#4: Foraging for the Future
Lessons from a year of staying local and a recipe for stretching seasonal flavors
Hey readers, welcome back to Lunch Rush, the official newsletter of Lunch Group, introducing you to some incredible folks reimagining equitable futures for F&B. For those who’ve just joined our table, the projects we discuss examine issues of identity, accessibility, and social impact, while drawing on the ancestral heritage, creativity, and community inherent to the processes of preparing and sharing food and drink. Before we dive in, we want to acknowledge the weight of the news this past week, and extend a message of solidarity to the Asian American community; we’re especially grateful to the Asian American Feminist Collective for compiling a list of organizations supporting the AAPI and sex worker communities in Atlanta and beyond.
Depending on where you are in the world, you may be coming up on the anniversary of a monumental shift in the collective mood. The changes brought about by the pandemic have forced us to reckon with many of the fundamental (and frequently f**ked up) norms of the restaurant industry, as well as reconceptualize the very meaning of hospitality, hopefully for the better. We’re excited to see increasing public interest and media coverage of holistic food systems, foregrounding the fact that whatever ends up on our plates is never merely the brainchild of one “genius” chef. At Lunch Rush, we’re seizing this opportunity to zoom out and consider F&B in a broader sense, thinking about not only the places where food and beverage are served, but also the folks who supply that fare. We’re grateful for outlets like Civil Eats and The Counter that tell the stories of farmers and suppliers, as well as critics like Alicia Kennedy who interrogate the complications of ethical sourcing. Sustainability begins at the source, and we hope that approaching matters from this expanded perspective can lead us to meaningful insights about the value of the local and informed, ethical consumption.
At the same time, here in the northern hemisphere we’ve just experienced the spring equinox, a reminder of the cyclical nature of time and an annual moment pregnant with the promise of rebirth and regrowth. In this issue, we highlight some people and projects at the heart of this duality of substantive change and that which perseveres. We’ll introduce some folks who are working to change how we as humans relate to and exist within ecosystems: Jorge Garza’s tribute to the often unacknowledged laborers who sustain our everyday food cycles; Rachel Alexandrou and Ren Moreau, on anti-capitalist foraging and a mission to expand knowledge of and access to wild food; Brooke Marple on coaxing flavor and fun out of waste for sustained enjoyment; and as always, a host of amazing suggestions from friends and collaborators on how to support progressive labor causes alongside small, local, and Black-owned businesses.
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Heroes Feeding America (Male) and Heroes Feeding America (Female) by Jorge Garza (2020).
Jorge Garza is an artist from Northwest Indiana who has also worked as a t-shirt designer for numerous bands and brands. Jorge works digitally with influences ranging from popular culture to Meso-American art. Along with his comic books, he also works on a series highlighting frontline and essential workers. It's an extension of a popular series called Azteca Pop, which started as a mashup of Aztec art and pop culture. To see more of his work you can follow Jorge on Instagram at @qetzaart and @jorgegarzacomics.
Something to Chew On
Rachel Alexandrou & Ren Moreau on Punk Plant Perspectives and Collective Foraging
Rachel Alexandrou (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist who uses her education in plant science, and collaborative practice, to create experiential work about food, flora, and innovating human relationships to the natural landscape.
Ren Moreau (she/her) is an occasional food writer and frequent amateur forager.
*All photographs courtesy of Rachel Alexandrou*
Ren Moreau: Could you tell me about your background?
Rachel Alexandrou: I grew up in Alna, a town of maybe 700. As a teenager I was very bored and would go for walks. I started to take interest in the landscape. That was really the only thing there for me. I had a book on eating wild flowers, and started to make sugared violets. Then I kind of forgot about it for a while and got into the punk scene in Portland [Maine], and started dumpster diving, which is kind of a form of urban foraging.
Through people in that scene, I ended up going to the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine. We did intensive botanical keying using Gleason and Cronquist’s manual. I loved learning Latin and all the weird terms for plant parts. That kind of drew me in. When I went back to Maine, I started taking botany courses.
I've always made art – never really for public display – but I was always drawing and thinking artistically, of how one could be an artist in the world. I felt like what I was making was just for me.
