Foraging with Russ Cohen
Three large black walnut trees stand in a perfect line, parallel to the side of a home in Wenham, Mass. An old rope swing dangles from a lofty branch. The owner says her kids sometimes bounce on the swing to dislodge walnuts from high above. Hundreds of the nuts litter the lawn. Russ Cohen kicks at them with a worn, brown walking shoe. He picks some up, turns them over in his hand, and drops them into an old wicker basket. I wonder if the kids wear helmets when they swing.
A black walnut is a little larger than a golf ball and not much softer. A thick, light green husk protects a hard inner shell. Once those layers are penetrated—a violent act that some carry out by driving a car over them—the meat must be carefully picked out. Cohen often does this on long car rides, while his wife drives. His fingers are stained brown from shelling some recently. He then dries the nuts in the oven and jars them. He eats them whole or uses them in baklava and cookies.
Cohen often picks up what others don’t want or, maybe, don’t even see. He once knocked on a farmer’s door and asked if he could pick some wild mustard growing in the yard. “Only if you take it all,” the farmer said.
He squeezes hours of foraging around his full-time job in the Riverways Program of the Massachusetts Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration, where he’s an advocate for the commonwealth’s rivers. Sometimes he even picks juneberries near his downtown Boston office, eating them raw or saving them to bake into muffins.
I’ve met him on a sunny Columbus Day, though, and his schedule is clear to explore some of his favorite spots on the North Shore. “Dawn to dusk, I’ve been known to forage my little buns off,” he’d told me when we’d spoken on the phone a few days earlier.
Cohen meanders from one tree to the next. His hair, flecked with gray, emerges from beneath a faded red cap. He wears a blue shirt and beige pants. There’s serendipity to foraging, Cohen says. And sure enough, though he’s looking for walnuts, he spots something else. The branches of a tree across the yard sag with the weight of red, cherry-sized crabapples. He retrieves another basket from his car. “These are beautiful,” he says. “I’ll have to remember this.”
A Foraging Life
Cohen’s entry into foraging was a bit serendipitous itself. During his sophomore year of high school in Weston, Mass., he took a course in edible botany. This was the early 1970s, in the midst of the back-to-the-earth movement. Famed forager Euell Gibbons was telling national television audiences that Grape-Nuts were “my back-to-nature cereal.” By his senior year, Cohen was teaching the course.
Now he leads about 40 foraging walks annually throughout the Northeast, though mostly in the Boston area. Each is in partnership with a local group like AMC, The Trustees of Reservations, Mass Audubon, or the New England Wildflower Society. His foraging guidebook, Wild Plants I Have Known…and Eaten, was published in 2004 by the Essex County Greenbelt Association, a land trust located north of Boston.
Cohen estimates that 20,000 people have taken his foraging walks over the past 40 years. Most are drawn by their curiosity for the outdoors, Cohen says. At the extremes, he also sees people interested in learning survivalist skills, do-it-yourself methods, and, to his chagrin, an increasing number of people looking to capitalize on the foodie movement by turning foraging into profit. “Is my sharing information actually counter-productive? Should I just shut the hell up?” Cohen says he sometimes wonders. “But I’ve decided that it’s best to keep preaching the conservation angle to foragers.”
Gay Gillespie has organized several walks with Cohen for the Westport (Mass.) River Watershed Alliance. “Part of our mission is to educate people,” Gillespie says. “Foraging isn’t directly related, but we’re talking about natural resources and how you can use them. And it’s always good to get people out to understand the natural world.” Of Cohen, she says, “He’s very enthusiastic about this. It’s a little contagious, because he’s really into it.”
Many novice foragers worry about eating something poisonous, so Cohen sees his walks as an opportunity to help them get comfortable with identifying the species they can eat. He notes that very few poisonous species in the Northeast taste good—so if something tastes bad, just spit it out. He’s often asked about mushrooms—a popular but potentially dangerous foraging target—but he tends to refer people to a local mycology club and sticks to plants. They’re safer and easier for a beginner to collect.
Four decades of foraging have trained Cohen’s eyes. He spots intriguing weeds and trees and berries from his car as we wind along narrow roads from Wenham to our next stop, in Ipswich. A tuft of wild mustard on the road’s shoulder. A black walnut tree in a front yard. Throughout the day he surprises me by spotting bunches of berries in the brush or masked by thick mats of leaves.
He turns into a hidden parking area, on the edge of a corporate property. Some of the land is protected, and it’s a perfect spot to pick one of Cohen’s favorite edible plants: common barberry. But first he notices an autumn olive plant next to his parking space. He plucks a few berries and tastes them. I follow his lead. The name is deceptive and comes from the resemblance of the leaves to those of an olive plant. These berries are red with silver spots, and they’re sweet and juicy right off the branch. Cohen likes to puree them and let that dry into tart fruit leather—no other ingredients added.
Barberry is an invasive species in the Northeast. It’s still a common sight near colonial farmhouses where settlers used it in landscaping. Cohen finds a bush along the roadside and begins plucking from the barbed branches. The tiny, red berries pack a tart flavor. They’re mostly seed on the inside, though, and not that pleasing to eat whole. Cohen uses them in a sour jelly. He once forgot a batch of barberry juice in his refrigerator and ended up with wine—though he’s never been able to duplicate that process.
