Working with the Land
In the woods and at the dinner table with Jenna Rozelle, a wild foods enthusiast, foraging teacher, and aspiring homesteader.
She told me to dig, and so I did. I pushed my hands under the top layer of dirt, following the stem of the short, green sevenleaved plant. I felt around under decaying brown oak leaves until I found a rhizome. The dirty white “root” was the shape of my pinky finger, and just a little smaller. “Eat it,” she said, and I did. It tasted like summer, fresh and bright and a little peppery.
This was my first taste of Indian cucumber (Medeola virginiana, a member of the lily family), but it wasn’t the first time I had been out with forager Jenna Rozelle. I’ve known Rozelle for a few years, and I’ve watched her work from afar for even longer. The expert hunter and gatherer is one of my favorite presences on social media. On Instagram, she posts about squirrels she kills and stews, blossoms she mixes into salad, wild mushrooms she marinates and serves with crackers, and the off-grid house she’s slowly building. When consumed in bite-sized portions, her world seems magical and unreal, the stuff of dreamy indie films and young adult books (I read My Side of the Mountain a half dozen times as a kid, as did Rozelle). The magic doesn’t fade when you get up close, but it does change. You start to see the hard work that goes into each foraged meal, the effort that goes into teaching, and the thoughtful decisions she makes every day.
Although people have been foraging since we were painting the insides of caves or hunting down long-antlered herds, there aren’t that many professional foragers around these days.
In the age of factory farming, mega-corporations, and big-box stores on every corner, there’s little demand for wild foods. As a culture, we’ve forgotten what wild foods taste like; most people living today have never known the bitter crunch of dandelion greens or the sweet, slightly astringent tang of an autumn olive. We’re used to watery, supersized strawberries, bland, puffy mushrooms, and meats that were raised with yield, not flavor, in mind. For most of us, it’s all we’ve ever known.
This makes a career in foraging hard to manage. There are eaters who love wild foods, but it is a niche interest. Foraging had a brief bloom in the early 2010s when it was labeled a hipster trend by lifestyle magazines and newspapers. Urban foraging, in particular, became the hot way to spend a Saturday for residents of Los Angeles and New York. But in Maine, foraging isn’t a flash in the pan. Foraging goes hand in hand with hunting, and many experienced Maine hunters have been known to grab a few fiddleheads on their way home from turkey woods. But this is a private practice, one that not many true woodsmen and woodswomen like to talk about, lest they reveal their secret harvest spot and come back to find it overplucked.
You’re more likely to strike up a conversation about wild foods with professionals in the food industry. People who work with flavor do like finding new ones to play with, and Rozelle makes much of her money from restaurants, breweries, and meaderies. She supplies them with hard-to-find ingredients, including local botanicals used for flavoring brews (including wild herbs, barks, and roots). She also runs a series of outdoor education classes, many of which are promoted via word of mouth and social media. She hopes to expand her business soon and start a homesteading farm, where she can cultivate species of produce that typically grow wild. “I plan to have a three-pronged approach,” she says. “I’ll be teaching and foraging, and we’re in the beginning stages of starting a homestead business.” Along with her husband, Shaughn Darcy, Rozelle hopes to turn her 26-acre plot of land into a small, self-sustaining, mainly off-grid business called Thickery Pricket Farm.
“It’s going to be a slow evolution,” Rozelle explains. “We want to grow food for ourselves, and for the market.” But her land, located in Parsonsfield, isn’t exactly set up for farming. It’s steeply sloped and furrowed with ruts from logging trucks. (“We bought it because it was cheap, not because we could grow things here,” she says.) So, like a weed growing toward sunlight, Rozelle has figured out how to adapt. In the skidder ruts, they’re planting elderberries, which like to have wet feet and full sun, Rozelle says, “so those ruts are perfect.” She’s also looking around the land, taking stock, seeing what might grow well and feed customers. She wants to sell food and make enough money to live, but her number- one concern is living in tandem with the natural world. “We don’t want to work the land,” she says. “We want to work with the land.”
