About a month ago, my basil started to die.
The untimely death of basil in my garden isn’t a new thing, unfortunately. It’s caused by basil downy mildew, and I hate it because it kills the plants, it ruins my pesto plans, and because it interferes with my idea of what happens when; I have journal entries from ten years ago/five years ago/three years ago where the basil is still going strong well into September. The new reality of basil in our part of the midwest is this: We have to work harder to just have it. We have to plant earlier and more strategically, cut more often, start new plants while we’re cutting, watch for disease, and eventually replant for what ultimately works out to be less basil. It’s a scourge borne on the wind, and while not everyone’s plants get it at the same time, everyone’s plants succumb eventually. And if you don’t grow basil yourself, you’re sure to notice its early absence from markets. I interviewed a couple of experts and whine about it here.
I reviewed Ava Chin’s memoir, Eating Wildly, for Backyard Industry Radio this week. I don’t review books very often, but this one called out to me from a pile of things I meant to read over the summer. It’s a fine memoir about gain and loss and looking around your world with a new set of eyes; with foraging, there is always uncertainty about what you’ll find and whether you’ll know it when you see it, and she captures that feeling well with her uncomplicated, self-aware prose. Before the book came out in May 2014, Chin had been writing a column, “Urban Forager”, about her experiences foraging in the city and elsewhere – and then cooking what she ate – for the New York Times.
In the book, she addresses the issue of the legality of foraging in the city. This column about daylilies from 2010 drew a vigorous response from readers on both sides of the issue – some were fascinated with the concept of being able to eat them, and others were upset with the idea that someone would not only forage plants in public parks, but would write about it, encouraging (many) others to possibly do the same, stripping the parks of foliage meant to be enjoyed by everyone. In the end, the City came down on foraging in public parks.
I have mixed feelings about this. I love my time at my local prairie preserve and am definitely not into it when I see people trouncing on other foliage to pick flowers there; however, black raspberries? I’ve been known to carefully take a few as I walk. [Maybe, sometimes, more than a few.] Mosquitoes make me crazy when I’m out there; I don’t even think twice about looking for and harvesting plantain to take the itch away. While I would never take produce out of someone’s private garden at the plots there or anywhere, I’ve definitely brought home a breadseed poppy pod or two when it hangs over the public path. Are seeds and weeds any different from flowers and fruit? Should lambsquarter and plantain and garlic mustard (a much-loathed invasive here) be left alone to go to seed and fruit and flowers left for the birds, instead of going to a few people curious about what’s coming out of the ground, uncultivated? I personally tend to subscribe to the Scandinavian concept of Allemansrätten: Foraging for wild foods is allowed in public parks and even on private land, as long as nothing is disturbed and the foraging isn’t happening on farms or cultivated gardens. They seem to make it work there. I’m not sure it’d work here.
[It did surprise me that, in publishing that column, Chin broke one of the cardinal rules of foraging: Never share where you find something special. Don’t tell anyone where you got the wild asparagus or morels or poppy seeds. I guess I also just broke the rule, but I’m not a forager.]
Closer to home here in the midwest, we have Nance Klehm. She’s been foraging and experimenting in the urban environment for ages, though I’m not sure she’s living in Chicago full time these days. Her philosophy? A little more countercultural and a little less “foodie” than Chin’s – check out some of her writing here.