Regular readers of this blog know that foraging is not only about mushrooms, but what you can find in your own area, where you are at the moment.
Dave Odd has been a naturalist for 30 years. He’s been selling to fancy restaurants and grocery stores for 10 of those years. He has been running urban foraging tours for seven years and with his urban foraging tours he has been getting quite a name. He guarantees that you will find and identify over 50 edible species of greens, mushrooms, and woody plants and fruit.
Dave Odd has been working with restaurants all year to partner with some of Chicago’s best chefs to present three and four course meals of foraged foods. Each tour is different, and every food found is seasonal and at the peak of freshness.
I sat down with Dave last week to speak to him about the tours.
(Editors note: Dave Odd and Rob spent two days together foraging Chanterlle Mushrooms in Southern Illinois; 400 miles driven, and many, many ravines walked. 100 pounds of mushrooms harvested. All the chaterelles sold within a day of coming back to Chicago)
CMM: So Dave, why are you spending time teaching instead of foraging?
Dave: It’s like this, I love what I do and I love to share it with other people. I’m a performer, I used to do stand-up comedy and also teach improv. I find it fascinating to put forth new knowledge to people and see how far they can run with it. I’ve been doing forays for people for seven years. Some of the folks who went on my early forays still send me pictures to help them ID something. It’s great!
CMM: Aren’t you worried that teaching others into the foraging world will cut into your sales to restaurants and grocery stores? How do you feel about the market getting saturated by new foragers?
Dave: That’s a good question, I think that most people want to harvest enough for a meal or two. Part of my teaching is being able to harvest only what one can use, and only enough that there is no damage to future harvest, that there is no damage to the eco-system. Foraging is hard. It takes time to learn an ecosystem and learn what happens seasonally, after each rainfall. I try to teach people to get to the same piece of land each week whether it is a park or a forest. See the plants sprouting, leafing out, and dying back.
Be a participant in the ecosystem. Not just blindly bandy about.
For example, each year in spring I manage to sell a phenomenal amount of ramps, the spring forest plant that beautifully announces itself with fantastic greenery after the first late spring rains. I sell almost 1,500 pounds. Every fine dining restaurant and most small grocery stores in Chicago have my ramps.
I pay some of Chicago’s finest chefs to come out and dig for a few days. They love it! They get their hands dirty and I get to teach them about where many of the forest foods on their menu come from.
A few years ago I started a “Forest Spring Mix” option for chefs. It is all the edible forest floor treats that appear in early spring. It means something different to a chef who cares about where the food on their menu comes from and can identify it as a species and on a map.
We all know about ramp over-harvesting, it’s prolific, especially on the East Coast. We only harvest from one 40 acre homestead. The owner of which demands that we rid her land of this odorous villain so her mower stops stinking. It’s been seven years, and we’re doing our best to clear her land, but it’s a serious proposition. And it is the only way to responsibly harvest Ramps.
CMM: OK, but what do you actually do on your “Urban Foray”?
Dave: Well, we take a walk.
We head to the nearest alley and take a walk. Usually I don’t get past the first sidewalk crack or the first parkway without an edible species. Lamb’s Quarter, Poor Man’s Pepper, Dandelions, so many species it’s ridiculous. By the end of the walk folks will have in their hands wild grape leaves, species of wood sorrel, day lily shoots and buds, wild plums, crabappples, or any number of things depending on the season.
And I’ll work with the chef to teach you how to prepare them; It’s really nifty to have a chef I sell wild food to, to sit down and plan a menu based on the freshest wild foods, stuff that may not be ready until next week!
CMM: So why am I heading out with you for this walk in the streets of Chicago? Couldn’t I learn this with a book and a good walk?
Dave: Of course, I encourage you to get some good plant ID books, Mushroom ID books, Survival books, and whatever you can get you hands on! I’m here to share years of knowledge. There is no way that what I teach you can cut into my business of wholesaling the same items to restaurants. In fact, I want people to be able to feed themselves from the bounty of wild foods that surround us.
This is about teaching, and teaching people both to be able to make sure they know what they’re doing foraging, but also to make sure that they are confident in how they do so. I don’t expect each person to take fifty or eighty new species into their brain and be experts on each one, but I do expect that someone might be able to use a wild grape leaf from the neighbors fence when the want to make crisp fermented pickles.
If the end result is that I get a few people to walk in the park or forest preserve and do it regularly I’ve won the game. The more people we get out to care about the ecosystem the better.
CMM: Dave, it’s been a pleasure catching up with you but you need to tell me about the meal!
Dave: Each chef we work with prepares a meal based on foraged foods that I bring into the restaurant a few days before the Urban Foray. I hunt what is ready, and always have the best bag for the chef and restaurant that is sponsoring the foray. It’s the same items we forage, but ready to eat!
CMM: What’s so special about this weeks foray?
Dave: First, you’ll meet a great chef and long time restaurateur, Ian Nelson, he’s witty but also serious. Ask him about the spatula he has framed by the grill! We will meet at 6:00 pm at Jam Restaurant (2853 North Kedzie) and then head out for a urban walk for an hour and a half or so, and then head back to see what Ian has cooked up for us.
He’ll explain each dish as he’s preparing it, and you’ll probably have one of the best meals of your life. Seriously sometimes these chefs take my wild ingredients to a level I never thought possible. And, it’s on a Friday, and it happens to coincide with WTTW shooting the foray for an upcoming series called “Urban Nature”.
The cost for a four course chef prepared meal if $50 a person, some drinks included, but folks can bring their own favorite wines.
The cost for the foray alone, without the meal is $40.00 per person, $70 per couple – but when you register let them know you saw that a Chicago Mushroom Man fan gets the tour for $25 per person!
The dinner portion of the evening is $50 per person.
Please RSVP by contacting Dave Odd either by messenger or at 847-409-8623 via text or phone call or call Jam at (773) 292-6011.
Unfortunately, due to an injury I (Rob) can’t attend, but I hope each and everyone of you take some time Friday to learn some great edible species and have a fantastic meal!