"This is a treasure hunt!" exclaims a visibly excited Andrew Cebulka, shin deep in frigid water and raking through a mud bank in a creek on Dewees Island. With every clam that emerges as he digs (and they're coming every 30 seconds), his grin gets wider. "I don't care about convenience — this is priceless," he says, holding up a plastic bag full of bivalves like a sack of gold.
Cebulka is a forager. Not the dumpster-diving variety, but the type who gets immense satisfaction out of finding his own food in the wild. He claims to have over 10 spots where he harvests chanterelle mushrooms on James Island (he's not telling), and he's giddy sniffing a jar of blue-staining bolete mushrooms he found growing at the intersection of Calhoun and East Bay streets.
"We're (foragers) keeping a spirit alive that's been lost in the Western world," says Cebulka. "The native cultures knew it, and the moment we got into industrial civilization, we lost it."
While working as a cook at Cypress, Cebulka met a forager who tried to sell them chanterelles. They declined — DHEC doesn't allow foraged food to be served in restaurants — but it opened Cebulka's eyes to the possibility of finding his own foods, rather than forking over cash at the store.
Any concerns about chemicals and pesticides from collecting dandelion greens, betony roots, and mushrooms from urban locations are overshadowed by the benefit of eating live food, according to Cebulka. "If it looks perfect, it's got chemicals on it — that's my assumption," he says. "Every time I eat something that's got preservatives on it, I'm eating a chemical, so I find a balance."
While foraging further afield, Cebulka has nearly stepped on a juvenile copperhead snake in the Francis Marion National Forest and was once stopped by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency while harvesting chanterelles on Johns Island. To experience foraging firsthand, and hopefully without trouble, we arranged to spend a day on Dewees Island, a private and minimal-impact community just north of Isle of Palms.
Almost a decade ago, Larc Lindsey, who was the chef at The Huyler House at Dewees, teamed up with local foodie Marion Sullivan to write the Wild Stuff cookbook, incorporating the island's bounty of foods into menus. Recipes like Yucca Enchiladas with Cactus Pad Salsa and Marinated Palmetto and Cattail Antipasto intrigued us, but Lindsey had long since moved away.
Hominy Grill's Robert Stehling (the 2008 "Best Chef: Southeast" James Beard Award winner) expressed an interest in foraging, having spent a childhood weekend collecting wild foods with the guy who literally wrote the book on the topic, Euell Gibbons of Stalking the Wild Asparagus fame. Stehling offered to translate our foraged ingredients into a meal, so on a chilly January day, we boarded the ferry to Dewees, our list in hand.
Squirrels are on to something when they hide their acorns in the late fall. Winter is not the optimal time to forage. From marsh mallow to muscadine grapes, figs to pecans, the widest range of edibles appears in warmer months. Nonetheless, a few hours of gathering on Dewees earned us a healthy harvest of red bay leaves, clams, periwinkle snails, mussels, prickly pear cactus pads and fruit, sea lettuce, and sea pickles (a small succulent abundant in salt marshes).
An hour after dropping off our muddy bags of goodies at chef Stehling's downtown home, we returned to an impressive spread of courses. Juice strained from the vibrant, purple prickly pear fruit gave a zing to mojitos that rival any available in town (we enjoyed them liberally). Sea lettuce, plucked from a tidal creek, was stewed with periwinkle snails in chicken stock flavored with shallots and garlic. Jasmine flowers and dried chanterelles, provided from Cebulka's stash of early fall harvests, flavored perfectly fluffy, long grain rice. Over it we enjoyed mussels and clams, stewed to excellence in a broth of tomatoes, carrots, onion, and celery. A salad of dollarweed, dandelion greens, clover, and crosnes, the amazingly crunchy and flavorful roots of the betony plant, was harvested almost entirely in Cebulka's backyard. A surprisingly refreshing pine needle tea washed it all down, leaving us comfortably full and amazed at how well we ate with materials gathered from our surroundings.
"The greatest lesson of a forager is to take what you need," says Cebulka, who gathered 15 pounds of chanterelles the day after learning about their existence from the forager at Cypress. When he returned to the same spot months later, he found that he'd wiped out a three-acre plot of the fungus. Today, Cebulka's careful to protect his secret spots and harvest only enough to keep them abundantly producing. He's also quick to point out that many plants and mushrooms have lookalikes, some highly poisonous, so it's important to have an experienced companion or well-researched understanding before collecting wild foods.
On his knees, digging rapidly into the dirt with cupped palms, Cebulka pulls a fat dandelion root from the ground. His eyes light up with excitement. We often treat dandelions and clover as weeds, spraying our yards with chemicals to make them disappear. Instead, we could eat them, reconnecting with the dirt on which we make our home. At least with the right chef at the helm, it's a rather delicious alternative.