Hank Shaw takes a stroll through Sligo Creek Park and rustles up dinner
We aren’t even 20 feet down my street when Hank Shaw stops to pick up one of the thousands of little brown nuts a neighbor’s tree dropped earlier that week.
“Oh, those dang things are so annoying,” I say. “They make this loud popping noise when cars drive over them, and it sounds like gunfire.”
To Shaw, they’re not annoying in the least. For someone in survival mode, he says, they’re a good — and rare — source of fat and starch: butternuts. “Meat and vegetables are easy,” he says. “Plants and fish are everywhere. But starches are really hard to come by.”
Shaw is no survivalist, and we aren’t stuck in the woods needing to fend for ourselves until help arrives or we find our way out. We’re here because we want to be. A self-described “recovering journalist,” Shaw, 41, has built a career out of hunting, fishing, foraging and cooking. As the author of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, he maintains that the act of finding our own food gives us purpose and provides visceral, necessary contact with the outdoors.
“Think about it,” he says. “Every animal knows how to feed itself except for humans. Whether you forage, fish or hunt — even for just a little bit — that very act fulfills a primal need we all have lost contact with. It’s one thing to go hiking to see nature, but it’s another thing entirely to go hiking with the intention to bring back food. It shifts your whole focus and makes you slow down and really pay attention to your surroundings.”
When I found out Shaw was coming to Washington on his self-orchestrated, cross-country tour to promote his new book, “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast” (Rodale 2011), I asked if he would take me foraging. It’s something I had always wanted to do, but I never knew how or where to start.
To be honest, it’s a little intimidating. One spring, I tried to hunt for morels, but the mere sight of a snake sent me running home just five minutes into my adventure. With a particular interest in wild mushrooms, but no desire to die young or be rushed to the emergency room with liver damage (like the four people treated this fall at Georgetown University Hospital), I was excited to hit the woods with an expert.
Should we drive way out in the country, or go somewhere more urban? Perhaps wade through a salty marsh or hike the Catoctin Mountains? Shaw’s reply: “As long as I have trees and water, I’ll find something.”
Perfect, because I live along Sligo Creek Park in Takoma Park, where trees and water abound and where I have long suspected that a bounty of food was waiting to be discovered.
So that’s why I find myself walking toward the woods near my house with Shaw on a sunny September day, picking up those butternuts — and having a devil of a time getting them open. (After many rounds of stomping on them, we watch as a squirrel cracks one open on the first try with its tiny jaw. Behold the power of the rat with the fluffy tail.)
Soon, we are on my favorite path in the woods, but we venture away from it almost immediately. “This is where all the good stuff is,” said Shaw. “Off the beaten path.” If by “good stuff” he means a raccoon skull, a pair of cheetah-print Van Halen pants, plastic takeout containers, empty beer bottles and empty turtle shells, then, sure.
Twenty minutes in, I’m wondering whether we’ll find anything worthwhile, let alone edible. We encounter many varieties of inedible fungi: Russula mushrooms, poisonous coral mushrooms and a bolete mushroom that turns a deep stay-away-from-me blue when we slice it open.
“There are more than 10,000 types of wild mushrooms in North America, and most of them are not edible, but also not toxic,” Shaw says. “Many are used in Eastern medicine; they’re dried and put in tea. Very few are deathly poisonous, and there are a lot that are mildly toxic. You can’t just eat them. You have to do research on anything you pull out of the ground.”
As we trudge through the woods, climbing over logs and inching down steep hills, we find quite a few puffballs — the tofu of the mushroom world — that typically are edible, though these are past their prime and have turned to a mustard-brown powder inside. With Shaw’s guidance, I gently tap them to release the mushroom’s spores, encouraging more to grow.
Next, we find a giant cluster of oyster mushrooms that unfortunately is infested with bugs and worms and has been pummeled by a recent rainstorm to boot. “Late summer and early fall are a little too warm and wet for mushroom hunting,” he says. “Mushrooms need rain to do their thing, but a constant, driving rain will soak them out. They go real bad real quick.”
Mushrooms need time to dry out between rainfalls, he explains. Some mushrooms take hours to fruit, some take weeks.
I try to remain patient and not feel as if my woods have failed us as we continue our walk, eyes glued to the ground, when I hear a rustling in the treetops. As I whip my head around and up to see what is causing such a ruckus, my eye catches something just off to our left: bright orange, ridged clusters in the shape of a rooster’s rear end growing out of a long-ago-fallen tree.
“Well, look at that,” Shaw says as we hike over to inspect them. “Chicken of the woods mushrooms. Score.” Chicken of the woods is a sulfur-shelf mushroom that grows on fallen oaks and other hardwoods across North America. We trim away their tender edges — about an inch or more — then bag them and stick them in Shaw’s backpack to take home for verification.
This walk through the woods isn’t all about mushrooms. We see greenbrier and pokeweed, both of which grow shoots that you can eat in the spring; wild dandelion; sweet and lemony wood sorrel, which I’ve been thinking was clover all summer long, mistakenly weeding it out of my garden; chicory; amaranth; and my second-favorite find of the day: shiso, a relative of basil, with a distinctive leaf shape and tiny purple flowers that I love to throw into salads, soups and stir-fries.
We make our way down the hill through the woods and reach the creek line; Shaw says such “edge habitats” are most likely to host the most diverse species of wild edibles. Sure enough, we find a giant beechnut tree dropping nickel-size spiky pockets onto the ground. After removing their prickly outer layer, we use our thumbnails to crack open the pod and reveal the nut, which is about the size of a kitten’s claw and tastes like a sweeter version of a pine nut.
As we walk along the banks looking for wild berries and pawpaws, I ask Shaw how much of what he cooks at home is foraged vs. bought at a market.
“I spend about $25 to $50 a week at the grocery store, tops,” he says. “I typically buy flour, dairy products, grains, some produce — you know, onions and potatoes — and, of course, beer. I’d say that 60 to 70 percent of what I cook and eat at home is something I’ve caught, hunted or found myself.”
We head back home after a few hours, talking about what we’ve seen and thinking about how we might want to cook our chicken of the woods mushrooms. Back in my kitchen, Shaw opens my laptop, channels his inner Peter Falk and relishes the online hunt to confirm that the mushrooms we found actually are edible. Then we fire up the stove and start pulling ingredients from the pantry and refrigerator. He sends me outside to tug the yard onions growing along my fence in the front yard so we can use the greens as a garnish.
“Why in the world would anyone buy chives when you have yard onions at your disposal?” Shaw asks, shaking his head as I rinse the onions and spin them dry. As I finely chop the greens, he cuts the mushrooms into matchsticks. Some butter here, a splash of brandy there and a little cream for a nice simmer, and dinner is served. With the main ingredient found about 100 yards from my front door.
Shaw has taught me more than just how to find safe-to-eat mushrooms, though. I’ve learned that if you’re serving squirrel for dinner, one per person is adequate. I’ve learned that it’s illegal to shoot a robin. And I’ve learned that, when you’re foraging, you sometimes have to pause and let your eyes get used to the habitat, and then things start popping out at you.
As Shaw puts it, “You have to just stop looking, and then that’s when you see everything.”