glean – verb – Celtic origin – to gather grain or other produce left by reapers
The above definition of glean is slightly antiquated for the fact that the majority of our population now dwells in urban landscapes, but it was not that long ago when people would head out to the freshly harvested fields and collect the fallen and discarded produce the farmers left behind. In some cases it was a charitable act by the wealthy, land owning farmers to help feed their poorer neighbors; in other cases it was easier to leave the undesirable produce in the field then to properly harvest it and cull it out later. Either way, that discarded produce provided a source of nutrition and sustenance to folks who needed it. In the recent economic hard times, gleaning has made a comeback as evidenced in this article. Gleaning has also evolved into another new buzz word, Urban Foraging. This modern take on the age-old practice of gleaning is more akin to wild crafting herbs and fruit than it is to digging through a freshly harvested field, but the results are the same; free food and nourishment for those who want to do the work.
I suppose my story of urban foraging starts back in childhood. I can remember grabbing handfuls of raspberries through the neighbors fence and picking apples out of the tree at a friends house. I took summer classes at a nature center near my house and that was the first time I ever ate dandelions. Those early experiences with free food have obviously stuck with me and is probably part of the reason I do the things I do. In more recent years in the wake of Peak Oil and the local food movement, we here at the Autonomy Acres family have started to pay much more attention to all the possibilities of free food in our neighborhood and surrounding semi-wild areas. We have our perennial hikes and forays into the woods hunting edible mushrooms, wild onions, making notes of where the giant stands of wild grapes can be found and where the elderberries grow. I know a tree stump down in the river valley that has had hundreds of pear-shaped puffballs on it every October for the last three years and a stretch of railroad track that has the sweetest blackberries that ripen every July. Hiking up from the river valley and back into our urban neighborhood, we have started to make mental notes of all the different fruit trees that grow around town. There are crabapples galore (not much good for raw eating, but you can make crabapple preserves and chutneys, and they are also a great addition to hard cider), mulberries (kind of like a black berry from a tree) that are great in pancakes and jams, cherries (both domesticated and wild), apples, and pears. It is the last three that I want to talk a little more about. The apple, cherry, and pear trees typically grow on private property rather than on public boulevards or city parks. Don’t let this stop you from at least attempting to harvest these fruits. Go talk to the homeowner, introduce your self and explain what you are hoping to do. More often than not the homeowner will graciously allow you to help yourself to at least some of the fruit, if not all of it. A lot of people love having a fruit tree in their yard, but hate having to clean up the fallen fruit, so they are more than happy to have someone come and clean it up for them. Now if you are lucky you might know of a good fruit tree that is on public property, or property that is no longer occupied or cared for. In the last two years we have found an apple tree and a pear tree. The apple tree is on a boulevard behind a Baker’s Square restaurant and the pear tree is on a boulevard of an abandoned and for sale industrial site. Both trees are probably hold-outs from a time when that land was still agricultural homesteads and they are still producing an abundant amount of fruit.
Having access to free food, especially the fruit trees is quite a treat. Not only does it help to sustain our bodies and minds, it is also a welcome challenge for our culinary skills. What do you do with a hundred pounds of mixed apples and crabapples that are slightly blemished? Well if you have the right equipment you can make cider – either hard or soft. How about apple sauce? Apple butter? Chutneys’ and relishes, or pies and tarts! The same goes for the pears and cherries. If you are finding morels in the spring, puffballs and chanterelles in the summer, and oyster mushrooms in the fall you can dry them, marinate them in oil, vinegar, and herbs, or just eat them fresh. How about those raspberries and mulberries from the neighbors yard, make jams and jellies. The possibilities are all delicious and rewarding. Any way you cook it, free food is priced right and is good for the soul, happy gleaning! Cheers!