I met Susan Bickford when she was doing the (stillness) project, a large-scale collaborative outdoor performance piece on the summer solstice that features a lot of elements, including foraged food. I gathered tons of elderflowers, wild grape leaves, sumac, and seaweeds from my normal spots along the riverbank. We fed 60 people. The next year, I knew I’d be harvesting for more. I took some people out and showed them how and where to harvest. Then we processed the food together. They would stop at each dish and analyze it, talk, and be super fascinated.
RM: What does collective work mean for you? Particularly because traditionally kitchen work and foraging, gathering berries, etc., is seen as feminized, often collective labor.
RA: The labor that goes into making food – that's a whole topic, women's labor and unseen labor. I can't wait until we have more art about this subject. Think about how you were fed, [growing up]. Who fed you every day – was it, your mom? Did you acknowledge that at all?
Working collectively is more interesting. I love being alone, but I usually get ideas, or at least ideas that will move forward, when I'm in relation to others. Other people help me innovate. When I started working with the (stillness) project, that was totally collective, there’s no one person leading. We are all in control of ourselves, but also clearly creating something together that’s larger than what we could do on our own.
That's how the feasts happen. Feeding 120 people is actually not that hard. But it's because someone went and picked cattails – you can eat the stalk, the roots, the pollen, the spike. Part of the attraction is how you can make associations – the spike tastes like corn on the cob, but it’s really its own thing. The core is crunchy like a cucumber, you can pickle them. I love that you can look out at this vast swath of cattails and think, “look at all of that food.” It’s this mutual relationship where people are learning and I'm not having to work so hard! There’s so much value in having an extra pair of hands. I would gladly tell them about this plant, if they help me peel it. It’s that exchange.
RM: You and Susan put together a series themed around “ecologies of the local.” When it comes to food, “the local” has become this trend to the point where it's almost passé. Could you talk about where you live and how you think of locality in terms of cooking and creating?
RA: Last year I moved to North Haven Island, an hour’s ferry ride off Rockland. Because of the pandemic, there was again – a similar theme – nothing to do. I started walking around the parks and found tons of things to make food creations from. I really have been thinking locally most of my life. I’ve worked on farms since I was a teenager. But even in this remote place, we don’t [necessarily] have this connection to the local landscape.
I would say people on the island have more of a reverence; there are trappers, fishing boats, and we have an oyster farm here. When you provide your own meal, you feel so proud. I think many people here understand that feeling.
RM: You’re someone who lives by the places you revisit year after year, season after season, versus like this kind of extractive removal you see sometimes with morels or ramps. It becomes, “let’s get as much as we can.”
RA: Sometimes I see ramps in our local co-op that have the entire roots dug up – there's no point, it's not sustainable anymore. I was definitely overzealous about harvesting when I started foraging. I had the mindset of someone raised in a consumer society.
RM: We see it in the normal capitalist food system. As a dumpster diver, I’m sure you know, the whole thing is predicated on massive amounts of waste.
I’m also (sort of) from Maine, so I’m biased, but it’s a very special place. It’s also a state with terrible, often hidden, inequalities, beginning with the original sin of stolen native land. Now, there’s the contrast of being a wildly popular vacation destination, but so much of the population faces food insecurity and lack of resources. What potentials for re-envisioning land justice and food sovereignty do you see in wild food education and sustainable growing practices?
RA: I worked on organic farms for eight to ten years before I went back to school. I ended up managing Veggies to Table in Newcastle, a farm that donates all their produce to people facing food insecurity – basically a dream job. It’s the most rewarding thing – putting your labor into organic food grown-in-Maine that’s going right to the neighbors.
My thing is educating people about the plants around them, even if it's just so that when you look at a tree, you can understand it has a name beyond “tree.” As soon as you start to form that connection to the world around you, it doesn't go away. If you don't understand what’s existing around you, you can't [see] how our food system is interconnected with natural ecosystems.
RM: I do some urban foraging here in New York and it really does change how you see the value of a plant. Without knowing what something is you think, “it’s a weed.” Foraging fosters a sense of connection; you feel [the plant] has a relation to you. Particularly in the western world, we tend to think about food in terms of money and pleasure. For me, especially recently, foraging has become a way to see through a different lens, to think about the natural environment and labor.
