By Jason Herbert
As a child growing up, I loved camping and all of the cuisine that came along with it. Generally, our camp fare consisted of burned hot dogs, chips and pop followed by a huge serving of s’mores for dessert. It seemed as if all of our household eating and washing rules were left at home as soon as we pulled out of the driveway.
Now as an adult, I appreciate camping for different reasons. I like connecting with nature. I love being in areas where I don’t get cell service: areas where I can escape the stress of my “real life” and simply “just be.” I love seeing my exhausted, dirty kids playing until way past their bedtime, only to sleep-in well beyond expectation. I love the smell of a campfire, and the fact that my only real responsibility while camping is keeping everyone safe and feeding the family.
Speaking of feeding the family, lately I’ve gotten into foraging for wild edibles while camping and it’s been a lot of fun! I live in the Great Lakes region and here’s what we look for and how to cook it.
Seasonal and incredibly addictive, morels are the Holy Grail of foraging. A spring mushroom, in our neck of the woods, morels are around from late April to mid-May. This past year, however, they were abundant well through May, meaning Memorial Day campers could have their fill.
Look for morels near softwoods, by dead trees, in pine stands and pretty much anywhere else where moisture and sunlight are present. Once a morel is spotted, stop and look around. The chances are good that there will be many more nearby. I pinch my morels off at the base to keep sand and dirt out of them, throw them in a mesh or paper bag, and keep looking. I’ve eaten morels every which way, but my favorite, when camping, are sautéed with onion and peppers poured over a nice fire-grilled brat or hamburger. They’re also amazing on steaks and in salads. I also like to bread them and fry the mushrooms like I would a bluegill fillet over hot oil in a cast iron pan until they are nice and crisp. No matter how they are prepared, morels are delicious. Some morel lovers camp just to morel hunt! Make notes when morels are found and DON’T TELL ANYONE! They’ll be back again in the same areas next year…and so will other hunters if word gets out.
I grew up on this stuff. These delicious spring and summer stalks sprouted in the ditch nearby my home and we’d harvest them from the moment they popped up in the spring until the last days of summer. When looking for wild asparagus, I’ve had my best luck in grassy areas near road- areas that will not be mowed or tilled.
Asparagus can be eaten many ways, but when camping, I simply wrap them in foil, with a bit of butter and place the packet near some warm coals. It doesn’t take long to cook and the texture is really up to the diner. I prefer my asparagus a bit crisp so I don’t cook it too long. Once it’s cool, we’ll pry the foil apart and start eating the stalks with our bare hands! (Generally, dirty bare hands – but nobody cares because we’re camping) As with morels, wild asparagus will be back again the following year, so remember where they were located.
This invasive weed was once a prized leafy herb brought to North America by early European settlers. In my area of Michigan, it grows everywhere and is really taking its toll on the native plant population. Easy to find and harvest, garlic mustard is really underrated. I like to pick the leaves and add them into a spicy salad. It can also be dried or used fresh to season many dishes. I like it in pesto.
Garlic mustard has so many health benefits that it would take too long to mention them all. High in many vitamins and good for the immune system, it’s really a wonder that more people aren’t realizing the benefits of this hearty plant.
Also great in salads, dandelion greens have potential to become quite bitter if picked at the wrong time. I like to harvest them before the yellow flowers start to sprout, ensuring they are as low on the bitter scale as possible. Generally, I use these in salads, mixed with garlic mustard and possibly some wild onions. I’ve also had dandelion wine, and it’s very good. However, making dandelion wine requires a lot of effort and too much time for most camping trips.
Generally mown over in most yards, the small sprouts of wild green onions are delicious! Looking very similar to chives, wild onions can be found just about everywhere a camper would wander. I like to take a few handfuls and add them to salads, on baked potatoes, or in a sauté. Never accused of being filling, wild onions do add a nice zest and variety to any camping meal.
In the summer months, my kids live off wild mulberries and blackberries! We also freeze or make wine out of whatever their bellies don’t have room for. Mulberry trees can be found anywhere and are the bane of most landscapers’ existence because they are so hard to kill. Blackberries grow in thorny, thick patches that are sometimes hard to access. I also like to chomp on a few autumn olive berries when I’m out deer hunting, and if I were to find them while camping, we would certainly harvest them. All of these berries are great, healthy snacks that are fun to gather and make a healthy and delicious dessert. Dried and mixed with nuts for a trail mix is also a nice way to serve wild berries. Generally they don’t last long enough to dry!
I know many foragers enjoy a good cup of sassafras/mint tea. Both grow wild and can easily be harvested for teas. Just simply pick the leaves and throw them in water, or get a bit more complex by boiling the leaves, sassafras root and maybe some berries for a different taste.
There are also many different types of edible mushrooms but I just stick to morels. Fiddle head ferns are popular and there always seems to be a person or two digging cattail roots to boil. I’m starting to realize there are many more wild edibles that I haven’t tried. Maybe I’ll use that as an excuse to go camping soon!
I’m sort of a hardwood snob when it comes to cooking over a fire. We burn wood to heat our home and I don’t turn any of it away. But… when cooking over a flame, I stick to three kinds of wood: oak, hickory and cherry. These hardwoods flame up nicely, if that’s what the cook is after, and they also create a hot bed of coals to last through the night. Also, the odor of their smoke isn’t too offensive. Whenever burning wood it’s important to make sure that it is properly “seasoned” or dried. I always cut my own firewood so I get it the way I want. I split my cooking wood down nice and small, and stack in a sunny, windy location to dry. I always use some 2x4s or large sticks to set the wood on, well off the moist ground. If forced to buy firewood, make sure it is very dry. Well-seasoned wood should make a “clanking” sound when banged together. If it makes a dull thud, or simply looks green, it may not be ready to burn.
When cooking, I prefer cooking over hot coals vs. a flame. Cooking over a flame can result in burning the food. Other essentials besides good wood are a Dutch oven, a grill grate, lots of tin foil, and plenty of cooking spray. If no cooking spray is available, rendered back grease adds great flavor and is present at almost every campsite across the nation.
Odds and Ends
I didn’t mention hunting or fishing, but if in season, harvest some meat! We love batter fried squirrel, or a heaping plate of crispy fish fillets. There’s not much better than fresh venison tenderloin, wrapped in bacon, crisp from an open flame. Waterfowl are not only fun to hunt, but delicious when properly prepared at a campsite. When the salmon are running in the rivers nearby our campsite- holy cow do we eat well! I’m a hunter at heart and there is almost always some sort of wild protein to be harvested and eaten on any camping trip.
Also, be sure to check local regulations for legality and field guides for safety. The internet is full of great information about foraging and every local library will have books on the subject. Many a well-meaning forager has ended up sick- or worse- dead, due to some confusion as to what they were eating. I try to stick with the basics so we’re safe.
These are just some of the things that I know are safe and that my family enjoys gathering. I will be writing more about living a natural lifestyle in future issues. I wish every potential camping forager good luck and delicious eating this camping season!