Walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn the other day, I heard a rustling in the bushes by the boathouse. A woman with a spade in one hand and a handful of plants with dirt still clinging to their roots was showing her two companions how to identify mugwort. Fascinated, I tried to eavesdrop but my dogs were less interested, though they are avid park foragers themselves and adamant about gulping grass until they puke. This mysterious trait peculiar to dogs no longer surprises me, they are the original freegans, but people eating park plants did. I’ve witnessed people gathering things under trees by the sackful and others fishing critters out of the lake and I wonder every time, do they really eat them? The park is wonderful, 585 acres of woods, carousels and waterfalls, but it sits in the middle of Brooklyn; also wonderful but incongruous to my preconceived notions of food harvesting. Of which I have none, really. Who, other than these people scrabbling around in the park, have any idea where their food actually comes from? I spoke to Brooklyn based author, ethnobotanist and park-plant eater, Leda Meredith who has published two books about local food and foraging. It turns out the freshest, wildest and cheapest food is right at your feet. Even if you live in Brooklyn.
What made you brave enough to eat something from a city park?
I’ve been foraging in city parks since I was four. I grew up in San Francisco across the street from the Golden Gate Park with a Greek great grandmother who was straight off the boat. In Greece, it’s still normal to forage. Everybody does it, even the city people in Athens. Teenagers, old people, they all hit the hills and pick wild edible plants. To my great grandmother it wasn’t foraging, it wasn’t weird, it’s just what you did in the spring.
Until today, I’d never met anyone who could walk into the park and come out with a meal.
A lot of that knowledge is gone. Classic example is World War Two. There were Londoners who, when rationing got really bad, were hitting the parks and the hedgerows to collect greens and blackberries and things. They might have hated having to do that but the point is, they knew how. If the same thing happened here right now, people would starve. There is exciting work being done, to recover that knowledge, preserve it and translate it into contemporary life.
I’ve heard some scary, wild mushroom stories—are those the exception or the rule?
There are very few lethal plants on this continent, however there are a lot of toxic ones that will make you very sick. Knowing your plant identification is the bottom line. You have to be 100% sure of what you’ve got. “If in doubt, leave it out.”
What are your reasons for eating local food?
There’s a whole list—eating local supports the local economy, allows local farms to exist and not have to sell out, and then the food is just so darn good. There’s the fun/scary statistics like, “The average distance from farm to plate in this country is 1500 miles.” In New York, it’s more like 3000 miles because we get so much food from California. That’s gas-burning, fuel-burning miles and that’s a lot of energy being spent.
What are the fun statistics?
I love this one: “If somebody eats just 25% of their food from local sources, they reduce their carbon footprint by more than all their glass, plastic and metal recycling combined. That’s just 25%. So maybe the things on your dinner plate aren’t local but the side salad is—that’s 25%, that’s doable.
Can the local movement help revolutionize food standards?
Take the CSA business model: it pays farmers up-front for a yearly share which gives them income when they need it most—when they have no crops but need to buy seeds, equipment and hire people. That’s usually when farmers cave and take the government subsidy. CSA shares are not as cheap as the super-subsidized government stuff but it’s cheaper than buying organic at the store. There’s no middle-man, no government, you’re getting food straight from the farmer.
What’s wrong with the super-subsidized stuff?
The classic way it works is that the government wants you to grow certain crops, usually soybeans, corn or canola, and they give you a bunch of money to do that. Even if you don’t make money off the sales, you can live on the dole off the government. You have to grow specific varieties that require chemicals that you have to buy from companies that are huge lobbyists in Washington. You get into this whole nasty cycle and you think, ‘What does this have to do with the family farm? How did we get here?’ It’s ugly politics, ugly for the environment, ugly for the farmer and there’s no good food in sight.
What inspired “The Locavore’s Handbook?”
In my first book (Botany, Ballet and Dinner from Scratch: A Memoir with Recipes), I wrote about doing a year-long challenge to eat local food within a 250 mile radius. I had read these great books by people who had done that like Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan. However, Barbara Kingsolver has a farm, Michael Pollan lives in California and they’re best-selling authors. Okay, what about the one bedroom apartment in the city with a crazy work schedule, not a huge budget, in a cold winter place—is that actually doable? And it was, it was totally doable.
What makes it so “doable?”
People think, “Oh my god, New York City, that’s like the desert,” but outside of California, this is probably one of the easiest places in the world to eat local. There are Green Markets year round, CSA’s, the Park Slope Food Coop, restaurants that do local stuff and food awareness. Just the fact that you can walk into a regular supermarket like the Associated up the street and find local apples—they might be sitting right next to the ones from New Zealand but, there’s a sign that tells you that they’re local. It’s not that hard.
Did you feel physically different when you did your year-long local food challenge?
I was eating pretty well before that but, I felt healthier and I had more energy. The nutritional value of the food is so high because it’s fresh, it’s just picked—vitamins start to decline as soon as plants are harvested. And it’s exciting food. It has face on it. When you sit down to a meal, you’re practically salivating with anticipation, not just because it smells good but because of the adventure that came from sourcing it. Did I forage to get this food? Did I go to the green market today? Did I talk to the farmer? How did this get to my plate? After you’ve gone through all that, you’re not going to shovel it in your mouth, you’re going to stop and appreciate it. I really think that’s a healthier way to eat.
Do you eat all food groups within your local diet?
I’m an omnivore but, there should be another word for it—I eat meat but I will absolutely not go near anything that comes from an industrial farm. If that’s all that is available, then I’m a vegan. I will happily go to that extreme until I can get stuff from healthy animals.
Now that you’ve completed your local food challenge, do you still maintain the diet?
I’m at 80%. The mainstays in my diet are local, and then the super, hyper local is the foraging because, you don’t get more local than what’s growing without your help at your feet. I do grant myself non-local treats once in a while but, they’re special occasion foods now. If I want an avocado I’ll have it but, I’m aware of the fuel spent to get it to me from Mexico, probably underpaid labor and a whole slew of other things that go with it. I don’t guilt trip myself but, I stop and think, “How much do I really want an avocado?”
For more information about Leda’s books, recipes, classes and events, go to: http://ledameredith.net/wordpress/