By Len Lear
Even foodies who try every new restaurant and follow every food trend and novelty have probably never had a dinner like the one available to local residents at the third annual “Forest-to-Plate” dinner Thursday, Aug. 10, 6 to 9:30 p.m., at the beautiful Awbury Arboretum in Germantown.
Going back in time — way back — the Forest-to-Plate dinner is a feast for the senses. The evening begins with a tour of Awbury’s “edible landscape,” led by the Wild Foodies of Philly, followed by cocktails infused with foraged flavors. A 5-course tasting dinner is next at The Francis Cope House at 1 Awbury Rd., featuring unique dishes created with foraged ingredients and personally perfected by caterer Jeffrey Miller and his team.
“Our main mission is to educate the public on the many uses of wild plants and animals for food, fiber and medicine,” explained Lynn Landes, a center city resident who founded The Wild Foodies of Philly in 2010. “Wild edible plants and animals are the only truly sustainable food source in that nature, not humans, determines whether they survive and thrive. So, it’s important that we respect and explore nature and all of its uses.”
Landes, a native of Northern Virginia, graduated from Temple University in 1976 with a BA in Political Science. She worked briefly for Eastern Air Lines in the 1970s but spent most of her life in Pennsylvania as a stay-at-home mom and unpaid writer, reporter, researcher and activist in many fields, including the environment, health, politics, etc. Her husband of 44 years, Cliff, is a retired pilot for private airlines and the PA Air National Guard. The couple have three children and five grandchildren.
What got Landes interested in wild foods? “After decades of working on difficult issues to do with the environment, health and politics, I wanted to take a different approach and have some fun. Wild foods are fundamental to our survival, so I wanted to get together with others to learn more about this subject. I was shocked by the response when I started.
“In my many years of activism, I have never seen a subject attract so many people from both the left and right of the political spectrum. Wild Foodies share a common concern for the environment. They are also a fun group. They come to these tours to learn new things with open minds.”
Since The Wild Foodies of Philly started in 2010, the group now has over 3,300 members. They have a resource website where they encourage foraging as a profession and “wilding” as a new type of farming.
“Although there is a lot of movement toward organic food,” Landes explained, “wild food is different, it is natural food. Most of our food is not natural food, but instead it is selected, hybridized and genetically modified. Unfortunately, the typical American diet is artificial and tainted with contaminants and unhealthy additives. We’re trying to turn that situation around.”
If we ate wild foods regularly, does Landes believe the obesity epidemic and the mountain of prescription drugs so many Americans take would be significantly reduced? “Absolutely. Food is medicine, whereas modern medicine often does more harm than good and is a major contaminant in our drinking water. Many people don’t realize that water departments do not filter out medication, so we’re all getting medicated water, whether we know it or not.”
Wild Foods of Philly does tours of wild areas, depending on the time of year, weather and availability of tour guides. From April to November, tours are at least every other week, but often weekly. They also encourage members to go without a guide and do collective learning, although always employing the appropriate cautions — don’t eat what you don’t know, and avoid contaminated areas.
The proceeds of the Aug. 10 dinner ($75 a person) benefit Awbury Arboretum, a leader in the foraging movement. Awbury receives no public funds yet offers more classes in foraging and survival skills than any other park or preserve in the area. “Heather Zimmerman and her staff have always been supportive of our efforts,” said Landes, “and this is our opportunity to return the favor.”
What is the ultimate goal of The Wild Foodies? “To turn on the light in peoples’ minds so they see the wild world all around them and learn how to use it for their mutual benefit. There is food beneath our feet! We educate the public, farmers, chefs, educators and anyone who will listen on the importance of our wild world for our health and well-being. We are not anti-technology, but we do believe that the foundation of our society, health and education should be the preservation and use of our wild world.”
When people find out what Landes does with wild food, what is the usual response? “Well, half the time I get a smile of wonder and delight, and the other half, it’s a grimace of shock and horror.”