Foraging for food around Birmingham can be fun. 11 ways to start.

Darryl Patton foraging in the Smoky Mountains
Darryl Patton foraging in the Smoky Mountains. Photo supplied

While foraging for food goes all the way back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in recent years it’s staged a comeback. You’ll find foodies, herbalists and amateurs scouting for found food in the natural world.

We talked to a few local foragers and fans to find out more about how you can get started, whether you love getting outside or prefer vicarious foraging.

1—Check out Chris Bennett’s book “Southeast Foraging”

Chris Bennett is a super-foodie. He forages, writes and happens to be a cheesemonger and trained chef. He knows his food and where it comes from. He forages for wild foods in central East Alabama as well as in Western North Carolina, and works with chefs across the Southeast.

Follow Chris on Instagram to see his journey or check out his book to learn more of his take on foraging.

2—Know that Alabama’s a fantastic place for foraging

Alabama has a crazy high level of biodiversity which makes it a paradise for foragers
Alabama’s biodiverse in a bunch of other areas besides fish, too. Map of Fish Diversity in the U.S by

With one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the country, Alabama is a place ripe for discoveries. For foragers, it’s a giant scavenger hunt waiting to happen.

3—Follow Tim Pfitzer on Instagram for some amazing armchair foraging

Tim Pfitzer is a food-focused forager with a background in the kitchen. His first forage was when he was six years old living in the Marshall Islands.

I couldn’t believe our neighbor didn’t want the coconuts from his tree, so I loaded up my wagon with coconuts and brought them home. My Dad wasn’t very happy after we tried to get into a couple of them—it was not easy. I’ve always been a scavenger by nature.

Later, Pfitzer was working at Frank Stitt’s restaurant Chez Fonfon and recognized chanterelles (a type of wild mushroom) from his time as hiker and lover of nature.

I was poor and couldn’t afford to make this great food I was making at restaurants at home, so I went on a mission to collect whatever ingredients I could for free.

While he’s not offering foraging classes this year, he plans to this time of year next year. These classes focus on about 40 different wild edibles, including herbs, greens, berries and more. You can follow his journey and look for future class announcements here.

4—Take classes with Darryl Patton at the Deep South Center for Herbal Studies in Mentone

Darryl Patton has been working with medicinal herbs up on Lookout Mountain for more than 31 years. His herb school meets in Mentone each month, and they do regular plant ID walks.

What an incredible opportunity to learn from a walking encyclopedia of herbs and herbal medicine . . .

5—Look for some of these popular foods

Laetiporus is sometimes referred to as “Chicken of the Woods”

The list of foods you can forage in Alabama is super-long. I asked Darryl Patton to share a couple of his favorites, and here’s what he said:

One of my favorites I’ll be foraging for over the next month is acorns—you can make pie crust, cakes and cookies with them.

In June and July, he gets tons of yellow dock seeds. This is in the buckwheat family, and doesn’t contain any oil, so it doesn’t go rancid. He uses it for pancakes and cookies.

Patton often says this about foraging:

You get more calories gained than spent. You could go gather enough to feed your family for about a year in about 10 minutes.

6—Know how and where to look when you’re foraging

According to Darryl Patton, it’s best to study with someone who’s an experienced forager. He recommends Euell Gibbons‘ and Samuel Thayer‘s books.

People are scared to death they’ll poison themselves. Once they lose their fear of nature and realize it’s one big garden out in the woods instead of in their back yard, their whole horizons are opened.

Darryl Patton

7—Be wary of lookalikes

Don't eat mushrooms with a cap and stem - look for wood-growing fungi
Mushroom spore prints are a good way to identify mushrooms. Photo from Heirloom Academy of Healing Arts via Facebook

Patton says it’s rare to poison yourself on the East Coast. That said, when it comes to mushrooms, he says to stay away from the ones that look like mushrooms, with a cap and stem.

He says start with easy ones, like the wooded fungi that grow on logs, and learn them. These include Chicken of the Woods, Hen of the Woods and Lion’s Mane. They’re super-easy to identify and provide lots of food with no toxic lookalikes.

One log can have more Chicken of the Woods than you can eat all year. It’s good food and extremely tasty, not like what you find on a pizza.

8—Check out foraged foods at these local restaurants

According to Tom Pfitzer, many fine dining restaurants in Birmingham are using foraged foods. These include the following:

9—Noma’s chef René Redzepi took foraging to a whole new level

If you love the marriage of foraging and fine dining, you have to watch “Noma: My Perfect Storm” on Netflix. It tells the story of visionary chef René Redzepi whose foraging for the most unlikely foods helped create an entirely new Scandinavian cuisine.

Monday, while eating breakfast with a friend, we bumped into world-renowned food writer Jeff Gordinier, who happened to be in Birmingham scouting out new restaurants.

He’s also on tour promoting his new book Hungry: Eating, Road Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, which recounts the story of four years he spent with Redzepi while they were both on a quest for reinvention.

From what I can tell there’s a fair bit of foraging in the story, plus it’s hard to resist a good travel memoir, so I’m looking forward to checking it out.

10—Stalking the Wild Asparagus remains a classic among foragers

Here’s Euell Gibbons in a vintage Grape Nuts cereal commercial.

Euell Gibbons was kind of like the Bob Ross of foraging. Poverty led him to look for wild foods to supplement his diet, and a love of writing led him to share what he learned with the world.

Stalking the Wild Asparagus is a foraging classic
Stalking the Wild Asparagus was probably his most famous book, and Gibbons wrote a bunch of other books that made foraging famous. Photo from Amazon

If you fancy yourself a bit of an armchair forager, you can find Euell Gibbons’ books here.

11—Get started foraging now

If foraging sounds like fun to you, we’ve given you a few books to choose from, one documentary, a few Instagram accounts to follow, one school you can join, and a few pro tips. A couple more friendly reminders to get you off on the right foot:

  • Be sure to watch out for snakes, since they share the same habitat where you’ll be looking for wild edibles.
  • Dress in long pants with socks and closed-toe shoes, because nobody likes ticks.
  • While you’re at it, it’s a good idea to wear a hat and do a tick check when you get home.
  • Always let someone know where you’re going and when to expect you back.
  • Know before you go. Darryl Patton urges would-be foragers to always get permission wherever you go so you don’t run into trouble. He says if you go on private property, people will usually give you permission, but it’s nice to ask. If you’re on state lands, it depends on the state park superintendent whether you can forage for non-commercial use. Be sure to look at the laws on public lands, because they vary from place to place.

Now tell us, Birmingham, have you ever tried foraging? Tag us @bhamnow and tell us your favorite foraging stories!

Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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