I get frustrated seeing wild food in the media with the angle, “Here's how you can buy this, go to this mushroom hunter or this famous restaurant.” You’ve made your Foraged Feasts free for attendees. Could you talk about that decision in terms of the commodification and exclusivity of wild food?
RA: I made the feasts free because I view them as an experiential artwork, like performance art. I definitely don't think art should be exclusive.
I don't know how to commodify what I do. I'm never going to put a stopwatch on and be like, ‘okay, I was outside for three hours.’ Foraging is not like not farming. You can't just turn it on and off. You're walking around, carrying a basket, and all of sudden you find something. I've secretly dreamed of being a professional forager, but as soon as I started to attach money to the plants, it just felt so cheap.
RM: Traditionally, when people were foraging for sustenance, it was part of their general diet and way of living. Our capitalist culture wants to say, “let's turn this into something that makes money.”
RA: That's the number one thing people tell me, “You could make so much money doing this.” Anytime I've done private dinners and charged money I felt like a caterer. It takes [away] the educational aspect of the feasts.
I want my labor to be enjoyable, slowed down. Though I did get a grant to do the feasts. I care about getting compensated for my labor, I just prefer organizations to be paying if possible, rather than individuals.
RM: The Foraged Feast proposes that people gathering together to eat can be a work of art, a concept usually associated with exclusive settings. Is it part of your practice to make that more accessible?
RA: Plenty of people use food in art contexts, but it still exists primarily in this realm of fine art. It's not everyday you're going to walk into a gallery where there's food. I thought you needed to build an audience for that, but it turns out everyone is into that, when they actually encounter it.
RM: So much experience-based art ends up being exclusive, when really, it’s for anybody. You don’t need training to taste something.
RA: I think it's ridiculous – you put it on a fancy plate, make it look pretty, and now it's a $600 meal somewhere. But that's the cool thing about wild food, it’s not actually exclusive. These plants grow all around us. And the knowledge of how to use them came from indigenous or folk traditions.
RM: Could you talk about the philosophy of “place-based radical hospitality” in your work?
RA: There was a cohort in the nineties working on “relational aesthetics.” Instead of inviting people to just to look at something, you get them to participate. Artists like Rirkrit Tiravanija, who did this piece where he served pad thai in a gallery, are sort of working along the same lines.
“Place-based radical hospitality” comes from Susan Bickford. Last year we had a walking feast outdoors. We'd make linden soda under a linden tree and serve it there, or we’d serve milkweed in an area surrounded by milkweed pods, bringing the audience to the plant it was harvested from. Without the audience, it's pointless. This act of serving, and then allowing the audience to interact with each other and start to discuss, I love listening to that. The flavors of wild food are so hard to describe. What do they think it tastes like? I'm always so curious.
RM: That's such a beautiful way of putting it – bringing people into relation with each other and with where the food is coming from. Could you tell me your process for reseeding plants after you've harvested them?
RA: I do a bit of stewardship. Like groundnut, the way it grows underground is like a string of beads. In the spring, the river floods and washes away a part of the bank, leaving them exposed. You can walk along, pick them up, and replant them. I try not to manage too much. I’ve seen how the riverbank changes over time. One year it was ravaged by ice heaves that ripped out all of the elderberry bushes and nettles, but they sprung back and now they're super thick. So I’m just paying attention, watching how things propagate themselves…
For me, it’s the presence you get once you start foraging. Your vision is different, your gaze is so open. As opposed to seeing from the outside, where you’re the “main character,” you become a part of it all. It’s not like you’re looking on the ground like, “is this the right leaf shape?” You've got a wide angle lens – you've got some light green over here, some brown over there, and that purplish, bluish green of the nettles. When you're looking like that, it's a form of meditating.
RM: Your zine, published with A Clearing, is called Emotional Foraging: Recipes for Every Apocalypse. Inspired by the poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” by Franny Choi, it really speaks to the feeling of the past year. It’s about all these past “apocalypses” leading us to this point – the tragedies of exploitation and colonization. I've been thinking about loss, climate grief, and feeling powerless in the face of bigger systems. But the poem ends with waking up, making coffee, living within these constant apocalypses. Could you talk about your approach to foraging and food practices as ways of reconciling with this? I'm thinking of your recipe for chutney with invasive Japanese knotweed.
