Urban Foraging Tips: How to Find Your Dinner in Chicago’s Wild

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Urban forager Dave Odd combs Chicago’s alleys for dinner

If the summer heat gets you craving a crisp sorrel salad, fresh blackberries with cream, or juleps made with wild mint, skip the farmers’ market and try your hand at a little urban foraging. Chicago is home to a slew of native edibles. Dave Odd, a 34-year-old Skokie resident who has been collecting wild foods for some of the city’s top restaurants (Blackbird, Lula Cafe, and Bonsoirée) over the past two years, took a minute off the trail to share some wisdom on life as an urban forager.

Study up

“I have no idea what that is,” Odd says on a recent expedition, pointing to a bushy green plant. “I can’t know about everything, but I try to learn everything I can.” He recently bought out the nature selection of a closing Borders, and he swears by Peterson’s books A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants and Edible Wild Mushrooms of Illinois and Surrounding States.

Check your smart phone

Although he recognizes 60 mushroom varieties and more than 100 plants, Odd occasionally comes across something unfamiliar. After narrowing the plant down to a species or family, he’ll use his Blackberry to check if an item is edible or not and crosscheck everything through multiple sources. He also uses Shroomery.org to post questions about mushroom varieties or to verify mushrooms. Smart phones also have a GPS application to locate potential foraging spots near railroad tracks or woodlands.

Be prepared

Odd never leaves home without a good pair of gardening gloves, a small shovel or spade for removing root vegetables, and two-gallon Ziploc bags. A compass or GPS is crucial, especially when traveling to more rugged terrain looking for mushrooms. “Foragers will go out in Oregon, and, because they are always looking down at the ground, they get lost,” Odd says.

Use common sense

Stay away from land behind auto repair shops, gas stations, and factories, where plants are likely to be contaminated from emissions. “Plants that have been hit with weed killer curl up and wilt,” Odd says. His response when people ask how he knows if a plant is safe: “How do you know how many people have touched the produce at the grocery store?”

Look for the obvious

Start with items you recognize. Odd suggests searching for wood sorrel, which looks a shamrock and is a good garnish for salads, or a wild herb with a familiar smell, like mint. Though mushrooms can be tricky because some varieties are poisonous, many, like chanterelles and maitakes, have distinct shapes and colors, making it hard to mistakenly pick the wrong item.

Be safe

Several years ago, Odd bit into the small red berry of a Jack-in-the-pulpit. His mouth swelled up and was still visibly burned months later. Until you are 100 percent sure what it is, don’t eat it!

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