Foraging for taste of the city

"Take this in," she told the group, illuminating the gnarled stump. A moment later, we were following behind again. This time, outside apartment buildings, homes. I had pictured her wading into thickets of autumn leaves and branches. Instead she stuck to sad, trampled patches and found a bounty of flowers, roots, lettuces. She told us about a 125-year-old pear tree she found in Chicago. When asked where the tree was, she said she would never say. When a man pointed out what many were thinking — that she was foraging where people walk their dogs, and she wasn't washing anything before she ate it — she said she believed in eating whatever bacteria was on the plant when she found it.

A guy sitting on his stoop smoking a cigarette watched with amused eyes.

She rooted along bushes, just beneath windows where people could be seen on couches playing video games and watching TV. She pointed to plants and explained origins; she said many times that not everyone should do this unless you know what you're doing. Outside the gated garden of a school, she asked a friend to jump the fence; the friend did, letting Klehm into the garden. She emerged a minute later with apples. The tour began to feel like a long, vaguely illicit pop-up restaurant.

Though when I asked if she could sell what she collected, she said, "I'm not one of those foragers who sees dollar signs on nature."

When Jared Van Camp, the chef at Nellcote on Randolph Street, introduced himself at the end of the forage, she looked visibly irritated. She doesn't want to suggest to chefs — who often call for advice, though she rarely helps — that a smorgasbord is waiting to be exploited: "Why should I be supplying a restaurant I could never afford to eat in?" But Van Camp told me later he went on the tour because he had been to a farm dinner of foraged food, and he had felt ashamed.

"I thought to myself, 'How is it that I am a chef, and I don't know how to identify or pick stuff?' I felt so stupid and I felt like I needed to know how to do this if I was going to be able to call myself a chef now."

An ancient practice

The good news for Klehm is that foraging for restaurant ingredients isn't especially practical for a Chicago restaurant. This is not the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is more agreeable to foraging and woods more plentiful. The commercial scene in Chicago is small. There's Klehm, who, again, is not all that helpful to restaurants (though she did recently show Greg Hall, the former brewmaster of Goose Island, how to forage on land he bought in Michigan), and there's a handful of mushroom pickers who sell to local restaurants.

There's also Dave Odd, a stand-up comedian. He began foraging professionally after turning a small profit on mushrooms that he stumbled across during a hike in Indiana. He provides foraged food to City Winery, Blackbird, Longman & Eagle; most of the restaurants along Randolph Street have bought from him. He used to forage in parks and along roadsides, though now, he says, he negotiates with landowners. "Or like, there was a nursing home in the southern suburbs with an apple tree, and I asked, 'Can I pick your apples before they rot on your lawn?' That kind of thing does happen.

"I think it's hilarious how this is an alien concept to people, when foraging food is one of the oldest things humans have had to do. When I take people with me, I will pick a apple off a tree and offer it, and they'll be like, 'No, I don't know where that thing has been.' And I'm like, 'It's from here! It's from this tree!'"

And winter?

That's when Odd becomes a hunter of small, hidden ingredients at obscure markets, he said. "Some people say it's shopping, not foraging, but it is foraging if you see it as a needle-in-a-haystack job."

As for Regan, the public face of Chicago foraging: She grew up in Indiana, foraging woods with her father, "always curious about what I could and could not eat." In Chicago she foraged neighborhoods and wooded areas but, the truth is, running a restaurant means she is not actually foraging that much anymore. She's buying a lot of ingredients from food importer Rodrick Markus.

Also, winter means "a lot of preserving and freezing," she said. "This is the time of the year I break my rules. In the winter, the fact is you just can't be as locally sourced as you can be the rest of the year." She added: "What foraging is done for us is done in rural areas. We do not forage in preserves, though people seem to think that. We are not pulling up weeds in Lincoln Park and serving them. This is not happening. I like to highlight foraged items, but that's on a smaller scale."

Indeed, at my dinner at Elizabeth she served foraged Queen Anne's Lace, carrots, celery root, walnuts — often in tiny pieces, rarely as the focus of a dish. I pressed my fork into foraged lamb's quarter that resembled a coral sponge. Like the best of her foraged dishes, it had a slight grit.

"This," the woman across from me said, "is not my favorite thing in the world."

I liked it.

I thought it tasted like dirt. But then, so did she.


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