Although plants played a big part in Rozelle’s childhood (her mother was an herbalist), she came to foraging “somewhat later in life,” she explains. She spent her teenage years in New Hampshire and Maine, longing to get out, to live in the big city. So she moved to New York, where she studied audio engineering at the Institute of Audio Research in Manhattan. She got a job at a record label. Seeing Rozelle now, in muddy jeans and hiking boots, with a bare, freckled face and messy braids, it’s hard to imagine her in an urban setting. But for a while, that’s where she wanted to be. Until she didn’t.
After a few years in the city, something inside her shifted. She wanted to be outside—not in Central Park or surrounded by skyscrapers, but really, truly outside. She moved north to Roque Bluffs in downeast Maine, which is where she began her foraging business. “I’m mostly self-taught,” she says. “I spent a lot of winters in downeast Maine, reading and walking around and studying plants. In the winter, it was mostly trees, shrubs, and seaweeds.” As the spring plants grew, so did her knowledge.
While there are plenty of wild foods growing in northern Maine, there aren’t as many restaurants that serve that kind of fare. Eventually, Rozelle moved down to the seacoast of New Hampshire, then to southern Maine, where she lives today with Darcy. She’s been cultivating her client base slowly and building a reputation as a knowledgeable, engaging instructor. “I’ve got a lot of classes lined up this year, and I’m enjoying the process of teaching and becoming a better teacher, which is kind of new for me, honestly,” she says. “Inherently, I lean toward solitude.” In the past, she’s “leaned too far” in that direction. She’s no stranger to the anxious feelings that arise when you’ve been away from the public for too long or the creeping sense of disconnect that comes when you’ve spent too many days in silence. Although part of the reason Rozelle hunts and forages is because she loves being alone in the woods and meadows of Maine, she’s come to see the value of having a community. “I’ve started to acknowledge that I am human, and that humans are pack animals,” she says.
Teaching has helped Rozelle forge connections with like-minded folks in southern Maine and seacoast New Hampshire. Even though foraging is a hobby most often practiced solo, there’s a lot of value in coming together to share tips and tricks, to talk about the ethics of gathering wild foods, and to swap recipes. Rozelle’s workshops are small (she caps attendance at 20 students) and draw people from all walks of life. Most of the participants want to learn more about their surrounding environment—they’re not here because foraging is trendy but because it’s a practical way to get acquainted with the woods. Once you can identify plants, you become better able to read the landscape, to understand what’s going on around you. Foraging is a tool, like tracking, that provides insight into the ecosystem. It’s not only about what you can harvest, but what you can see.
On a late fall afternoon, I meet up with one of Rozelle’s classes on Brandmoore Farm in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. We are headed out for a walk around the fields and woods, followed by a meal of warm soup (prepared on a camping stove) and snacks, eaten under the early evening stars. Foraging beside me are brewers and gardeners, a student, a lawyer, and another foraging teacher. There is a girl with hair dyed blue and a few people with curling gray hair. I wouldn’t expect to see these people together, except perhaps at the checkout line at Trader Joe’s. Yet here we are, ready to gather greens, pick berries, and gnaw on black birch twigs.
As we walk, I get to talking with Chloe Girouard-Martel, who drove up from Connecticut to take this course. She works as a horticulturalist for OEC Brewing in Oxford, Connecticut, and she heard about Rozelle’s work through a friend of a friend. Like me, Girouard-Martel followed Rozelle on Instagram before signing up for one of her work- shops. She’s been foraging for only about a year, and she wanted to expand and hone her ability to safely identify wild foods. “I’ve always wanted to get into mushrooming,” she reveals, “but I was very intimidated by it all.” Rozelle makes her “feel empowered” to harvest natural foods. (A few days after this walk, Girouard-Martel went out into the woods of Connecticut and returned home with a harvest of hen of the woods, hedgehog, and black trumpet mushrooms. “Jenna encouraged me to trust myself,” she says. “And to start small.”)
