wild foods can lead to great adventures
Langdon Cook’s kids, Riley and Ruby, have gone clam digging and mushroom hunting for dinner.
Photo: Joshua Huston
From a kid’s perspective, foraging for wild food is super cool. There’s the element of self-reliance in the vein of The Boxcar Children or Swiss Family Robinson, combined with the excitement of an outdoor treasure hunt. And there’s the novelty of eating random stuff that you just find, food that’s not shrink-wrapped from the grocery store.
“Some of the food might seem alien, but many kids are intrigued by finding a weird mushroom in the woods, or pulling a strange crustacean from under a tide-pool rock and having it for dinner,” says Langdon Cook, a Seattle-based author, lecturer and expert on hunting for wild edibles.
“I am a big proponent of getting kids outside foraging,” says Cook, who has a 15-year-old son, Riley, and 10-year-old daughter, Ruby. “It’s an easy way for kids to be introduced to nature and outdoors and adventure.”
Cook teaches foraging classes open to adults and kids that are held around the region, including the Eastside’s Tiger Mountain State Forest, Seward Park in southeast Seattle and Hood Canal.
We caught Cook between foraging forays and asked him a few questions about his unique approach to very local eating, harvesting what he calls “nature’s secret garden.”
What can you forage in the Northwest?
“It’s seasonal, so it’s constantly changing. And because it’s so temperate here, we can forage every month of the year.” Early spring is a great time for wild greens, including stinging nettles. “That is one of my backbones of my spring foraging.”
The nettles need to be picked wearing gloves; then, you blanch them for 10 seconds in boiling water and they lose their sting. The jagged-edged leaves contain lots of protein and “more nutrients than practically any vegetable you can grow in our garden.” The flavor is hard to describe. “Imagine a wild spinach.”
Moving through the rest of the year, summer is for picking berries, fall is for harvesting mushrooms, and winter is great for shellfish, which spawn in the warm-water months and are larding on flavorful fat in the winter.
Will your kids eat these unusual foods?
“My kids have gone through a lot of phases with wild foods. What they’ll eat depends on where they are with their rebelliousness.
“When they were young, they used to go with me everywhere,” harvesting morel and chanterelle mushrooms, digging clams and collecting oysters. His son currently is in a phase of eating just white foods like bread, rice and potatoes. “When he was younger he’d eat geoduck.” His daughter remains a bolder diner. “She’s much more adventurous than my boy.”
Both kids love morel mushrooms in pasta and will request it for dinner, but Cook misses the days gone by when nettles or odd shellfish were readily accepted. “We’re assuming it will come back.”
What happens if kids go rogue in their foraging?
“The golden rule is that you never, ever eat anything from the wild without 100 percent certainty of its identification. You can’t go grazing your way the through the forest. That said, there aren’t that many deadly foods out there.”
In our area, there are a couple of different mushrooms that can kill you, and there are some wild greens, including poison hemlock — “Socrates’ cocktail” — that could be confused for wild carrot or wild parsley. There are loads of edible berries, and the dangerous ones are more likely to cause a tummy ache than death.
The best way to know which foods are safe is by taking a class and learning to identify the plants and fungi in the wild, where you can see where and how they grow. “I discourage against iPhone identification. I tell people it’s fine to have a library of identification guides, but the photos don’t tell the whole story.”
It’s daunting at the start, but once you begin to immerse yourself it’s not so difficult: “Kids are naturally drawn to this sort of learning, and they’re quick studies out in the woods. They’re closer to the ground and will see things we don’t see. Kids make great foragers.”
Is this approach to eating really environmentally friendly?
“If everybody in Seattle went to Long Beach next week for razor clams, that would be kind of a mess, but that’s not going to happen. A lot of these foods can take a fair amount of harvesting pressure, especially the weeds.”
That includes nettles, watercress, dandelion, bittercress and lamb’s quarters. “A lot of the weeds I’m pulling I can put in a salad. I encourage people to eat the weeds.” That said, it’s technically illegal to forage in Seattle parks, and while nobody will hassle you for picking blackberries, some foragers have run into trouble collecting nettles, despite the fact that the city lists them as a noxious weed.
“In terms of sustainability, foraging is a great, low-impact way to get out into nature and the outdoors, and learn about our habitat and landscape. In terms of kids, it’s a great way to encourage the next generation’s stewards of the land, air, water. I really do think foraging is a great way to develop that environmental ethic.
“There are concerns about overharvesting certain species, particularly as you go higher up the food chain, with salmon and things like that, but that’s why we have our state Fish and Wildlife Department creating regulations and all of that.
“Getting out and harvesting wild foods is a great way to enjoy the environment and learn about it.”
Find Langdon Cook’s books, blog, recipes and upcoming classes and lectures at langdoncook.com