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Oklahomans forage through fields for wild food

A growing number of Oklahomans, from chefs to residents who appreciate localized cuisine, are foraging for foods in vacant lots and forest areas around the state.
by Graham Lee Brewer Modified: August 3, 2014 at 10:00 pm •  Published: August 3, 2014

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.

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by Graham Lee Brewer
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Graham Lee Brewer began his career as a journalist covering Oklahoma's vibrant music scene in 2006. After working as a public radio reporter for KGOU and then Oklahoma Watch, where he covered areas such as immigration and drug addiction, he went...
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