Vaughan Spearman and Thomas Hodgin lead the way around the walking path at Hampton Park. It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday, and several other patrons mill about the park, jogging or walking their dogs. To them our little hunting party must look insane. We point and stare at the ground and up into the trees, stopping every so often to nibble on leaves and flower petals. Spearman and Hodgin have come here to forage, using the park to illustrate just how much abundance lies around most of us unnoticed, even in an urban setting. It's an ideal place to see a lot of plants that can be used in the kitchen. But the temperature, while erratic, was consistently cooling down, and only the morning before, Charleston had seen what might be it's only flurry of the year. So in the chilly morning air, I'd approached the forage trip with a heavy heart. How, I'd wondered, are we ever going to find enough edible plants to gather in a damn city park in this kind of weather?
But within the first few seconds of our expedition, Spearman and Hodgin are animatedly hopping in and out of flower beds, always moving carefully so as not to disturb the plants. Within two minutes, we've found pineapple sage, lavender, cabbages, sugar cane, mint, rosemary, oregano, and parsley.
Everything written on foraging includes a disclaimer about being careful while you're foraging, one that tells you not to pop foreign mushrooms into your mouth, or lick poison ivy, or slurp up an oyster that smells suspiciously like motor oil. So, here it is: don't do that. Truly, it is important to be smart about what you're doing because (surprise!) some wild food can make you sick or, less commonly but more unpleasantly, kill you. It's an important warning, but issuing it seems counterproductive. Spearman, a Coastal Regional Stewardship forester and proprietor of Halve Ewe Herd? Farm, says that fear is the thing that inhibits the un-indoctrinated from trying a hand at foraging. But it isn't too hard to un-scare yourself. The best way to start out as a forager is to do a little research at home and plan to take your first trek with someone experienced. Spearman's forage tours are a great way to begin. Learn what you must avoid, and once you're comfortable, go out on your own and taste everything else.
Spearman has been foraging since he could walk. A few years ago, he introduced the practice to Hodgin, a former chef who now works for the Department of Natural Resources. The joy they both have after their finds is contagious. I've suddenly forgotten my worried paranoia and begin tentatively noticing and naming edibles too, feeling the thrill of my own self-reliance.
Is "hunting" for wild food in Hampton Park akin to shooting fish in a barrel? Maybe. Yet foraging is an act that takes on many different definitions. A forager, plain and simple, is any living person who goes out on a search for wild food. Where and how they find it, however, differs in every case. A forage can happen in the lushest of rainforests, and it can happen 10 feet from a skyscraper. There are the hardcore guys like Spearman and Hodgin, who trudge the lesser-traveled forest floors. There are chef-foragers like Jeffrey Stoneberger, who finds and reanimates the parts of plants and other foods that, in their naiveté, no one else will touch. There are oyster and clam foragers like Catherine Moye, who does her wild harvesting by boat. There are scavengers, hunters, rummagers, dumpster divers. There are those that go many miles to gather food, and those that never leave their own backyards. Some foragers do all of the above.
So I still feel like a rugged explorer, even as we step onto the well-mown, manicured lawn of the park. And we are pioneers ... kind of. No one else here is looking at any of these plants with much more than apathy, but we're trying to make a meal of them.
"The trick," Spearman says, "is to be really flexible and work with what you get." He hosts foraging walks and teaches others not only what wild foods look and taste like, but also how to look for them. "You're never going to have the exact same forage twice," he adds. "You get lucky sometimes, sometimes you come up empty."
By the time we're finished, Spearman's small wicker basket is brimming with finds. Delicate fronds of leafy, verdant chickweed are nestled beside rugosa rose hips, the small fruits of the plant that taste like tiny floral apples. Flavorful dollar weeds — a pesky plant that are the bane of many a gardener's existence — sit atop enormous ears of overgrown parsley. Chard spills from the sides, and a few late-season juniper berries, sweet enough to eat off the tree, punctuate the harvest. The cold weather has had a favorable impact on much of our finds. The expert duo says that frost breaks down the less appealing aspects of winter foods, making them tender and sweeter — a definite benefit to tough greens and berries that, in any other season, would be too tart to enjoy.
It's one thing to find food in the wild. But what do you do with it once you've got it?
Chef Stoneberger is quite comfortable with taking what others would usually overlook. Back in the fall, Stoneberger started 2 Nixons, a self-run pop-up ramen restaurant. In an effort to keep costs down for his guests, Stoneberger takes full advantage of foraging.
And to keep his dishes vibrant, he needs the extra wallop of flavor packed in wild foods — flavor that's often diminished in their cultivated brethren. For him it's a work technique, not a glam word. He isn't easy on those that charge high prices just because one component of a dish is foraged. "Most farm-to-table restaurants are full of shit," he says suggesting that often a forage label only applies to the smallest parts of the menu. "Ninety-nine percent of foraged foods in high-end restaurants are used in salads or as garnish."
