Farm & Garden

Urban Foraging – Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

August 09 2012 - 12:30 PM

With the White House garden leading the way, gardening has become all the rage these days. But what about those yard-less city dwellers who yearn to create their own Edens, rather than simply driving on one? How about people interested in truly controlling the supply chain of their food, hunter and gatherer-style? Enter urban foraging, the latest buzzword for a practice that is somewhere between community sharing and petty theft. Using websites like Neighborhood Fruit and word-of-mouth tips, urban foragers pick and eat fruit from neighborhood trees, often heavy with fruit that the owner has no time to gather.

The two main tenets of the urban foraging counterculture are as follows: 1) it’s a shame to let good food go to waste, and 2) fruit tastes best when it’s free. You can invest energy into getting to know your neighbors to share in their bounty, or join a fruit-swapping alliance if you have an abundance of peaches and would like to trade them for pears. Or, you can look for “public fruit,” or fruit that is overhanging on sidewalks, alleys and other public lands, which can legally be picked by anyone.

Scanning Craig’s List one afternoon earlier this summer, I spotted a post for free mulberries. No time to pick them and tree is making the birds drunk, so come by and make use of these berries, it said. Clearly, it was time to put my primeval foraging skills to the test. This is how I ended up standing beneath an outstretched mulberry tree on a Monday afternoon, pondering the best way to scale a story or so up the trunk.

After spending an hour or so craning my neck and stretching skywards, I must say that the urban forager lifestyle might not be as glamorous as I’d hoped it would be. I was hot, sticky, and my bag seemed to be filled a pitiful amount. To add to my frustration, the ripest fruit is the closest to falling off the tree. It seemed as though each time I reached for a ripe mulberry, it would perversely fall off the branch before I had a chance to pluck it away. I commend farmers and gardeners who do this sort of thing full-time; it is hard work. Also, I have developed a new appreciation for low-hanging fruit. By the end, the soles of my shoes were completely stained purple with mulberry juice, and my hands looked like a Rorschach test.

All right, so was it worth the work? In the end, I netted about two pints of berries, which is a pretty good deal for an hour of labor. Plus, I could revel in the satisfaction of living off the land (whereby “land” I mean “inner Chicago”). The mulberries were juicy and a little tart, akin to blackberries but milder in flavor and without the seeds. The directions I found online suggested soaking them in water for half an hour before use. This seemed to flush out any remaining insects on my berries. Apparently, unripe mulberries are slightly hallucinogenic, so it is best to avoid those. It was also suggested that you remove the berry stems before usage, but I decided this would be more trouble than it was worth and left all the stems intact.

Mulberries have a fairly short shelf life, keeping for only a few days if refrigerated after picking, so I tried to use them asap. Some of them went into in a yogurt and granola parfait the next morning, where they added some pep to store-bought strawberries and yogurt. The rest went into a mulberry tart. I was a tad disappointed in the laid-back flavor of the mulberries in this tart, so perhaps they would be better paired with something bolder, like blueberries or orange. At any rate, fruit still tastes sweeter when it’s free, and I’d be willing to go back for another batch.

The mulberry tree will continue to fruit all summer long, and in case you are wondering, several large branches do hang over the fence on a public alley…