We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day when fourteen eager food-centric men and women gathered at Bootsie’s Heritage Café in Tomball, Texas. Inspired by local chef Randy Rucker, we met with a purpose - to bring out the gatherer in us. Inherent in humans since the beginning of time, it’s an activity largely lost to us today due to industrialization and a small but very powerful number of corporations that control our food supplies and have in many cases sucked all semblance and nutritional value from our food…if you haven’t seen Food, Inc. yet, do so immediately!
On a positive note, a shift to a local and sustainable culture is gaining momentum with Farmer’s Markets popping up everywhere in the nation. Chef Monica Pope coined it best: eat where your food lives! A sweet vine-ripened tomato grown in your own garden or by a local farmer will be far superior tasting to one that has travelled thousands of miles. Oh yeah, and it’s better for the local economy and the environment. Consider fruit from Chile - it travels some 4,000 to 5,000 miles to get to your grocery store. In many cases it is harvested unripe, coated in wax and treated to retard its ripening…hello green bananas!
A leader in promoting local produce and meat, Randy Rucker talks about the local terroir. Terroir is the French work for “land” originally used by the wine industry to describe the flavors the soil imparts on grape vines and ultimately the wines produced from those grapes. Animals raised for food that eat what the terroir produces taste better. When cooked and accompanied by local vegetables in season, Mother Nature’s ultimate gift for nourishment and healing is gained.
So it is with foraging. Wild, edible plants offer a range of flavors and benefits. It was at one of Randy’s Tenacity dinners last year that I discovered peppery - sour wood sorrel and purslane, which imparted a distinct lemon flavor. Enthusiastic about his vocation, Randy’s vision for his restaurant is that it is “consistently inconsistent”. With an emphasis on the freshest food, Randy and his young crew forage several times a week. He is also training his chefs to not only update the restaurant menu daily, but hourly. He shuns fixed menus, claiming that there is only a short window of time that vegetables, once harvested, are at their peek.
A heartwarming breakfast of house-made venison sausage, soft-boiled eggs, biscuits and gravy prepared us for the brisk but sunny weather outdoors. After a short introduction to the area and perusal of a website by local forager Merriwether, we were confident that we would find many edible native treasures. Our first stop was Burroughs Park, a gorgeous 320-acre enclave offering many amenities, including a beautiful wooded area with winding trails.
David, Kelsey, chef Randy and Chuck examine the terroir.
This Beautyberry cluster lives up to its name. Eaten raw, pickled or made into jelly, beautyberries can also be made into wine.
Edible Lichen must be boiled to neutralize its high acid content.
We also found Bittercress, Chickweed and Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot). Below, Wood Sorrel…found in my front yard the next morning!
Tiny dollarweed can be hard to find but is very pretty on a plate.
Chuck was determined to find sassafras – and he did at the very end of our expedition. The leaves of the sassafras come in three distinct shapes. When dried and ground to a powder, it is know as filé. Added to gumbo at the end of cooking, it enhances the flavors of the stew with its earthiness. The root is used to make tea and root beer.
Our next stop was “the farm”, a large plot with several organic beds and fruit and nut trees. Crops are rotated annually to maintain the soil’s high nutrient levels.
A pea plant
I’m holding the largest and most beautiful bunch of lettuce I have ever seen! In the absence of a grocery bag, I made a pouch of my sweater. I stuffed it with bok choy, borage, kale and green beans! It was a highly fruitful and edifying day!