Foraging in and around Santa Fe
I was a forager — the original locavore. Though she knew about God’s warning not to eat fruit from the forbidden tree, she nonetheless took a chance on a snake’s recommendation and sought out a new snack, only to get herself and Adam thrown out of the Garden of Eden. At Sunday school, though, we never ponder just how delicious the first bite of that contraband apple might have been, or stop to appreciate Eve’s desire to expand her palate.
Foraging — or harvesting edible plants from the wilderness — is both ancient and suddenly ultrahip, combining the consumption of local produce with the practice of sustainability. In 1962, Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus introduced the Catalog generation to the idea of living off the land and making tasty concoctions out of what you might find growing there. These days, foragers sell salsify and watercress to fine restaurants or herbal tinctures and potions at the farmers market, reminding us of the varied uses of the weeds lurking in plain sight on the borders of our gardens or hiking trails.
New Mexicans have been foraging for centuries, harvesting chokecherries in Mora, porcinis in the Sandias, and piñon in Pecos. The practice is handed down through generations, picked up from field guides and herbalism seminars, and part of a whisper network among chefs. At the Anasazi Restaurant in Santa Fe’s Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, executive chef Edgar Beas said he learned about little-used edibles from the groundskeeper at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, where Beas worked a few years ago.
“I would just kind of walk around and get a feel for the terrains or landscapes and what kind of plants were there,” he said of his foraging habits. At Ojo Caliente, he figured out how to use crabapple, coriander, and nasturtium blossoms to make floral honeys. On his seasonal menus at the restaurant, he dries juniper berries to use as a spice rub or seasoning and harvests prickly pears for vinaigrette. Sunflower petals go in a dish alongside sunchokes, duck, and sunflower seeds, while Douglas fir needles end up in a cheesecloth sachet for parsnip soup. “It gives it this Christmas aroma,” he said.
On a recent stormy Sunday evening in Peñasco, Kristen Davenport of Boxcar Farm pointed out a long hedgerow of wild roses alongside a plot of her farmland. She described the process of making the wild rose vinegar she sells at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. “I pick the petals and infuse it in vinegar. Fill your jar halfway with petals, cover it in vinegar, and wait two to three weeks.” The vinegar not only makes a pretty sight and a base for a floral dressing, it also cools common summer ailments like bug bites and sunburn.
As monsoon clouds rolled over the planted field of garlic and potatoes, she waxed on about rose-petal jam, rose tea, and the autumn rosehip harvest. “It’s very invasive, which, to me, makes good food. Anything that can take advantage of our climate and really grow well and invade and be plentiful is something that we should be eating. Don’t eat the rare plants — eat the plants that are everywhere.” She offered a tart bite of purslane, a ground cover splashing along the edges of the garlic plot. “It’s a summer crop — it comes up with the sun and the rains. It’s really high in omega-3.”
Davenport’s fields are home to an edible wonderland of wild plants that grow unbidden and unwatered alongside the intentional crops. Over the course of a half-hour walk, we sampled pigweed (nutty) and lamb’s quarters (spinachy), found ripening wild plums and nutritious nettles, and crossed a creek to pluck hawthorn berries (good for the heart, both physically and emotionally). Davenport praised the anti-inflammatory and expectorant benefits of mallow, or malva neglecta. She steams or sautées mallow in the springtime in a mélange of good-for-you greens that includes nettles and narrow-leaf plantain. (The latter is also a popular medicinal for skin eruptions or stings.) She explained how whitetop, or hoary cress, is a much-maligned weed that makes a good stand-in for broccolini, and how she looks forward to the spring treats of wild mustard and the young stems of cattails.
Davenport has been foraging for decades — reading books, taking herbalism and botany classes, and picking up tips from residents of the Navajo reservation near Gallup, where she worked as a journalist. She is circumspect about her hobby’s trendiness. “I think one of the big problems, really, is that it’s so hip that in the Northwest and on the East Coast, there are people picking every single ramps plant in sight and selling