Top | The Culinate Interview

John Kallas

(article, Caroline Cummins)

p(blue). Kallas, the director of the Institute for the Study of Edible Wild Plants and Other Foragables in Portland, Oregon, has been teaching and writing the gospel of wild foods for nearly 20 years, encouraging a greater appreciation of the free, sustainable, and diverse edibles that often grow right in our back yards.

How did you first get interested in foraging?
I grew up in suburban Detroit, and my family thought the outdoors was unsanitary. But in my imagination, I fashioned myself a Native American, building fire with two sticks and all that. I was self-taught, in the school of hard knocks; I had a lot of failures. The only reason I stuck with it is because I’m boneheaded, I guess.

What’s the connection between playing Indian and foraging for wild food?
People used to forage all the time, but now, we just go to the supermarket. And we’re more disconnected from nature; kids today, for example, aren’t allowed to roam around outdoors the way I did as a kid. 

There’s this romantic idea today about Native Americans, of a naked guy walking into the woods with no food and thriving on the resources he finds using his knowledge, wits, and intuition. But that’s just a testosterone fantasy. Teams of tribe members traveled to certain areas to process and store enough foods, such as wapato (a potato-like tuber) and cattails, to last them the year. So traditionally when you walked into the woods, you might snack on fresh foods during your trip, but you would carry food with you.

[%image kallas float=left width=250 caption="John Kallas picking cattails." credit="Photo: Michael Wallis"]

So the idea of living off just the immediate land around you is impractical?
I’m not a survivalist guy. It’s a stunt to try and eat only what you come across on the trail; nature’s not here for our convenience. So I’m not interested in trying to live only off of wild foods. But every wild food you add to your diet adds diversity. Today, we’re so systematic that the fertile middle of America is devoted to growing only about four grains. Other grains just got shunted aside.

What does it take to forage successfully?
Dandelions turn more people off to wild foods than any other plant. Second is the acorn. People see squirrels eating them and think, “Hey, I could eat these too!” Unfortunately, the taste of both is so bitter, they give up. 

The key to dandelions is rapid growth without baking in the sun. If you’ve got dandelions growing in your garden with water and shade, you can eat them all year long. Or you can boil them for three minutes in water to get rid of the bitterness, or you can chop them finely and put a bit in a salad. But I wouldn’t eat an entire salad of dandelion leaves, unless you’re one of those people whose palate can’t taste bitterness.

What role do you see food playing in the wider world?
All foods are a mixture of culture, history, and practical considerations mixed with climatic conditions and terrain. Sometimes tribes living next door to each other ate completely different foods even though they lived in the same climate, whether because of tradition, taboo, or perhaps resource-sharing. 

Once potatoes became available to the Native Americans who used to harvest wapato, they abandoned the wapato. Potatoes are bigger, better, and easier to grow. It was totally impractical not to switch over.

Can people learn to forage successfully from books?
Books don’t give you nearly enough information. Typically, they only give you one picture of the mature plant, which isn’t enough to go on. I’m writing a series of books organized by category of flavor — sweet, sour, pungent, bitter. Anyone who has weeds in their yard will have probably 40 percent of these flavors in their yard. And the books will take the reader from foraging through cleaning, preparation, and recipes. Just like Better Homes and Gardens, with pictures and everything.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is the managing editor of Culinate.

reference-image, l

kallas, l