Obsessed: Finding Your Food in the Field

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Tama Matsuoka Wong, collecting spruce tips. [Photograph: Chad Brauze]

Editor's Note: Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!

For longtime readers of Serious Eats, Tama Matsuoka Wong may need little introduction. Her 2013–2014 Foraged Flavor column offered up sage advice on how to forage and use, among other things, wild sumac, pine, and juniper berries, and her book of the same name—which she cowrote with Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine at Daniel Boulud's flagship restaurant Daniel—was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2013. Wong still serves as the forager for Daniel and supplies other restaurants in New York City, including Agern, Gramercy Tavern, and Dirt Candy, as well as some retail outlets, like FreshDirect and Eataly.

Wong is a natural fit for our Obsessed interview series—she actually gave up a lucrative job as a general counsel for Merrill Lynch to devote all her time to foraging. We spoke with Wong about how she caught the foraging bug, and about the work she does through her wild-food company, Meadows + More.

Name: Tama Matsuoka Wong

Age: 59

Website: meadowsandmore.com

Instagram: meadowsandmore

When did you first start foraging food? Were you exposed to the practice as a child?

Yes, I "foraged" food as a child. My mom was happiest when she was digging in the earth and growing plants. We were always mucking about outdoors, either in her ramshackle vegetable garden or when we were enlisted to pick wild berries for a pie. We didn't call it foraging. It was just a natural part of being outdoors. It was only later, as an adult, when I was moving my parents out of their home, that I found my mom had hoarded an entire library of foraging books about identifying shrubs and edible herbs, including hardcover books by Euell Gibbons and mushroom books from the '60s illustrated by Beatrix Potter. So I realized she did have a secret method behind enlisting my brother and me to forage things.

When did you decide to start devoting a significant amount of time to foraging?

I guess the key word there is decide. I didn't, really. What I mean to say is that the position I had at Merrill Lynch, first as Asia Pacific general counsel based in Hong Kong, then as general counsel for international private clients based in New York, was fascinating, thrilling, and impactful, as well as financially secure. It took a lot of soul-searching to leave that world. But I got sucked in and obsessed with the world of plants: touching, smelling, tasting, and living with and among plants found in nature. It is incomparably amazing, rejuvenating and impactful.

It was my husband who suggested to me, after I signed a contract to write Foraged Flavor in 2011, that I needed to take some time off from corporate work to write it. That opened the first crack in the door, where I found it impossible to go back full time to office life. For the next few years, I only took on corporate projects during the winter—my off season—and then, three years ago, I stopped doing any corporate work at all.

I had some advice from Joel Peterson, the founder of the now-famous Ravenswood Winery, who started out as a chemist and got bitten by the winemaking bug. He said that initially, there was no question of needing to keep his day job in order to be responsible for his family, pay the bills, et cetera, until the time (if ever) he could be supported by his wine business. He said he worked two jobs for a decade before going full time in wine, but even then, he said he felt grateful working even half time for something he was passionate about, which is more than most people are able to do.

Are there unique health concerns when it comes to foraging in general, and urban foraging in particular?

A number of wild plants in particular take up contaminants from the soil, such as yarrow, lamb's quarters, Brassica juncea and rapa (mustard species), violets, Asiatic dayflower, and pokeweed. These plants have even been used in phytoremediation, to clean up certain heavy metals from hazardous waste sites. Also, plants by the side of a trafficked road can be exposed to diesel fumes and flooded by dirty water. The soil and environment where the plant is growing are key. In addition, some wild plants or weeds are sprayed with weed killers and heavy poisons. It is only common sense to be familiar with the property you wish to forage on, and to get permission if it is not your own.

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Lamb's quarters. [Photograph: Mia Wong]

And, of course, accurate identification is important, as there are poisonous plants and mushrooms, as well as plants with built-in defenses: poison ivy, stinging nettle, wild parsnip.

Plants picked in an unpolluted environment have been found to be extremely high in nutrients and antioxidants (for more information, see Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson).

Do you think foraging makes you a better or more curious cook?

Definitely. Just identifying the plant is less than half of the equation. After all, foraging is ultimately about food, and hopefully delicious food. The more you learn about a plant, in all its stages and parts, the more possibilities open up for ways to eat it. This is why I enjoy working with chefs and creative cooks: to tap more potential from different cuisines and different methods.

Can you explain the work you do at Meadows + More?

I started Meadows + More to provide inspirational examples of the world of wild plants to laypeople. I wanted to help them appreciate the beauty of a meadow as opposed to a porch-to-roadside mowed lawn, to show how land that is untidy and unmanicured can be alive and beautiful, and to show how you can steward a little piece of wild in your own backyard. And people like the idea of combining productivity along with stewardship, of restoring a meadow or forest that is wild but also crop-bearing.

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Gathering Artemisia (mugwort). [Photograph: Chad Brauze]

Meadows + More also challenges people to take a step back from the values they may have become accustomed to placing on land, plants, and food. Why is a dandelion a bad weed? Why should we throw out blemished fruit? Instead, we take what is unwanted and endeavor to make it into something worthy.