Whether that's true or not, for Stoneberger, there's no room for frilly garnishes. Instead, he maintains that there is always a list of foods in season, but he has to be consistently inventive to bring each foraged ingredient to its utmost potential. So when Stoneberger finds something in the wild, he doesn't rush back to his kitchen to cook it while it's still fresh. He often turns to ancient, flavorful cooking methods — like brining, pickling, fermenting, and drying — to build up a larder of ingredients he can use in following seasons. He stores his preciously preserved goods in a commissary kitchen at North Charleston's Básico, pulling them as needed.
He also looks for ingredients that, through misinformation, are often neglected. Take his signature seasonal miso soup, for example. Stoneberger makes it with fresh ingredients, many that he forages himself. For his most recent entry, he foraged over-wintered carrots that had stayed in the ground for too long. When carrots aren't harvested, they become wild, making seeds and growing huge. They aren't desirable to most people at this point because they also become tough and woody — not an ideal raw snack. Stoneberger gets excited about them because when he cuts and roasts them, there's twice the surface area of a regular carrot. They get cotton-candy level sweet, but advanced age also lends them heartiness and meatiness. For his tofu, he uses a byproduct coagulant he sources from Bull's Bay Saltworks and he combines soy milk and a broccoli cultivar to form a verdant, silky product. (He also forages the leftover saltwater from Bull's Bay — it's the perfect salinity, he says, for pickling.)
After making a dashi broth he infused with miso, Stoneberger slightly charred the carrots, broccoli, and a wild mustard green called brassicas. The vegetables were added to the soup one at a time so that every component would be perfectly cooked. The soup was garnished with an oil he made from the foraged carrot tops and a drizzle of honey made with wild nasturtium flowers.
Moye pulls up to the dock at Morgan Creek Grill to pick me up and though I practically fall into the skiff we're using for today's forage, she leaps in and out of it like a cat. We ride over to Capers Island during low tide with some of her friends in tow. Moye and her boating partner, MacLean Ridgeway, beach the boat on a tiny strip of muddy coastline. Everywhere you step, clusters of oysters attached to calcified stems shoot up from the mud like exquisite, petrified flowers. Everyone who wants to harvest needs a $10 permit, which can be gotten online and stays good for a year. The group takes up gloves and hammers (or in Ridgeway's case, a crowbar) and begin plucking the clusters from the mud. Then we begin "culling," which in this case is basically the process of using the hammer to gently break off any dead oysters and any small ones that are less than three inches long — the regulation length. When only the larger oysters are left on the stem, they are tossed into a bushel basket. We return the dead shells and small oysters to the bed, important because oysters can't regenerate in mud alone.
Oyster season begins October first and runs through early May. The first oysters of the season can be a bit puny, but they get bigger and juicier as the season goes on. "This is prime time right here!" Moye cries happily over the clinking of hammers.
Moye, a Mt. Pleasant native, started working with mollusks when she returned to South Carolina to take over her deceased uncle's house on Goat Island. She wanted to work on the water, so after a few inquiries, she began working with the now-familiar clam and oyster farmer "Clammer Dave" Belanger, who gave her a boat, a few words of advice, then set her loose to learn the rest on her own. Almost instantly, Moye began running his farm. That was a long time ago; these days, she is a professional photographer and a marijuana harvester, often repeatedly flying coast to coast to work — she helps with legal pot harvests in Oregon, then returns to Charleston to shoot weddings. But in her heart, Moye says she's an island girl, and home is always where she's happiest. She forages now only for herself and friends.
It takes me 20 minutes to break up three clusters. By that time, Moye's hoisting her third bushel over the skiff's side. "A good technique for this kind of gathering," says Moye, "is to stand in one spot and harvest everything that looks ready before moving on to a new area. We can't help but walk on the oyster-flowers, which shatter like sugar glass with each footfall. Ridgeway tells us that while stepping on them may break them apart, we generally aren't doing too much damage to the bed, as long as we keep our interference minimal. Moye's hosting an oyster roast tonight, steaming the findings in the same saltwater they came out of.
We eat a few of those oysters standing right there in the streaming sun with water lapping at our feet. They are perfectly chilled by the cold water, and the oysters taste like how other oysters would taste if they were taking performance-enhancing drugs — supremely briny.
We head over to another inlet to forage clams, which is actually the guiding purpose of our trip, but the tide's coming in fast and the sun's going down. Moye pulls the boat right against the muddy banks and uses a garden rake to pull out slopping, sucking mounds of pluff mud just above where water meets soil. The kind we're searching out are what Moye refers to as chowder clams. These very large clams are too chewy to eat, so Moye pounds them and cuts them up for chowder — hence the term. We won't be eating any chowder today though. Our window of time has closed, and we must return to the docks. Undoubtedly, Moye could have found a plethora of them if we'd had an extra hour, and she apologizes profusely for not delivering clams on this forage. But Spearman's words echo in my head: You work with what you get. Looking around at the baskets teaming with wet, craggy oysters still gleaming in the early sunset, I think we got everything we needed, and more.