A Searchable Feast
Food educator Mike Krebill talks about his new guide to foraging—and how wild edibles can fuel conservation
At a time when organic supermarkets are more common than ever, it can be easy to forget that edible wildlife grows almost everywhere. True, few people turn to foraging for sustenance these days, but the practice of ferreting out edible plants hasn’t gone away. In fact, it seems to be on the rise.
Now lifelong forager and award-winning retired science teacher Mike Krebill has created a pocket-size guide to some of North America’s most widely available wild plants and mushrooms. The Scout’s Guide to Wild Edibles: Learn How to Forage, Prepare & Eat 40 Wild Foods (St. Lynn’s Press, November 2016) features color photos and tips for identifying each plant, plus 15 recipes (think cinnamon black walnut ice cream, dandelion donuts, and wild grape popsicles—all “kid-tested, “kid-approved,” according to Krebill). It also includes 10 DIY activities, such as processing acorns, making lemonade out of sumac, and separating out the nonbitter parts of dandelions.
While its title brings to mind young foragers, this book, designed to fit easily among camping gear, is for nature lovers of all experience levels. It also functions as more than simply a guide—the narrative is peppered with the author’s often entertaining anecdotes from his many years as a Boy Scouts participant and leader, a wild foods educator, and a National Wild Foods Association Hall of Fame forager. Veteran foragers will no doubt find some pro tips in these pages, and inexperienced foragers are likely to grow awfully curious about the free food lurking in their yards and along their favorite hiking trails.
Krebill may be a first-time author, but he has edited 10 place-specific guides to foraging and medicinal herbs, helping writers to ensure accurate botanical descriptions and photos. He created his own book out of the need, he says, for a portable, non-region-specific, non-coffeetable-size guide one could easily “slip into a backpack.” I spoke with the 74-year-old Krebill—an Iowan with a lifelong teacher’s trademark enthusiasm and patience—about his background in foraging and why the practice seems to be gaining momentum.
Tell me about the moment you knew you needed to write this book.
It started about 15 years ago, when I was still teaching middle school science in Michigan. Curious to see whether anyone would be interested in going on bike trips to a nearby farm and picnicking afterward, or canoe-tripping down a river to learn about plants and find out what they could eat that might also grow in their own backyards, I started an elective class called Edible Wild Plants. I’d show students how to fry puffballs in onion ring batter, and we’d share the treats around school. Once kids heard about our adventures, the class got so popular the school had to resort to a lottery system—especially once Survivor got popular on TV [laughs]. The kids were always eager for new adventures and new taste sensations, so I promised that one day I’d put a book together for them, and I started taking photos for the book. Now that many of those students are now parents and in some cases grandparents, they’re looking for those recipes we used to use. I wrote it, in a sense, for them.
So these former students were your target audience?
I’ve been with the Boy Scouts, as a scout and leader, since I was a Cub Scout, and it’s how I discovered my passions of camping and hiking and backpacking. But despite the title, it’s not just a book for Boy Scouts; it’s for anyone who has an interest in foraging, whether they’re a beginner or a veteran with decades of experience. It’s for pretty much anyone who has an interest in getting outdoors and boldly going where they’ve never gone before, and in challenging themselves to learn something new—while knowing the proper foraging techniques so they don’t put themselves in danger. I also tried to select plants I thought people would be happy to go out and try—the ones I really like to eat. There are hundreds and hundreds of edibles I don’t like at all.
How did you get into foraging?
It was a family tradition to get the relatives together in my tiny hometown of Donnellson, Iowa, and pick up hickory nuts. We’d have contests to see who could gather the biggest grocery sack, and the winner would get a malted milkshake at the corner drugstore. I have relatives on my mother’s side from Tennessee and when we’d visit, I’d learn about sassafras tea and how to eat persimmons without making an awful face—by baking them into soft cookies.
What’s your favorite thing to forage, and where can you find it?
I enjoy many, many things, but the tiny, pea-size wild strawberry is just packed with flavor. I guess since I no longer live near Ann Arbor, Michigan, I can mention that there’s a great bush in a huge field behind a community garden [laughs]. It’s like morel mushrooms—you generally don’t wanna tell people where your favorite strawberry patch is!
You seem to play a pretty robust role in the larger foraging community—you’ve been welcomed into the National Wild Foods Association Hall of Fame, acted as the judge at national dandelion cook-offs, led “Nibble Hikes With Mike” at various festivals, and much more. How did you become acquainted with fellow foragers across the country?
Facebook has really helped. There’s group after group of foragers that organize wild-food hikes and educational events, and one, Edible Wild Plants, has almost 50,000 members. Ten years ago, they only had 4,000. I’m an instructor with the Midwest Wild Edibles & Foragers Society, which has grown from 400 to 6,000 members.
Wow. Why do you think there’s been such an, ahem, hike in foraging?
I could talk about overpopulation and our dwindling natural food supply, but I really think people are catching onto the joy and exhilaration of trying something new, of getting away from handheld computers as a place where we spend mindless hours, and getting outdoors and being active. And here’s the conservation connection—foraging creates people who identify with the outdoors, who want to protect it, who become aware of where they can and can’t collect because of waste dumps or pollution. If we truly want to preserve the great outdoors, we need people to care about it. As I come down to the end of my time here, I wanted to create this book so I could help protect what I’ve loved most.