And finally, our full-time foraging work at Meadows + More provides a working database for new information about wild plants. There is little documented information on the behavior, management, and propagation of wild edible plants in comparison with a commodity crop, such as corn or wheat. Careful observation is something each person can own and keep learning from. No one has all the answers about nature.

Do you think that everyone should try to make room for foraged foods in their lives? Do you think that there's an ethical component to eating foraged foods? I know you have a particular focus on invasive edible species; can you talk about how that fits in with foraging and the environment?

This is at the heart of what I find so compelling about foraged foods. Finding an edible weed is as accessible as stepping outside in the yard or filling a window box with soil and watching what grows. It doesn't take a lot of money or time. And the most common "weedy" plants that will grow there are also safe to harvest without worrying about overharvesting.

While it is fantastic that foraging has given people a renewed interest in being outside and finding wild plants, I am concerned that what might seem fun and cool may be actually damaging.

Meadows + More follows a strict sustainability code depending on the plant (invasive, nonnative, native weedy, and native specialist), based on our work and collaborations with scientists and conservation groups. A plant that grows in only a specialized habitat and takes a decade to grow will end up with dwindling populations. This is what happened with American ginseng, which is now endangered. Digging and stomping around can decimate the health of the soil and its connected ecosystem in a forest.

What would you say to someone who views foraged food as precious, or as something solely reserved for higher-end restaurants?

For me, all foraged food is "precious," as in, something not to be wasted. I hate to supply a plant to a chef who does not use the plant, which ends up sitting in a walk-in and thrown out. I am not proud of going to foraged events where there is no preparation or thought as to how to use the ingredient—it is just thrown on top of a grilled chicken breast, with the guests deciding wild plants, although cool, don't taste good.

This has nothing to do with higher-end as opposed to budget restaurants. But it does take a planning and time commitment from a restaurant, as the season for a foraged plant can be as short as a week, especially with recent weather extremes. A restaurant that does not have enough time or the budget to make that commitment should be honest with their capacity.

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Wild garlic aerial (above-ground) bulblets. [Photograph: Yossy Arefi]

What's your favorite type of forage to eat?

My favorite things are wild greens, such as Brassica rapa and lamb's quarters. They have so much more flavor than bagged lettuce or spinach.

What's your favorite dish to make using foraged ingredients?

On an everyday basis, I just use leafy green foraged ingredients in meals, such as in scrambled eggs (chopped wild chives, Allium vineale), stir-fries (galinsoga, lamb's quarters), fried rice, or sukiyaki (dandelion leaves). And we use a lot of sumac as well (on avocado toast, oatmeal, potato salad).

I find myself returning to the recipes in Foraged Flavor. The mugwort soup recipe is pretty timeless, and I think the key is to include the mushrooms and potato for thickness and umami balance.

Is there a recipe you've come up with that you're particularly proud of? What about it is important to you?

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Foraged dandelions. [Photograph: Unusually Fine]

Dandelion flower tempura. I discovered this with my daughters, and we always look forward to seeing dandelions now. The flower is puffy and sweet, the light tempura crust crunchy, and it all gets dipped in the savory sauce. It's delicious and really easy.

Do you own a kitchen tool that you can't live without?

Chopsticks. I learned this from watching my Chinese mother-in-law, Ivy Wong. She has giant chopsticks that she uses to flip meat instead of a spatula, to stir instead of a wooden spoon, and to beat to a froth instead of a whisk! I also wondered what the giant chopsticks in Asian stores were used for, and now I know it's a multipurpose tool (smaller ones are handy as well).

Any tips for the aspiring forager? Ideas about where to start?

The great thing about foraging is it is not something where you can push a button and what you want will appear. It will take at least a year to understand all the hundreds of plants available during different seasons, and then, of course, every year is different. So for beginning foragers as well as chefs and cooks: You will have to slow down. Nature will force you to. But sometimes the most rewarding things in life are those that take time to learn.

But this doesn't mean people should be daunted. Humans have been foraging since before agriculture, so it is wired in our brains and bodies. Start with something familiar that is around you, like dandelions. Talk to other plant people.

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Gathering huckleberries. [Photograph: Mia Wong]

Any resources for fledgling foragers you'd like to highlight?

I have columns on some of the more commonly found foraged plants on both Serious Eats and Food52. We have a forum on our website that is hosted by a professional field botanist. You can also send a photo via Instagram @meadowsandmore.

There are many regional resources and wonderful guided tours and workshops. If you can't attend one near you, for online resources for plant identification, I recommend choosing academic websites in your local region (should have ".edu" at the end) or reputable plant organizations, such as the Missouri Botanical Garden. Be cautious about relying on sources on the internet, as there are a lot of undocumented claims and misidentified plants.

Other great online resources beyond plant identification: Hank Shaw's award-winning Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog, Eat the Weeds, and Plants for a Future (a UK-based catalog of edible plants).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.