Faces: Meet Florida's Urban Foragers
Henry David Thoreau said, "You cannot buy that pleasure which it yields to him who truly picks it." Perhaps he was talking about life, or maybe he was a forager. Discovering the beautiful new book published by Jai Alai books, Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami's Edible Plants, has piqued our interest in the concept of urban foraging this winter. It's just slightly mischievous, active, philosophical, and something we could see doing with a skateboard in hand or after a session at the beach. We asked authors Tiffany Noé and George Echevarria why this new-fangled concept (that is so wonderfully old-fashioned) is gaining momentum around the country.
How did you get into urban foraging?
Our interest in urban foraging came to be very organically; we love our city and how tropical and bountiful it is and we love plants and eating free food! Tiffany is a plant nerd who owns an urban farm, and George is a designer/photographer, so we really just spent a ton of our time together identifying edible plants and photographing them.
If you had to name three tenants of foraging that are crucial for a newbie to know, what would they be?
"Know before you eat" is number one! We always encourage people to reference and then cross reference a species to make absolutely sure that its being identified properly before chowing down. Many edible plants around town have non-edible or even poisonous family members (mango and poison ivy, for example) and some of the edible species can be poisonous if eaten improperly (ackee is poisonous if eaten unripe, and chaya is poisonous if eaten raw) so make sure you do your homework and be really thorough and confident before ingestion.
Number two: Be aware of the fact that foraging in a city can sometimes mean trespassing and it can technically mean "stealing"—there is definitely an etiquette to finding a balance between these things. The typical moral rule that we go by is that if you feel like a thief while you're doing it, then it's probably too close to stealing. We often ask permission before taking from trees on private property and it almost always ends with us having an armful of bounty and a new friend; we think other foragers should do the same. Our third recommendation would just be to be safe and have fun!
What's your favorite fruit to forage?
George's most prized species is the Ackee. Its a crazy looking fruit thats very popular in Jamaican cuisine. It's savory, nutty and it has a buttery texture. The fruit looks like a bright fuchsia pear, but when it's ripe it yawns open and exposes these big black shiny seeds—that are very poisonous if ingested—and atop the seed is a pale fleshy brain-like fruit! They are expensive and hard to find everywhere except our neighborhood, which is very Caribbean, and George loves eating them raw as he harvests them.
Tiffany's favorite foraged treat is the Monstera fruit. Monstera is a very common decorative philodendron with large dark waxy leaves full of holes (thus the nickname "swiss cheese plant") and under it's large leaves hide a huge delicious fruit that looks completely inedible when unripe, like corn covered in dinosaur scales. It takes a whole year for the fruit to ripen but it's completely worth the wait because despite unappetizing looks, it tastes like a strawberry-pineapple-banana.
Have you ever gotten in trouble?
We haven't ever gotten in trouble (foraging), but we have come in contact with some people who aren't so into what we're doing. It's a complicated thing, because we think that sharing this knowledge and encouraging people to take advantage of unused and windfall fruit or learning about which weeds and seaweeds are edible is really cool. And we don't think that the concept of outdoor spaces being protected private property is cool. We encourage people to test boundaries when foraging in a responsible, friendly and community-minded way.
What's the best mode of transport for foraging?
Any mode of transport will do! We forage as part of our daily life; while running errands or visiting friends, or at the beach, and we think the best way to get the most out of your foraging knowledge is to incorporate it organically into your life. Tiffany drives an old blue pickup truck and while that makes certain things easier to hunt (we sometimes set up a ladder in the bed of her truck for reaching high up coconuts and tamarinds), we've also filled our backpacks with mangos on summertime bike rides.
What's the biggest mistake one can make when foraging?
The biggest foraging faux-pas would be being too greedy and taking too much! Consider foraging a way of taking and giving, plus it's a great opportunity to share. Also, don't take pineapples! That's a big no-no, because each plant only grows one in it's lifetime and they take a year to ripen. This rule comes from personal experience. The loss felt when our front yard pineapples got snatched just as they were ripening after a year of care.
Tell us why we should start foraging?
Start foraging as a way to explore and get to know your city and it's plant life. Through our passion for foraging we have learned so much about the history of Miami and how its neighborhoods were shaped and changed via tropical fruit. We've gotten to know new areas that we otherwise wouldn't have explored and we met interesting new people all over town via our shared interest in plants and Miami. Also, the free food is a pretty good reason!
Find out more about their book, Forager: A Subjective Guide to Miami's Edible Plants, and follow Tiffany and George on Instagram.
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