How many folks think of food when they see a patch of devil’s club, or a cup of tea when they spot Labrador growing in a boggy marsh? And for that matter, how many even know what they're looking at?
Foraging, a time-honored tradition in Alaska Native cultures, has largely fallen by the wayside of modern life. Even as more folks seek out local foods, most tend towards farmers’ markets, fishing and hunting or gardening. But harvesting wild plants is another, often overlooked, avenue of subsistence.
Jennifer Kehoe, one of the four core members of the Anchorage Food Mosaic Project, sat down recently over a cup of tea to explain her love of foraging and plant identification.
The Anchorage Food Mosaic is a small group of people devoted to “a healthy food system for all Alaskans.” In order to do that “we need to look locally,” Kehoe says. Through their website, Facebook page, and periodic events, the project seeks to use food as a “common denominator” across cultures.
The project was the brainchild of Shannon Kuhn, who teamed up with Kate Powers to help unite the “mosaic” of lifestyles and heritages in Anchorage, all centered around food. Kehoe got involved in the project after her recipe won a competition held jointly by Anchorage Food Mosaic and the Spenard Farmer’s Market. Realizing they had friends in common, Kuhn asked Kehoe and partner Tikaan Galbreath to join the team. With the four members working together, the project took off.
One of the project’s most recent successes, a video put together by American Hipsters, focused on harvesting wild plants in Anchorage. Filming took about 12 hours, Kehoe says, and all that footage was reduced to a six-minute video. The American Hipster team was excited to see the plants they had harvested just a few hours before wind up on their dinner plates.
It is this sort of enthusiasm that may help spark a renaissance of the time-honored practice of foraging in Alaska’s largest city.
For Kehoe, the inspiration to forage comes from history; for thousands of years, people lived off the land. “When I engage in those sorts of practices, it feels right,” she says.
Having grown up in a household in Western Massachusetts that practiced “strictly natural medicine,” Kehoe was used to stepping outside of her doorstep and identifying the plants around her. In the Northeast U.S., however, the focus on local foods rests mainly on small organic farms, so she never foraged for food.
But when she moved to Alaska nearly two years ago, she quickly realized that the wide variety of fruits and vegetables that flourish in southern climates wasn't nearly so wide in Alaska. So she began to study gardening techniques tailored to the region, and turned to foraging.
Foraging for berries is a common activity for many Alaskans, but gathering wild food often stops there. Why isn’t foraging for roots or greens more popular? “It’s not in the American mindset right now,” Kehoe says.
But Alaska flora have plenty to offer hungry foragers. Kehoe lists off the top of her head some plants she has dried or frozen this summer: Yarrow, devil’s club, lambsquarter, nettles, fiddlehead ferns, blueberries, watermelon berries, and cranberries. She also has rose petals and horsetail on hand to use for homemade body care products.
Kehoe and Galbreath will pull out their foraged supplies come winter to use as a “special ingredients to add to the cold, white days.”
In order to forage, Kehoe says, timing is important. "You go out and get something when it’s ready," she says. "I know when I get (devil’s club) in Anchorage, I can go to Girdwood the next week and get them, and then they’re gone."
For would-be foragers, Kehoe recommends books by Janice Schofield. UAA's Natural Heritage Program and UAF’s Cooperative Extension Service also hold a plethora of information for those interested in harvesting wild plants.
People interested in foraging with the Anchorage Food Mosaic can check out the group's website, or its Facebook page, which Kehoe says has turned into a great communication method. “That wasn’t the plan," she says, but the page, which has gotten nearly 1,000 "likes" without any sort of promotional effort, has turned into a "great avenue for engaging people."
Through the online resources, people can send in recipes, stories and photos of foraged meals. And, as more events are planned, Anchorage Food Mosaic will let folks know how they can help.
Contact Laurel Andrews at firstname.lastname@example.org