There’s something about gathering wild foods that makes one feel bold, independent, and truly self-sufficient. Whether you’re eating tiny nibbles of Indian cucumber or filling baskets with fragrant mushrooms, foraging gives a sense of accomplishment. But that wasn’t my favorite part of Rozelle’s class. There is something absurdly joyful about exploring the woods with a group of nature-lovers. We look closely at plants, fungi, and bacteria—those that aren’t edible still hold interest for me. I learn that you can pop the Pepto-Bismol–pink pustules that grow on fallen logs, and that these slime-generating bubbles, colloquially called wolf’s milk (Lycogala epidendrum), are created by an amoeba. On our way back to the parking area, we stop for a moment as Rozelle points upward. As a group, we crane our necks and watched as geese fly overhead in a perfect V-shaped formation. It’s a sight I’ve seen too many times to count, and yet it still makes my heart leap. This motley collection of strangers share the moment, mundane and yet magical, and then we trudge onward over the muddy ground, silent for a few breaths.
Every encounter I’ve had with Rozelle has ended in the same way: with food. Once, we met up for coffee and she sent me home with a ripe melon and a cardboard box of wild grapes, tart and sweet. Another time, we sat in her backyard while sunflowers lolled their drowsy heads around us, and feasted on buffalo-marinated chicken of the woods mushrooms, hedgehog mushroom tapenade, spiced goat cheese, and sliced feral apples. At home, this is how Rozelle likes to cook. Her meals are filled with wild foods, both fresh and preserved, fish she caught and game she hunted, and cheese she purchased from local farmers. (One person can’t do everything, after all.)
“I don’t have the most sophisticated palette,” Rozelle says as she prepares dinner for our small group of three (forager, writer, and photographer). Wild foods, Rozelle explains, can be challenging for people. She tends to like everything, so she has to be aware of what might be too tough for students to wrap their tongues around. She’s still “working on” her cooking skills and experimenting with recipes that are familiar to those unused to bitter greens, astrin- gent berries, or funky fungi. “I’ve been trying to make things that anybody would say is delicious,” she says, “not just things I like.”
Fish are easy, and so is venison. Stewed rabbit and squirrel can be a bit harder, but they’re still excellent when done right, Rozelle says. Hunting itself has “come very slowly,” she says. “I didn’t vilify hunters, but I didn’t see myself that way,” she says. “I never wanted to kill an animal.” But, as she dove deeper into foraging and began incorporating more and more feral foods into her diet, she started to rethink hunting. Fish, she says, are a good place to start. “They don’t have eyelashes, which means, unfortunately for the fish, that people don’t think they’re that cute.”
For Rozelle, hunting, foraging, and sharing meals all serve a vital purpose. They help her to connect with the greater world, with animals, the land, and her fellow humans. “I always have the place’s well-being in mind because I’m eating off of it,” she says. “I have a reciprocal relationship with the land.” Her goal is to share that sense of interconnection with others, to broaden horizons and open eyes to the wild beauty and bounty that flour- ishes around us. “It’s the nature of food,” she says. “People like to eat together. I like each meal to be a celebration of place, of where we just walked.” From salads to soups to spreads, each meal with Rozelle tastes like Maine, earth and water and air.
GET A FEEL FOR WILD FOODS
Take a class
The best way to learn is with a guide. Books are useful, but nothing beats hands-on learning. Classes are available through the Maine Primitive Skills School, Maine Huts and Trails, Maine Mycological Association, Maine Audubon, and from Arthur Haines of the Delta Institute of Natural History. You can also book a private class with Jenna Rozelle, and there are adult-education classes available in towns throughout the state.
Some plants, like ostrich ferns, have a few dangerous look-alikes. In late spring, you can gather fiddleheads from silty floodplains. Berries are also relatively easy to identify and low-risk. Don’t dive straight into mushrooms—ease in with cattails, garlic mustard, and dandelion greens.
Never go without a guidebook
Even an experienced forager like Rozelle brings books with her when she’s foraging, which allows her to double- or triple-check her identifications.
Leave some for the forest
Overharvesting is a threat to local ecosystems. Never take more than 20 percent of what’s available. More conservative groups, like the Nordic Food Lab, suggest taking only 5 percent of what nature makes available.
Listen to your gut
With each new plant you choose to learn about, once you’ve positively confirmed identification and you’re ready to try a taste, start small. Have a few bites and wait a day to make sure it agrees with you before committing to a meal. Many foods (not just wild) are great for most people but don’t agree with a small percentage of the population.