Standing amongst a knee-high patch of leafy green plants nestled between towering trees, Andon Whitehorn and Colin Stringer each pick a single leaf and study it closely. What is this, one asks the other. Only one way to find out: try a bite.
Whitehorn, 29, and Stringer, 25, both of Oklahoma City, are co-owners and chefs at the burgeoning restaurant Nani, and they are on the hunt for local herbs to incorporate in their cuisine. They are also part of the growing, yet ancient, practice of foraging for food.
“The vast majority of edible things are what most people would consider weeds,” Whitehorn said.
They each spit out the leaves. No good, they said before moving along.
They believe cooking with foraged foods not only allows them to make unique, hyperlocal meals, it makes the meals special on another level.
“When you have context for your food, it means so much more to you,” Whitehorn said. “If you go out and buy a sandwich, it doesn’t mean much.”
“It’s kind of a connection back to the earth,” Stringer adds. “It feels less sterile when we come out here and get our feet dirty and sweat.”
On this particular outing, the duo walk away with coreopsis, often called tickseed, to sweeten their meals, sumac to make tea, sorrel to add a citrusy flavor, and juniper, which they use to smoke foods.
The pair are not alone in their search for foods that grow wild all around them, from empty lots in the city to preserves like the Stinchcomb Wildlife refuge, where they find themselves on this day. Other chefs in Oklahoma have been introducing their diners to foods supplemented with foraged foods in recent years.
Jonathon Stranger, 32, co-founder and chef at Oklahoma City restaurant Ludivine, has been using foraged foods for years. Stranger loves the idea of localizing food, but he said there’s another, equally important reason he forages.
“Flavor. It’s that simple,” Stranger said. “The whole job as a chef is to find the best ingredients and the best flavors for their diners.”
Stranger agrees that foraging brings you back to nature, by both forcing you to stay in tune with seasonal patterns and learning to respect your environment. He and other foragers repeat an unwritten rule: only take 10 percent of what you find.
“Don’t go and just massacre the land and take all you can, because here’s what’s going to happen: The next year it’s not going to be back,” Stranger said. “There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with foraging. Not only knowing what you’re eating and doing, but also the responsibility of taking care of the environment.”
Stranger and the other foragers interviewed for this story also uniformly said safety is the most important rule when foraging. They encourage those interested to not simply try plants by trial and error or read books, but to start slow and find an experienced forager to shadow.
“There are a lot of things that look similar,” Stranger said. “Wild carrots and yarrow look the same, but one is delicious and the other can kill you.”
Passing on the knowledge
Jackie Dill smiles brightly as she brags about the foods made from foraged ingredients donated by participants at this year’s Wildcrafting Festival in Coyle. Dill, a silver-haired Cherokee woman with an infectious laugh, is often referred to as the Oklahoma queen of foraging. She puts on the festival every year to celebrate the art of identifying and utilizing wild herbs for not only food, but also other practical uses such as medicine and soaps.
“Being a wildcrafter takes forever, until your last breath,” Dill said. “You never know it all. It’s something that you’re continually learning.”
Dill was taught how to forage by her grandmother, who she said learned it from her Cherokee ancestors, an art she works hard to spread, in hopes her knowledge will not die with her. Twenty years ago, she asked her grandmother if she should share her knowledge with others who are not part of the tribe.
“She told me now’s the time to teach it, before it’s gone,” Dill said.
Dill has been teaching ever since, to people young and old and from all walks of life.
“I have people from totally opposite (ends of the) spectrum, from religion or not religious, from right or left politics, you name it,” Dill said. “But when they get together and do this, there’s never a word. They love each other. They get along wonderfully. I don’t know, it’s some sort of common bond … the closer you are to this earth, the better you are at being a human being.”
Dill said she pulls the vast majority of her foods and medicines from the very earth around her. She said she has not had the need to see a doctor in years, instead treating herself with natural remedies, such as mullein, which she uses to treat a variety of common ailments.
“They term that as being a bad plant and they need to eradicate it from crops and take it out,” Dill said. “It’s an introduced species. Wildlife areas, they try to pull it up and burn it. To us, it’s like liquid gold.”
Dill recently authored a field guide for foragers, and she is excited to see the growing interest in Oklahoma. Talking to her, it’s easy to hear the pride in her voice when she speaks about passing down what she has learned over the years.
“I have people that come and they walk with me, and after we’re done one of the first things they say is ‘I’ll never be the same again.’ Or they’ll get a hold of me later and say ‘I drove home and almost had a wreck because I couldn’t quit looking at all the plants.’ Or, ‘I can’t walk across the lawn now without thinking what can I eat?’”