"Until World War II, people, particularly in rural areas, ate weeds regularly," says Peter Gail, Ph.D., author of The Dandelion Celebration: A Guide to Unexpected Cuisine (Goosefoot Acres, 1995). "Dandelions, lambs-quarters—all sorts of wild plants were part of their diets. The bias against wild edibles came only after World War II, in part because of pesticide company advertising. The pesticide industry got consumers to value uniform green lawns, and the way to get that green lawn was by killing weeds."
Killing weeds, Gail believes, is nothing short of a tragedy, for dandelions are among the most healthful plants on earth. Euell Gibbons, in his seminal work Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which was first published in 1962, refers to them by their classic label, Taraxacum officinale, which roughly translates to "the official remedy for disorders." Gibbons writes, "How the mighty have fallen! This herbal hero, one of the most healthful and genuinely useful plants in the materia medica of the past, is now a despised lawn weed."
It was Gibbons's book that first began to revive interest in foraging among Americans. It became the counterculture's back-to-the-land bible of the '60s and went on to become a best-seller.
"Before the publication of Gibbons's book, you couldn't forage and be respectable," says Robert K. Henderson, author of The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet (Chelsea Green, 2000). "People who foraged were perceived as illiterate, and foraging was regarded as déclassé."
Surprisingly, the best foraging is done in more densely populated areas. "Urban and suburban foraging yield an incredible variety of edible plants," Henderson says, "from wild plants that have succeeded and survived to landscape and ornamental plants that have been added."
The best way to start, Gail says, is to go with an experienced forager who can show you not only which plants are edible but which parts are edible, and which times of the year are best for harvesting those parts. I found Muscat at my local farmer's market, where he was selling herbal tinctures and sharing information about local medicinal herbs. Another way to find an experienced forager is to inquire at nature centers in parks, botany departments of colleges, garden centers, or the cooperative extension service of your state's agricultural college. (These colleges have offices in every county in each state.)
"Start with just one plant," Gail recommends, "an easily recognizable one, like dandelion, purslane, violets, or lambs-quarters. Don't look for dozens of plants—just look for one or two species. Once you've mastered identifying it, it's yours forever."
Other rules apply: Use several respected guidebooks to double- and triple-check the identity of the food you're about to eat. And unless you're with an experienced mushroom forager or mycologist, avoid all mushrooms. It's easy to make a mistake, and with mushrooms, a mistake can be deadly.
Do not forage for any foods near heavily traveled roads, since they are likely to contain a high level of toxins from exhaust and may have been sprayed with pesticides. One way to tell if a plant has been sprayed is simply to see if it looks healthy; if it doesn't—if the leaves are shriveled or brown—then it might have been sprayed. If you are foraging in an urban area, rinse your edibles in a vegetable wash before you eat them.