A recurrent theme with so many of the best of the forageable species is the frequent surprise that they remain unknown (or at least vastly underappreciated) right under our noses. Sea lettuce, weeds, kangaroo tails, urchin roe, bonito, wild mushrooms, the list goes on. The more thought I put into it however, the less odd it eventually seems. Fear of new things – neophobia – is natural, particularly as we age (and according to some, once we become parents). At the same time we have picked up a great many of our culture’s food aversions, even though we may be unaware that we have done so. We have, in Marvin Harris’ words, largely formulated and populated our concepts of ‘good to eat’ and ‘bad to eat’ (Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture being Harris’ wonderfully readable 1985 book – although not so much about neophobia as cultural food taboos). It is a fundamental way that we learn to engage successfully with our environment. It is an issue that would be useful to consider if you might be put off foraging simply on the basis of being put off a particular few foods. You can’t stomach the idea of a boil-up of the three known mucilaginous ingredients of garden snails (Helix aspersa), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and mallow (Malva spp.), all slimy and disturbingly on the brown side of green (albeit all good in their own separate ways)? Fair enough, but that is no reason to head back to the big supermarket for a jar of ‘we’ve made it toilet-ready’ sauce.
As infants we stick almost anything in our mouth and equally then spit a whole lot of it out in a long, messy, confused session of trial and error to categorise good and bad; and we also keenly watch our parents for cues in building up these categories – going some way to explain the amount of grinning, gaping, ‘yum-yum-yum’ performance that goes into getting infants to eat some things, as well as the ‘no-no-no!’ of stopping them eating others. If an infant is offered a food that is repeatedly rejected, they might change their mind not because it has finally come in on a mimed choo-choo train but because the love and sense of safety that the mime may embody somehow tips the balance in the infant head to ‘good to eat’. And they can also easily learn avoidances, like not to eat a common poisonous berry, without having to get sick first because they are told in a firm way that gets their brain to stick the label ‘dangerous’ on it – ‘bad to eat’. Then, rather than work our way through all the species we might experience, we then tend to create a rather large grab-bag for everything that hasn’t been labelled good; the risk of something delectable ending up in it given preference over the alternative possibility that something poisonous slips through on the other side.
You may have heard tell of people and other animals having innate fears of certain species, memorised somehow genetically – the fear of snakes for example. It turns out that when tested with naïve caged monkeys, there was no innate fear, but a great capacity to learn fear from others. It took just one monkey who had already learned to fear snakes to be introduced to a new group ahead of the snake, to then go nuts when a snake arrived, for its reaction to catch on forever after. Contagious snake-phobia. Though trying to couch it in terms of avoidance rather than hatred, I have successfully taught something similar to my 3 year old son (red-bellied black snakes being common enough on the bush block to warrant it). In such cases, when a snake is a properly dangerous one if trifled with, it is a useful lesson and the ability to learn it without recourse to bitter experience, it is obviously a very useful adaptation (and such a shame for that bloke and his girlfriend with a naked carefree life in Eden on the line who lacked a predecessor to provide the warning). But if it leaves people making a mixed association and unable to grapple with the idea of eating an all-too-similar eel – like a beautiful hot-smoked short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) with a creamy horseradish sauce or freshly made unagi [eel] nigiri sushi – then it has all backfired on you.
As Australians, we tend to be told not to eat a lot of things – like weeds, snails (land and sea ones), insects. These are all ‘bad to eat’; and we keep this concept strongly even after we learn that some are quite the opposite. When beginning foraging, unlearning can be harder than learning. So we should start with small steps. I took a friend out a while ago who was interested in adding some foraged plants to his life. Ten species into it I recalled the issue described above and realised I would do him no favours by sending him home to plate them all up, season, and trust me. Instead I suggested starting with 2 or 3: Native spinach (Tetragonia tetragoniodes, what he had come asking about in the first place), chickweed (Stellaria media, snuck into salads to start) and sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca, he is a health nut, an ocean swimmer who commonly walks past the stuff, and in my view has been deprived by not knowing about dried sea lettuce as a home-made foraged condiment).
Some, who see the challenge of urban foraging as a challenge of learning how to eat weeds they don’t really want to, may find themselves rejecting foraging altogether on the basis of a disinclination towards (quite frankly) some of the most boring parts. For all that weeds are the ignored opportunity that always surround us, foraging writing seeking to engage novices tends to focus disproportionately on weeds rather than the potential delicacies out there. I think that is a shame; when people might have more easily and gradually come in on the delights of wild berries (mulberries, blackberries), feral herbs (rosemary, fennel) as a flavouring in cooking but not itself eaten, or just one easy weed (amaranth, native spinach) backed with its specific background knowledge and easy-cooking utility rather than the whole book of weeds. Whatever you do (In Australia at any rate), don’t start with dandelions (perhaps the most discussed edible weed) – you are too likely to be bittered back into the corner and give up.
To not like a food because it is unknown is different to a food aversion that comes about from a personally experienced negative reinforcement. You ate a dodgy pie, spewed for 2 days, and cannot face another pie no matter what is in it. The aversion needs only have a cause, it does not need to be rational. Although that is not to say that a food aversion can never be rationally undone. My points with food aversions and foraging are twofold: 1) You may want to avoid a wild food because you are actually avoiding something different but can gradually reason your way to sense; but also 2) you don’t want to go so far as to force yourself to eat something that you fear, however irrationally, if that is only going to reinforce the aversion.
The things that your brain is doing when it pulls you up before some foods are adaptations that have probably saved the life of an ancestor somewhere along the way, so without them you mightn’t be here; but the thing that your brain is doing when it challenges itself to experiment with new foods is undoubtedly an adaptation that has saved the lives of many more. Food neophobia is worth acknowledging, perhaps a nod or even a tip of the hat, as you walk on by towards more interesting experiences. If it won’t let you past, here are some tips for knocking it on its arse: 1) Start with foraged food that you may already know and love (like blackberries in autumn, mulberries in spring, roadside plums in the country); 2) mix the foraged food in with known and loved ones (like starting with a mild wild green like amaranth in with spinach, kale or familiar Asian greens); 3) chop it, mince, hide it (like sea snails or watercress soup); 4) nibble at first (a few leaves of chickweed, purslane or nasturtium flowers browsed here and there or (see point 2) sprinkled in a salad; and 5) perhaps most potently, do it with someone who you know and trust on the matter – Diego Bonetto uses the term a ‘foraging uncle’. You are not trying to actually fool yourself and you are not being timid, you are just giving yourself time for your normal food psychology to adjust the categorisation of a food from ‘bad to eat’ to ‘good to eat’.
You are being just as human to resist foraging as to undertake the adventure of it, the difference being a choice about what you are in the world and who you choose to be as a person. With experience and knowledge, the environmental engagement can become sublimely rewarding in the appreciation of yourself as a natural creature; the nutritional rewards in a world of processed food might induce you; or perhaps the delicacies far exceeding shop bought imitations that may await. The urchin roe polishes up alright in the end and could never taste better than salted with the sweat of your brow.