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Urban Agrarianism or Farming The Concrete Jungle

Common Mushroom Clusters

New York City is witnessing a surge in urban agrarianism.

These genteel concrete pastures have manifested a new crop of city farmers. This New Food movement has many mantras: “Local is the new organic,” “use the whole animal/fruit/vegetable,” also : “compost, compost, compost” (to the tune of “Marsha Marsha Marsha”).  And finally, “forage.”

The last time someone suggested I go foraging for mushrooms, I woke up pantless and twitchy on a Mexican beach. Well, not really. My college years are something of a patchwork memory. I know the story had an undignified end. But here I found myself at the Brooklyn Food Conference, having an earnest discussion about the joys of foraging for mushrooms and greens.

Amanda assures me that there are groups devoted to helping you find mushrooms that won’t kill or inebriate you. For instance, Wildman Steve Brill leads tours throughout the five boroughs and surrounding environs. His website is a terrific resource and a colorful character study. And the New York Mycological Society is the place to turn if mushrooms are your thing. Though they are quick to note that they are not to be held responsible if you accidentally kill yourself.

Side note: You may be wondering what this trend will mean for your wardrobe. Stick to long pants and closed toed shoes, since you’ll be tromping around in nettles and possibly poison ivy. And try a wide brimmed hat, preferably with a strap securely fastened under your chin, to really add some panache. This trend may just be the excuse that you’ve needed to buy that pith helmet.

I have noticed more and more of these wild foraged goods on local menus. A couple of weeks ago, Diner was serving up a charming dandelion green pesto in their omelet du jour. They also seem enamored of nettles, though painful childhood memories wouldn’t let me go there. And the Union Square market was overrun with ramps and fiddlehead ferns this week.

As I poked around inquiring about the phenomenon, I had to wonder at the trend’s timing. Is it passé to blame things on the recession? Are we over that yet? It does seem to be of a piece: the locavore movement and the crap economy have created a perfect storm of self sufficiency in our country. People are refurbishing and crafting (Etsy.com’s sales have skyrocketed) as well as making their own bread, cheese, etc. People are consuming less and creating more. And while this seems like an outgrowth (no pun intended) of freeganism, it is really a more palatable incarnation of that spirit. Because while freegans are willing to dumpster dive, foragers simply want to poke around your yard. It all leaves me wondering what’s next: hipsters hunting for squirrels in McCarren Park?

My own adventure in foraging was somewhat abortive. I was walking the dog (Mabel) when I noticed some dandelions in the building courtyard. I plucked the little greens while Mabel stood there looking embarrassed. The neighbors averted their eyes, like I was a homeless person rummaging through the garbage. I got all the way home with my harvest before remembering the pesticides that I had seen the grounds crew dumping all over the yard the week before. So, my greens went into the garbage and I stuck to a more traditional pesto made with soggy basil and freezer burned pine nuts.

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One Response to “Urban Agrarianism or Farming The Concrete Jungle”

  1. Susan Bodnar Says:

    This brings back some very fond memories of Italy. We constantly encountered people on the side of the road foraging for capers, garlic and greens. Here in NYC, I’ve noted many a roadside green perfect for salad. Maybe now I’ll actually start picking. Susan

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