Urban foragers find wild food within city limits

Even in the city, more and more people are developing a fairly direct relationship with their food these days. Shopping at farmers markets to buy straight from the producer or even growing your own vegetables in a community garden plot has become fairly commonplace. There exist, however, a select few Baltimoreans who forge an even more direct and personal relationship with their fare by foraging-in the city-for wild plants and even wild animals.

Rick Hueston, known as Hue, is a soft-spoken 51-year-old former Army intelligence officer with a rather (literally) wild second life. He helps coordinate the Mid-Atlantic Primitive Skills Group, which focuses on topics like stealth-stalking game with self-made aboriginal weapons or brain-tanning animal hides and sewing them into clothing with a bone needle. Hue is definitely a guy you want to know if the grid ever goes down. (However, if ever invited to dine, you may want to ask what's on the menu, given Hue's belief that rodents make for pretty good eating). He is intimately familiar with the edible flora of his North Baltimore neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Jamey Hueston. Theirs is evidently a well-made match, since Jamey also enjoys strolling the city's alleys, parks, and median strips in search of dinner ingredients.

"Our neighborhood is full of old oaks, and those are great for finding mushrooms like maitake [hen of the woods]," says Hue, who also gathers fruit and nuts from the surprising number of fruit- and nut-bearing trees to be found-if you know where to look, anyway-around town, as well as all kinds of wild, edible plants. He takes a truly gourmet approach to his finds, creating dishes like authentically spiced curry made from chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. He's even given some of his foraged finds like yarrow and mugwort to a brewmaster friend who hopes to experiment with wild brews for eventual production at the Brewer's Art.

Hue's interest in wild foods dates back to when he was 7 years old. By the time he got to the Army, where recruits are taught to identify edible plants during survival training, he already knew more than the instructors. Hue went on to teach himself a great deal more in terms of finding and cooking wild foods because, he explains, "edible does not necessarily mean tasty. It just means that, if you're in a survival situation, you can eat it and it won't kill you." He is very interested in passing on his knowledge to others, be it through teaching primitive skills classes or via his under-construction website, the Primitive Cae (primitivecafe.com), where he hopes to teach followers about foraging and share his recipes.

Given that foraging is an essentially solitary occupation, it is little surprise that Eric Kelly is unacquainted with Hue, his fellow urban forager. The 32-year-old Lutherville native is a self-described "goofball hillbilly who likes to read books" and is essentially self-taught. "I did it backwards, learning one wild edible plant at a time," Kelly says. "It would make a lot more sense to just learn botany first, how to identify species by their growth habit."

His interest in wild foods also began in childhood, when he participated in nature programs at Baltimore County's Oregon Ridge Nature Center, and intensified during a year spent hiking the Appalachian Trail. During his hike, he once challenged himself to eat nothing but what he could find or trap along the trail during a 24-hour period and ended up making a stew from spiderwort plants, daylily tubers, wild onions, and a snapping turtle, all seasoned with a packet of Old Bay.

Eric, who now runs his own one-man gardening and handyman business, strives to make wild foods a regular part of his diet and carries collecting materials-field guides, bags, a knife-everywhere he goes. A recent hike through Double Rock Park, near Parkville, yielded nearly a dozen edible species-pretty amazing, given the barren December landscape. Eric's trained eye picked out dandelion greens and greenbriar, rose hips, sassafras, and even a clutch of puffball mushrooms from the winter-brown woods and fields.

Beyond simply feeding himself, Eric, like Hue, is interested in sharing skills and knowledge. He recently founded Foragers of Baltimore (meetup.com/Foragers-of-Baltimore) to connect with others who might share the foraging bent, or are perhaps at least interested in learning a little more about wild, edible plants. His inspiration came one day last summer, he says, when he pulled up at the Baltimore Food Co-op in Remington and challenged himself to identify 10 plants between his car and the store's front door. "I found 10 plants in fewer than five steps," he reports, "And I thought, Someone ought to teach a class about wild plants here. Then I thought, Hey, I'm someone."

Since then, he's hosted five more foraging meet-ups-where he has been known to encourage self-reliance by requiring even newbie participants to learn, identify, find, and then present an edible plant species to the rest of the group. "Ultimately I'm hoping to rekindle people's sense of stewardship toward the earth," Eric says. "Showing how the earth, you know, feeds us, seems like a direct way to connect people with the responsibility to take better care of it."

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