Once he’s satisfied with what he’s collected, we head to the day’s last target, Cohen’s favorite wild edible—shagbark hickory. He swings onto a side street, taking a shortcut he knows from his years foraging in this area. Wicker baskets and cardboard boxes tumble around in the back of the car while nuts and berries shift and scatter.
Cohen parks at The Trustees of Reservations Hamlin Reservation. But the trees he seeks aren’t on their land; they’re once again out by the road. Along a crumbled stone wall stand a series of giant shagbark hickory trees. Cohen says the nuts taste like walnuts with a dash of maple syrup. “They’re really yummy,” he says. I crack one open on a rock and sample a piece of the flesh. I immediately taste what he has described.
Fallen nuts litter the shoulder of the road, many already crushed by passing cars. Foraging raises many Leave No Trace concerns (see sidebar, below), one of which is impacting the food supply of wild animals. But the squirrels of Ipswich had their chance with these nuts and they left plenty behind. Soon Cohen needs both arms to carry his basket.
Motorists and cyclists stream by, many turning their heads to get a better look at the man crouched on all fours at the roadside. Many are probably headed to a commercial orchard just down the road, where they will pay for the opportunity to forage.
As the afternoon passes and Cohen tells story after story, I realize there’s a lot more foraging in my own past than I had realized. Clamming in the mudflats of Maine. Snacking on trailside blueberries and huckleberries. Sampling apples, raspberries, and blackberries in countless backyards and fields. Most of us have foraged for certain common foods—we just don’t realize how many other opportunities surround us every day, almost anywhere we go.
The Northeast is one of the best places in the world Cohen has found to forage. There’s a little something to eat almost anywhere you look—though the variety changes with the terrain. “There is a rough correlation between elevation and latitude and the number of edible plants,” Cohen says. Many of his favorite edibles thrive in the sun, so a forager’s options are more limited deep in the forest or high in the mountains.
Cohen says a few of his favorite things to eat in the mountains are fire cherries and creeping snowberry. “It’s like eating candy off the vine,” he says of the latter. The leaves of white wood sorrel, a common ground cover in the White Mountains, offer a subtle lemony flavor. Cohen even makes wintergreen tea by scraping the bark and exposing the soft, green inner layer of black or yellow birch twigs, then soaking them in a jar or water bottle. Heading south through the region, out of the mountains, some of Cohen’s favorite species include mayapple in Connecticut, persimmon on Long Island, pawpaw near the New York-Pennsylvania border, and passion fruit near Washington, D.C.
“OK. I could just keep doing this forever,” Cohen announces. It’s late afternoon, and the trunk of Cohen’s station wagon holds four baskets, heavy with black walnuts, barberries, shagbark hickory nuts, and crabapples, plus a 1-quart carton of autumn olive berries. The seasons for each of these will soon pass, but Cohen has a nearly year-round schedule. Soon he’ll shift to gathering root vegetables like wild carrot, evening primrose, and arrowhead tubers until the ground freezes.
Cohen notes that many people associate the arrival of spring with flowers blooming. For him, a group of less showy plants marks the new season. “The first thing I get excited about harvesting is the stinging nettle,” he says. He cooks that unappetizing-sounding plant into a creamy soup or into spanikopita, a flaky Greek pastry. Then he’s on to picking Japanese knotweed, another invasive, and dandelion buds. The summer months bring a host of fruits—raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and black and ground cherries among them. He uses the winter to process and prepare much of what he’s gathered.
Into the Oven
A few weeks after Columbus Day, I visit Cohen at his home. He and his wife, Ellen, live in a two-story house with an attached garage on a hillside in Arlington, Mass. They maintain a pair of raised garden beds in their yard. He points out the last remnants of the season’s harvest, which included carrots, beets, cucumbers, and beans. I’m a little disappointed—I’d expected something more exotic. But he knows where to find his favorite wild edibles—he doesn’t need to grow them here.
Cohen’s car is parked out in the driveway. He leads me into the garage and I see why—paper shopping bags, almost 40 in all, fill the small space. Each holds shagbark hickory nuts waiting to be shelled. He has scrawled a date and location onto each bag with black marker, indicating when and where he found the nuts. This helps him track which trees produce the tastiest harvest.
Next we head down to the basement. Shelves along the back wall hold dozens of field guides and foraging books. Posters of mushrooms cover another wall. A freezer by the stairs holds years’ worth of collected food. Containers of nuts fill the door. Bags of various greens and fruits are jammed onto the shelves. A dry erase board on the door once listed the freezer’s contents, but Cohen’s cataloging couldn’t keep up with his collecting. The list is now hopelessly out of date.
Earlier in the day Cohen had begun to prepare two of his favorite cookies. We climb the stairs back to the kitchen to finish the process. Cohen mixes batter for a batch of hickory nut wafer cookies, and we dollop spoonfuls onto a baking sheet. He slides the tray into his oven.
He pulls a jar of barberry jelly from his refrigerator and some wild grape sorbet from the freezer and offers me a taste of each. The flavors are vivid and pure, better than anything I can imagine purchasing off a shelf.
After 15 minutes he removes the sheet of perfectly browned cookies from the oven. It’s the last step in the nuts’ short journey from a local tree to Cohen’s kitchen. I take a sample and bite in. Each bite results in a satisfying crunch and a sweet burst of flavor. They’re perfect.
(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2014 edition of AMC Outdoors.)