RA: That was such a time capsule of a zine. They were so psychic in picking that poem. You know, that feeling at the beginning of the pandemic, like the whole world was doing the same thing at once. We started thinking globally, also looking at American society and how racist it is – the way we think about “outsiders.”
This recipe was an opportunity to talk about that. I'd already been thinking about Japanese knotweed or Fallopia japonica for years. The word “invasive” and thinking about people as invasive… you can go on and on. I just like to play with those ideas. In no way do I mean it literally; it's all a metaphor. My experience growing up was, “you should hate this plant.” It cooks down into mush so the texture is a little slimy. Then I tried it and was like, “holy shit, I want to eat this on everything.”
I love that metaphor: I hated this organism and now I’m obsessed with it. I learned how it was brought to North America and how two species combined to make this superspecies. I think the line in the piece is that we, unlike plants, have the ability to choose whether or not to colonize. There's just so many little metaphors tucked in this plant.
RM: It’s such a good example of human hubris, thinking we can shape the natural world without consequences. Same with kudzu, or tree of heaven. People try to get rid of it with noxious chemicals, but I read that if you cut back the edible shoots every spring, it eventually weakens the plant more effectively than herbicides. It’s mind-blowing, that eating this thing, learning to live with it, would ultimately be more sustainable.
RA: Its herbal use is also interesting: the root is traditionally used to treat Lyme's disease. So I also associate that plant with ticks. They’re similar in how they seem to take over and terrorize us. But we have to learn to live with them, even if we are afraid.
RM: Yeah. We’re not just going to eradicate knotweed, or anything that is inconvenient or scary.
RA: I wonder, are we at a point where everything's just everywhere? I think people are more aware of what they're moving where, but the landscape is changing. It’s already so adapted to humans, we're using the word “Anthropocene.” These types of plants are co-existing with us.
RM: In “Emotional Foraging,” you say you’re not very interested in wild food for survivalism. There are lots different ways of surviving, beyond just sustenance. This year foraging has really helped me stay grounded, what has it offered you?
RA: Sometimes I just need to go outside. And I end up bringing back something beautiful and delicious to create with, instead of getting stuck in a mental rut. And there have been so many ruts this year, right? It's a safe space, to be in nature – with the caveat that, especially this year, we’ve recognized that being a white person in nature is a lot safer than being a person of color in nature. It’s not actually true for everyone. But, I hope that we can keep being aware and making changes so that everyone can feel that feeling.
Brooke Marple’s Fruit Scrap Shrub
In the midst of the pandemic, Brooke Marple decided if the world as she knew it was ending, she might as well make a fun job for herself. Her company, DRUPEFRUIT is a female owned and operated small business producing small-batch shrubs. She uses raw, organic apple cider vinegar for its tart flavor and probiotic benefits, as well as local fruits whenever possible. Brooke is experimenting with seasonal fruits to make shrub flavors until she finds her permanent collection to distribute nationwide. Based out of Salt Lake City, Utah, DRUPEFRUIT offers both local delivery and nationwide shipping. Follow them on Instagram for additional recipe ideas and check out their website to purchase the latest flavors.
“Shrubs can be thought of as an elegant acid to level up your cooking, baking or beverages. A little goes a long way, as shrubs maintain a strong balance of sour and sweet; the basic process is steeping fruit in vinegar to make it more flavorful. Shrubs have ancient roots in preservation, but they’ve started to become popular again mostly because of the craft cocktail world.
“This simple recipe makes use of some of the most commonly wasted ingredients: peels and cores. Apples and pears are available year-round and are usually eaten as a quick snack, but if you try keeping a bag in the freezer to save your scraps, you can extract the flavor from that waste to make an elegant cordial. If you already compost your food scraps, this recipe can easily be adapted for things like cucumber seeds, strawberry tops, carrot peels, cherry pits, etc. You can also pair it with a dried spice or fresh herb you’ve had around for a while and want to use up.”
