Foraging On

By | June 24, 2009
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two young girls pick fruit from a leafy tree

One Cape Woman’s Ongoing Quest to Live Off the Local Land

Almost three years ago, I became a “locavore,” eating as many locally-grown foods as I could find. Balancing time and economics, I tackled some of the big food groups: unpasteurized, grass-fed dairy; outdoor, free-range chickens (whose slaughter I felt responsible to witness); eggs; grass-fed beef and lamb; summer vegetables and grains ground locally. (See “Bringing the Farm to My Door,” Summer 2008 online at As my journey continued into its third year, I was surprised by the varied and different ways I was able to raise the bar on my self-induced food challenge.

My local food journey has become much more than solely obtaining food for my next meal. I have been questioning the modern approach to food distribution and consumption along with my habits and assumptions. I have opened my mind to foraging; taking advantage of the Cape’s local and wild bounty, in addition to the obvious seafood. I have expanded my idea of what I can grow on our two-thirds of an acre of land. I have taken even more of an active role, helping to be a steward of the animals my family and I eat.

Living off the land is nothing new to old-time Cape Codders. For a summer resident turned wash-a-shore, I found it is more a matter of opening one’s eyes and forgetting the consumer mindset. This past fall I had an epiphany while out hiking with my family in Truro. We came upon a bunch of purple and reddish berries, not much bigger than a quarter. It dawned on me they were probably beach plums. After tentatively tasting one and discovering their sweet flesh, I realized our good fortune. Quickly my eyes became accustomed to their size and foliage; I started seeing them everywhere. I had found my foraging eyes.

Sight is just one sense helpful when looking for free, natural delights; smell is another. While walking on the bike trail a few summers ago, I came across a very heady, sweet smell. Looking up, I noticed bunches of grapes on vines growing up an oak tree. I reached for a plump, juicy ball and my mouth was instantly filled with an intense sweetness that cried out for peanut butter. At first I thought the grapes were concord, but after taking a foraging class at the National Seashore, I found out they were native fox grapes. Katie Finch, our well-informed ranger, told me some people believe, that “Martha’s Vineyard got its name from the abundance of grapes on the island.” And she added, “It [the fox grape] is the starting point for many cultivars of grapes that are grown today.”

The National Seashore is not the only place where I have learned about local plants. I have also been fortunate enough to spend some time with natives who grew up foraging and are willing to share their secrets. Robin Cummings of Chatham Jam and Jelly ( is one such individual. He showed me four edible plants in a quarter-acre area behind a small shopping plaza in Chatham. They included autumn olives (also known as oleaster), wild cherry trees, beach plums and raspberries. The land looked derelict at first glance, but it became alive with seasonal food, once Cummings opened my eyes. My eldest daughter quickly took our new-found knowledge and exposed the autumn olive bush with its beautifully mottled, small, red, tart berries next to our mailbox.

Expanding my access to humanely-raised, local meat has been easier than I thought. My good friend Bethany Gibbons, an Orleans native, let me have full access to two pigs she was raising for slaughter. Having bought half a share of one of the animals, I wanted to be involved in any way I could with their upbringing. My two daughters and I brought vegetable scraps for them to eat every few days as we watched them rapidly grow. When grain prices increased, so did our monetary share. It felt good to know that not only were we being responsible to the animals, but also to the farmer’s economic livelihood. As much as it saddened me to have one of these timid animals gracing my freezer, I am so grateful it had a good life compared to its factory-farmed cousins. I know what was put into its body, so I know what will be put into mine.

We wanted more fruit, so we decided to start a small orchard in our backyard, knowing it might take years to yield an abundant crop. We now have a peach, an apple and a cherry tree to nurture. We have no fruit yet to pick from our infant orchard, but I was surprised by how many apple, pear and wild cherry trees grow along the side of the road, many springing up from a tossed core or pit. I even found some trees in the middle of Orleans behind a store that the owner had no interest in picking. I picked the fruit with his permission, and made wonderful apple sauce and pie. The apples were not much to look at, but peeled and chopped, they were perfect. Also, with permission, I picked cranberries from an abandoned bog to make Thanksgiving cranberry sauce.

The hand-picked cranberry sauce was the crowning glory of our “locavore” Thanksgiving. Inspired by Michael Pollan’s now famous meal in his The New York Times best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I wanted to create a feast from local foods. Since the Pilgrims were able to do it over 400 years ago in nearby “Plimoth,” I gave it a try. The meal was not only delicious, but also an anthropological study. The big undertaking gave a whole new meaning to preparing the holiday meal. Achieving the desired results meant planning the meal months in advance. One of the memorable highlights was being chased by a number of heritage-breed “toms.” My daughters and I had to flee to our car for safety, all in an attempt to secure a rare, locally-raised turkey.

Even though we have blueberry and raspberry bushes, they are not producing enough to meet my family’s demand yet. Last summer, I connected with a farmer from the Orleans Farmers Market, who let me pick his surplus blueberries. I picked so often, my children began to whine whenever I drove in the direction of the bushes. My motivating factors were: 1) if I did not pick the extra berries, they would just rot, and 2) I was overcome by the primal urge to put food away for the winter. I think the latter was brought about by reading the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen in combination with the My Side of the Mountain series by Jean Craighead George with my two daughters. All the books deal with survival in the woods. The thought of biting into a little piece of summer through a blueberry muffin in the winter was all the incentive I needed.

In addition to storing local fruits for the winter, I blanched and then froze green beans from our garden last fall. Some batches have fared better than others, not becoming overly mushy when reheated. Compared to fresh green beans, my preserving attempts brought back memories of commercially-canned green beans from my youth. Whenever my two girls complain about the texture of the beans, I remind them how canned vegetables were commonplace years ago, and how we take for granted all of the year-round food options we have available to us, regardless of season.

After buying a couple of shiitake logs from Cape Coastal Farm Products (508-255-5354) at the Orleans Farmers Market, I added mushrooms to our list of backyard crops. It is fun to check the log every few days in the spring and fall for new growth. The logs produce for a few years and are well worth the initial $20 investment.

Even our garden soil has become more local, with healthy nutrients being added to it, starting with seaweed we collected from the beach. I also procured local goat and chicken manure. The year-long composted droppings are rich with natural nitrogen and worms, ensuring healthy, organic vegetables from my garden. Because I know the farmers (one happens to be our dentist and friend), I did not have to wonder if the animals were given hormones or antibiotics, thereby affecting the composition of our vegetables and the health of our garden.

Currently I see no end in sight for my locavore journey. I feel as if I have just started to peel back the many layers of an artichoke. The more I peel, the more I am open to new ideas and the more local ingredients seem to come to my table. As I get closer to the “heart” of the matter, I see the ultimate benefit is the multitude of connections I have made to not only the land and but also my neighbors.

Ellen Petry Whalen is a freelance writer. She grew up spending her summers in Orleans and has been calling it home for seven years, with her husband and their two organically homeschooled daughters. Before children, she worked in sales and marketing in the medical nutrition industry and in the wine industry. A supporter of traditional foods, she is a Weston A. Price Chapter Leader. She holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College.

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