The Washington Post

Urban foraging class seeks tasty weeds in Capitol Hill alleys and median strips

Bill Schindler (bottom right), a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Washington College, points out edible plants on the Capitol grounds while teaching a class on foraging in Washington, D.C. on June 1, 2013. (Eva Russo/For The Washington Post)

Bill Schindler ran his hand over a patch of violets, ignoring the nearby rat trap and the brown paper bag crumpled around an empty can of Colt .45 malt liquor. He was searching for flowers to eat.

In the alley next to him, a group of people were crouched in the dust, harvesting curly-leaf dock. They had all paid to eat weeds. After signing up for Schindler’s “urban foraging” class at the Hill Center, a community center on Capitol Hill, they spent the morning rooting out scraggly greens from cracks in Capitol Hill sidewalks, then cooking them into an elaborate, tasty lunch.

With growing concern about over-processing, pesticides, preservatives, steroids and antibiotics in food, some people are searching out wild food and sources so local that they step on them on the way to the Metro.

“There are no wild boar here for me to hunt,” attorney Jenny Hoffpauir said lightly after helping to gather leaves from the rusty base of a traffic light on Pennsylvania Avenue, “but I can get a little purslane.”

Foraging is increasingly mainstream. There are foraging groups and digital maps such as . The former chef at Ripple restaurant in Cleveland Park was an advocate of foraging, and his replacement, Marjorie Meek, said several of her cooks occasionally bring in things such as greens and nasturtiums from Rock Creek Park to add to dishes. Still, the thought of truly urban found food gives her pause. “All the animals and everything, it’s a little . . . .” she said, letting the sentence trail off.

Not to Schindler. “We’re meant to be hunter-gatherers,” he said.

A prehistoric archaeologist and anthropologist at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he studies early technologies and how people used them to feed themselves. He grew up hunting, fishing, trapping and searching for edible plants in the woods. Years as a Division I college wrestler, with the sport’s constant emphasis on making weight, kept him focused on food and nutrition.

A decade or so ago, he got serious about transforming the way he and his family eat, so that he could know what was in the food and where it came from. Now he describes cornfields as “genocide” because all the other plant species are wiped out, cooks with animal fats such as tallow and schmaltz, and stays up til 2 a.m. some nights fermenting things.

He has never felt so healthy, he said.

The people who took the class — including a homemaker, an artist, a computer security analyst and a curator at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries — brought an interest in healthier food, botany and sustainability.

Schindler took it easy on them: He didn’t push larvae, earthworms or crickets.

He didn’t even mention the meat available all around (rats).

Instead, he told them how a certain type of dogwood tree would produce fat, golf ball-sized fruits they could pop in their mouths and savor. He pulled a giant chicken-of-the-woods mushroom from an oak tree on the grounds of the Capitol. He handed them lemony leaves of wood sorrel to chew. He pulled pale-green mulberries from a tree and grinned as they gasped at the sweetness.

“You’re just eating summer right now,” he said. Then he wandered over to an alley, plucking mallows and lambs-quarters and asiatic dayflowers.

“Look at this!” he kept saying. “This is so fantastic to eat!”

Elaine Nagey was thinking about her yard in Annapolis. These were all the things she was yanking out and throwing away. “I’m realizing I live in a grocery store that no one else knows about,” she said.

Jason Smith walked by with his beagle, Tanner, who stopped to eat some greens. “Why not, if that’s their thing?” he said, looking at the group eating chickweed, their eyes closed to concentrate on the fresh-corn flavor. Not for him, he said. “My dog’s probably about to go to the bathroom on it. But if people want to, I’m all for it.”

Schindler took out his wooden digging stick — modeled after primitive tools — and went after some wild garlic in a weedy tree box.

When he heard sirens, he said, only half-joking, “Are they coming for us?”

Schindler told his students to be cautious and to get to know the plants well — well enough to know, for example, that the seed of the yew will stop your heart, but not the delicious berry around it. “Look at this!” he called out, showing them a fat-stemmed poke plant. It’s toxic, he said, unless you cook it properly. “But it’s worth it, because it tastes so fantastic.”

Besides, he argues, the risks you know are better than those you don’t — such as what’s in that ready-made food you grab at the store.

On the class’s way back to the Hill Center kitchen to grind sheep sorrel for pesto and feast on the fat bags of food they had found, Louise Cort stopped at an run-down apartment building on a big corner lot.

“Look!” she said with delight. “A whole yard full of weeds!”

Susan Svrluga is a reporter for the Washington Post, covering higher education for the Grade Point blog.


Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.