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. True, my family is 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.

Is anything better than wild blackberries? More on the incredible place we found these in a later post...

Is anything better than wild blackberries? More on the incredible place we found these in a later post...

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.