by Allison Schultz
It was ten a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I was raring to go—hiking boots? Camera? Check. Rather than blissfully slumbering through the early hours of what felt like my first week off in a long time, I was sitting in the tiny gift shop at the Tyler Arboretum in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, eagerly awaiting our tour guide.
Carole Counihan’s Food Activism class teaches anthropological research methods, and explores the concept of activism and its relationship to gastronomy. When I chose to research foraging for wild food as a form of activism, I did not give a second thought to my personal involvement with the subject, but it was on Steve Tessler’s “Critter Hunt” that the significance of my search really began to sink in.
Steve is both a mushroom hunter and wild ramp enthusiast. As I have come to learn, caution and certainty come first in the life of the mushroom forager. Though identifying the unique qualities of various shelving fungi was fun, Steve’s tale of a lip-numbing fungi-induced experience was discouraging. Ramps were what I longed for.
It has amazed me to discover that many varieties of plant life that I play-cooked as a child in Pennsylvania were edible. I could name them, but I was at least one generation removed from a parental unit that would allow me to engage in culinary experiments in the wild. Until that Saturday, that is. Steve explained that wild leeks are one of the first signs of spring, sporting long green leaves in little groups of three that look similar to the leaves of lilies, but smaller. A great debate surrounds wild ramps. What was once a well-kept secret has now been widely publicized, and annual ramps festivals threaten to wipe out the species in many areas. Picking one or two leaves per plant and leaving the bulb intact is a way to avoid wiping them out entirely.
The ramp is not visually spectacular, but once it was pointed out to me, something clicked. I was disappointed to discover that most of my fellow hikers were hesitant to taste a fresh ramp. I made up for this by being overeager, and surprised myself when my first cautious bite was followed by glee that I could barely contain. The pungent oniony, peppery taste was fresh and green, and it stayed with me for the remainder of the walk. Steve told us that he believes Mother Nature lifts the veil only for those who are ready for the experience, and it was as if this suddenly happened for me. From that moment on, armed with the knowledge of a visual ID of the plant confirmed by an expert, little clusters of ramps appeared everywhere. And I wanted more.
Sadly, though I scoured Ridley Creek State Park (where foraging is allowed,) the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College (where it is not), and my mom’s backyard throughout the remainder of my visit, I didn’t find any more ramps. But that first taste will always stay with me. Steve’s nature walk may not have taught me specifically about foraging and activism, but it revealed to me what it means to be a forager.
Allison Schultz is a native of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. She spent the past couple of years between college and grad school living and working in Philadelphia. She now lives in Cambridge and works at Clover Food Lab.