Photo courtesy of Timber Press
Chris Bennett isn’t afraid of snakes. And as the author of Southeast Foraging, the new (and only) book on Southeastern edible gathering, he doesn’t think anyone should be. “People always ask me about them, but I don’t really see snakes much," he says. He sees plants. "I am not walking softly toward a wild edible. I am not trying to sneak up on them.”
Foraging, at its most basic, is the act of gathering and/or harvesting wild food stuffs. According to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, all humans existed by foraging until roughly 12,000 years ago. Until recently, the art of hunting and gathering wasn’t an art; it meant survival. The practice is well worn and has been before “forage” ever became a buzzword, and it's authorities like Bennett who keep the practice safe for the general public, educating the rest of us on which plants could be dinner and which could kill you — even in your own backyard.
“People have misconception that to do some foraging, you have to go out in the boonies," he says. "That is not necessarily true. Most wild edibles don't grow in the woods. Most grow in overgrown fields, bushy fields or the park or your yard or down the street. There is a lot of urban foraging. You don't have to hike a couple hours to get to something. Lots of edibles are something that you walk past a million billion times but just don't know what it is.”
But Bennett sees the recent glamorization of foraging and hesitates to encourage the amateur to proceed without caution. His words of wisdom include common sense bites such as “be aware of poison ivy ... it comes in multiple forms, including a vine that traces its way up trees." Keep an eye out for sumac and oak, as well; while white sumac berries are poisonous, the red ones are safe and fantastic as a spice. He's also quick to point out that you must be 100 percent sure of what you are ingesting before you ingest it. Another warning from Bennett: "Don’t remove all of the bounty; be mindful of your surroundings and the animals that live there." This is said with a tinge of sadness, as if he's witnessed the effects of a greedy and unknowledgeable amateur forager.
An Alabama native, Bennett started his food career in Richmond at the venerable (and sadly closed) Track Restaurant as a line cook under Graham Reeves, currently at C Street. A persuasive friend of Bennett's convinced him to move to Richmond with only $200 and a suitcase. When he got a job his first week, he decided to stay — but not for long. “I had to leave Richmond. I was getting a little too comfortable. Richmond can be a vortex, if you stay too long you can get sucked in and never leave," Bennett says. "At the time, I wanted to go to a bigger city with a good restaurant scene. So I moved to Chicago. My goal was to work for a bad-ass chef in a bad-ass town.”
He found himself at Les Nomades, a French-Vietnamese restaurant whose chef, James Beard Award recipient Roland Licconi, focuses heavily on technique. While immersing himself in French and Vietnamese cuisine, Bennett began to search out European cookbooks and discovered, through reading, more chefs who believed in living off the land. “Europe and Asia have longer unbroken traditions and eras of foraging. [America's] is a broken one," he says. "I scored a copy of Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. He was the first to talk about time, place and using the ingredients around you; going outside and picking wild fruit, and how they spoke to where you were in the world. If you love the land and love where you are, nothing says it better than eating the wild edibles from that place. These edibles have more flavors and textures.” From there, he began foraging for numerous chefs throughout the South, as well as leading foraging groups and wild-edible cooking classes.
Bennett returns to Richmond for a July 13 foraging dinner at Heritage that will benefit the Lustgarden Foundation, a nonprofit raising funds to research and fight pancreatic cancer. He will be joined by chefs Joe Sparatta (Heritage & Southbound), Lee Gregory (The Roosevelt & Southbound), Owen Lane (The Magpie), Brittanny Anderson (Metzger Bar & Butchery), Randall Doetzer and Bryan McClure. The dinner is $75 for five courses and will include a signed copy of Bennett’s book, "Southeast Foraging." Bennett will also be joined by local foragers, Steve Haas and Nancy Baker. To purchase tickets, call (804) 353-4060.