FRUIT SCRAP SHRUB
1 cup apple cider vinegar (use raw/organic/quality if possible)
1 cup diced apple or pear cores/peels
2-3 fresh or dried bay leaves (or 1 teaspoon lavender, cardamom, star anise, or black peppercorn)
1 cup sugar (or about 1/2 cup maple syrup or honey)
Combine vinegar, fruit, and bay leaves (or other aromatics) in a container with a non-metallic lid. Let sit on the counter or in the fridge for a few days until the vinegar takes on the flavor of the fruit and aromatics. Gently shake and agitate once a day to help release juices from the fruit. Strain solids from the vinegar and discard. Stir in up to 1 cup of sweetener of your choice to the vinegar until the shrub is sweetened to your liking. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
Use finished shrub to make sodas, cocktails, vinaigrettes, marinades, etc.
A dedicated section to boost suggestions from friends and collaborators.
Aliza Abarbanel (she/her; freelance writer and editor, founder of the brand new! newsletter Amateur Hours). I've fallen hard for the hibiscus tetelas and double-mushroom tacos at For All Things Good, a Bed Stuy/Clinton Hill molino grinding heirloom corn into vibrant blue masa (available to go!). Don't skip their nutty salsa macha either. My other attempts to conjure up spring include: simple citrus salads, Steve Lacy's latest excellent album, and damiana-infused kombucha from family-owned, Troy-based brewery Yesfolk Tonics. Finally, I'm channeling my general agita into volunteering for NYC-DSA's Tax the Rich campaign to ensure the wealthiest New Yorkers pay their fair share instead of cutting social services like Medicaid and the MTA.
Lexi Sasanow (she/they, hospitality worker, Labor Studies MA): I lost my mom in December, and so to keep her close, I’ve been reading Mimi Sheraton, a former Times restaurant critic, and, like Mom, an outer-borough Ashkenazi Jewess with great taste. I’m entranced by John Birdsall’s biography of James Beard, cheekily titled The Man Who Ate Too Much, but seriously asserting that U.S. cuisine is way gayer than it gets credit for. I just finished my Masters capstone, where I wrote about food sector worker organizing, so I’m glued to news of unionizing Amazon workers in Alabama, taxi workers in my hometown, and all others drawing connections between their particular struggles and large-scale justice.
Dreu VanHoose (hemp farmer, cannabis advocate, lover of food, owner of @VanHooseHempCo): I am originally from the DMV area and one of my favorite things to do when I go back home is enjoy a "Bob Marley" Smoothie from Turning Natural in DC to get my day started. When I'm in MD I stop by Main Street Coffee and Treats for a chai latte that I like to infuse with my homemade CBD tincture, a cute cafe for me to enjoy my drink and get my work done. I've recently moved down to Alabama to prepare for this upcoming grow season but before I leave I always try and grab a bite from my favorite VA restaurant Hen Quarter. As a Black farm owner, I take pride in supporting other small Black-owned establishments and these three spots are must haves on my list every time I'm home.
Alicia Kennedy (writer on culture, climate, and cocktails / author of From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy & forthcoming book on eating & capitalism from @beaconpress): Right now, my mind is on fashion more than food. I’m planning an interview with the wonderful cultural critic Aja Barber, whose work on sustainability in fashion is second to none. I’ve got people looking at me more now, via video, and while that’s cool, it’s also intimidating, and I’ve tried to stock my closet with beautiful pieces that go along with my food ethics from local San Juan designers Luca and Muns, local vintage seller Hola Aida, Mara Hoffman, Kowtow, Concalma, and Elk. I’m trying to figure out what it looks like when my closet matches my kitchen, and I really love it.
That’s all for this month, friends! Make sure to follow us on Instagram for even more seasonal stories and locally-grown content 🙃 We hope the changing of the season has found you well and perhaps growing plants of your own. And if sowing the seeds of change for F&B is something that interests you, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email us with questions, comments, or just to chat at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next month, enjoy the sunshine and get those vaccines (if you’re eligible!). Here’s hoping the worst is behind us, and through it we can all take some time to appreciate the first buds and eventually stop, smell, and maybe even taste the flowers 🌱