Chicago Foragers

Born to Eat Wild
A foraging session at Red Oak Nature Center in Batavia is a chance to meet the local varieties of garlic-mustard plants as much as other locatarians. Holding the delicate branches with one hand, one member of the group glides her fingers along the seedpods and pushes a bunch of tiny black seeds into her bag, reports Time Out Chicago.

In the spring, the now long-gone leaves can be used to make a mean pesto, it points out. But later in the year, the ground-up seeds will add kick to salad dressings, mayonnaise, even curries.

And the best part is, this plant can be found pretty much anywhere: public parks, abandoned lots, on the side of the highway or your own backyard. And it’s not the only urban edible foragers are used to finding; they grab wild berries, flavorful seeds and nuts, nutrient-rich greens, and other wild things most people call ChemLawn to get rid of.

With her canvas hat, khaki outfit and studious manner, they might be professional naturalists. But the Primitive Skills online Meetup group is a collection of Chicago-area outdoorsy types who hook up regularly to search for these edible plants. They also host expert-taught classes on animal tracking, tool making and other subjects that could come in handy if disaster disrupted our cushy food supply.


But just because they’re survival enthusiasts, don’t assume these are the same kooks who buy up all the duct tape when the terror alert rises; and don’t mistake them for “freegans” who live off the grid by swiping cases of canned beans from alleys. These are just ordinary folks with a passion for connecting with their local environment and supplementing their meals with tasty (and free) native foodstuffs.

“It opens up your level of awareness,” explains Eric Michalsen of North Aurora, the rugged part-time fireman who founded the year-old club. “You’ve got animal runs, food, medicine; you’ve got everything here within a mile of your home.”

Meanwhile, back at the Red Oak Nature Center, Ingrid Fortmeyer from Westmont spots some ready-to-eat wood sorrel. “It’s really easy to identify because it looks like a three-leafed clover,” she says. “It has a nice lemony taste. It’s a great way to put a little extra flavor into your salad. But it has a high acidic value…so just sprinkle in a little.”

No matter what you’re foraging—the spinach-like lamb’s quarters, wild blackberries or dandelion roots for a fall tea—Primitive Skills members advise incorporating a small amount at a time to get accustomed to the taste and how your body reacts. “This late in the season, you may want to boil your greens to take away some of the bitterness,” adds Fortmeyer.

Another reason you don’t need to choke down a big bowl of wild wood sorrel: the nutritional value of wild food is typically off-the-charts better than what you buy, which has likely been cultivated repeatedly in the same soil, sapping nutrients.

“We’re used to eating a popcorn bowl full of salad because you need that to get the nutrients,” explains Erik Diekman, one of the group leaders, also from North Aurora. (Later in the day, this real-life MacGyver will attempt to start a fire using his shoe and two sticks, and cover a friend in mud and ash as part of a camouflage exercise.) “But all those natural cycles are in place here…so you’re going to need to eat about a third of what you’re used to.”

Just then, Diekman spots some tiny wild grapes in the brush about 30 yards off the path. He looks for the tell-tale tendrils opposite the leaf stalk. (“There’s a mildly poisonous look-alike,” he explains.) And even though these fruits aren’t quite ready for prime time, he’s geeked about coming back when the ripened grapes can be used to make preserves, juice, even wine.

The next Primitive Skills Meetup Urban Foraging Class is September 13. Cost is $10 and space is limited. Go to for more information.

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