Urban foraging as an emotional survival strategy

Last week, I was out running errands around the neighborhood on my bike. As I came to the sidewalk portion of the Expo Line Bike Path and waited amidst the honking and sirens to cross one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles, I heard a plane fly overhead. I looked up, just in time to also catch the Expo Line train roaring by on the elevated track above me, and suddenly realized that I was simultaneously in the shadow of the metro platform, the 405 freeway overpass and the flight path of Santa Monica airport. Sigh. Just a typical day in LA. Which leads me to how I maintain any semblance of humanity in the midst of it all...

One respite for me as of late has been urban foraging. (Not dumpster diving, though it sounds like that in the context of the previous paragraph. I'm talking about the harvesting of real, wild edible plants. The abutment of urban decay and abundant nature is one of the marvelous paradoxes of LA.)

Many of the foraging finds in our neighborhood aren't actually wild species, but simply domesticated plants growing in public spaces like sidewalk medians. My family is also a far way from surviving off the calories we find. But the simple act of learning to discover-identify-harvest-gobble up free fruits and veggies and herbs has been empowering; a reminder that the choice to opt out of the system is there. For my girls, though, it's just a fun game, and it's been amazing to watch them spy a cluster of wild radishes off the sidewalk or a bounty of loquats in the alley and then be able to lead me to that location again and again -- even if the spot is a mile away and we haven't visited for over a month. It is a remarkable reminder of how we as human beings are biologically hardwired to zero in on and catalog the location of food in our natural environment.  

Right now, our favorite fig trees are back producing delicious ripe fruit after going on hiatus for the past two months. Their broad fingered leaves are really easy to spot in the urban landscape; once you learn how to identify them, you start to notice them everywhere. (Note I shouldn't have to add but will anyway: Never eat a plant unless you're 100 percent sure of what it is. Just ask my mom to tell you about the time I was 12 and plopped a random berry off a tree into my mouth to be "funny" while we were on a walk together, two miles from the nearest town or phone or car.)

Figs are ubiquitous, in fact, because they're considered invasive -- all the more reason to eat them freely. (Check out: Eattheinvaders.org.) I like them for breakfast, halved and topped with crumbled cotija and a drizzle of honey. 

Why I don't use plastic produce bags, and a parable

I've been waiting for the inspiration to open this page with the perfect post that encapsulates everything I feel as of late about the disconnectedness of modern life, and how increasingly disconnected I feel from the experience of my fellow modern humans, living here in Los Angeles. It came, strangely enough, during a quick trip to the grocery store this week:

"Your bags," the woman whispered, or at least that's what I thought I heard her say. I was at the fish counter, daydreaming about who-knows-what while waiting for my order to be packed up, and suddenly realized that her secretive hush was directed at me. I looked over my left shoulder to see a thirty-something woman with impeccably blown-out dark brown hair staring at me with a quizzical smile. She was pointing at my cart.

"My bags?" I echoed, gesturing to the array of canvas totes on my arm. I guessed she probably wanted to know where I bought them. Since the plastic bag ban in Los Angeles, I get a lot of compliments on my colorful assortment, along with the smaller cloth bags that I use for veggies and dry goods from the bulk bin. That day, though, I didn't have any of my little cloth produce bags with me because they were in the wash after the farmers market that weekend, so I had done what I always do in that situation: toss my carrots and radishes and other fruits and veggies directly into the cart. 

"No," she tried again, a little louder, this time pointing at my cart. "The bags..." But still, the second half of her sentence trailed off in a barely audible whisper. Did this lady have laryngitis? But her countenance now turned to one of serious concern, and I realized she was whispering so as not to attract the attention of other shoppers. I inched toward her. 

"Sorry, what about my bags?" 

Clearly fed up, she laid it on me: "You don't have bags -- plastic produce bags. You know, you really should use them," she said, glaring at the naked carrot and radish tops splayed across the metal grate of my cart. "These carts are really dirty."


Feeling the eyes of my fellow shoppers upon me, I smiled politely and decided to reply with a version of my usual spiel when people are curious about my plastic-free choices (although this admonishment was a first): "Well, you know, we try to cut back on plastic waste in our family," I chirped. "I wash the veggies, and most of them are going to be cooked, anyway. Have a nice day!" I added, making a point to place the paper package of salmon dangerously close to my unclothed veggies. Then I blithely glided away with my cart.

I could have launched into a tirade about how those vegetables were likely touched by dozens of ungloved hands on their journey from farm to supermarket and that a plastic bag would do little but enrobe whatever microbes were extant; how the manufacturing of petrochemical based plastics produces pollution far more worrisome than whatever "dirt" was lingering on my carrots; how I had forgone plastic produce bags precisely this way for a decade now and had yet to get sick; that recent scientific revelations about the human microbiome had advanced awareness of the complex processes of our immune system far beyond the sanitize-all-invaders simplicity of early 20th-century germ theory; that human beings had undoubtedly been placing plastic-free market purchases in their carts/totes/handwoven baskets even well before the Lydians mingled apricots with grape seeds in their amphorae 2,000 years ago in ancient Tripoli; and that plastic produce baggies, ubiquitous as they now are, were, in fact, only introduced to America in 1966. (Plastic grocery bags made their appearance the year of my birth, in 1979.) But I decided to hold my tongue. Since I'm enjoying this rant here, though, I'll add the response of my 6-year-old daughter when I told her the story: "The plastic bag isn't even really 'clean,' Mommy. The chemicals in the plastic will be touching her food."

Dirt. Germs. The illusionary protective power of good, clean, manmade plastic.

To some of you, this will seem like a silly story about a random run-in with a germ freak at the supermarket. But to me, it's come to symbolize nothing short of an act of rebellion in our hyper-santized, hyper-civilized world. Because as I've replayed the encounter again in my head, I realize that what bothers me so much about it isn't that the woman was lacking the knowledge of all I've stated above. It's that the woman truly believed she was trying to be helpful. She not only sees nothing unnatural about a world in which the plants and the soil and the microbes are separated from the realm of humans by human technologies (i.e., a sheet of plastic); she is its willing enabler. She has no awareness of the world that came before.

It reminded me of another story, that the farmer at my favorite stand at my local farmers market told me the other day: A potential customer had asked the farmer why the potatoes at her stand looked dirty. "They're dirty because potatoes are grown in dirt," the farmer replied to a blank stare, no doubt like the one I witnessed in the woman's face in my shopping cart encounter. 

"I had just pulled them from the ground the evening before," my farmer friend told me. "To my mind, seeing a little bit of dirt on the potatoes is a good thing. It tells you that it's a real potato, grown by a real person, who's directly connected to the food, and to the dirt."