Wild Edibles with Russell Cohen
I have always been intrigued with wild foods. It’s one of the reasons I got involved with hunting and fishing in the first place. In the days of my childhood my brothers and I would pull up Queen Anne’s Lace to eat the wild carrot tap root hiding beneath the soil. On a few occasions in the spring, while visiting our grandparents, they would take us into the woods to dig wild leeks. As my interest in hunting and fishing grew, my enthusiasm for foraging for wild, edible, plants dried up. In the past few years that enthusiasm has been rekindled. I have experimented with day lilies and dug many, many bunches of leeks. I’ve looked for mushrooms but never had any success finding any. There are several guide books on my desk which I browse frequently. But there is no substitute for a knowledgeable guide to provide hands-on teaching.
This is where Russell Cohen comes in. He is a long time wild edibles enthusiast who has been foraging and teaching people about wild edibles for over 40 years. His home range is Massachusetts but he makes frequent trips into the rest of New England to do programs at a range of venues. In late May I, along with approximately 20 other outdoor enthusiasts, attended his program at Hildene, located in Manchester, Vermont. Russ doesn’t waste time with long winded introductions. We spent half an hour indoors while he briefly covered his background and discussed some of the basics of foraging. He emphasized conservation, ethics and the fundamentals of not accidentally poisoning yourself. Once that was concluded we were out the door to get acquainted with our quarry.
Although we were given handouts and I took copious notes I still feel like I could barely keep up with all Russ had to share. His enthusiasm for the subject matter was practically tangible. Juneberry, wild parsnip, wild grapes, burdock (believe it or not, it’s edible!), birch, basswood, wild leeks, beech nuts, stinging nettle, cat tails, dandelion, sumac and a host of other plants were covered in an effervescent stream of knowledge. I have attended many lectures and presentations in my life and have learned the tell tale signs of a thoroughly knowledgeable and experienced presenter. All one needs to do is ask thoughtful, detailed questions to expose a phony. Russ never faltered. He had an answer for every query and it was apparent from his intonation and tone, particularly when answering questions, that he genuinely knew what he was talking about. The three hours afield flew by.
We spent the last half hour back inside where we got to sample a variety of culinary delights prepared ahead of time. Apparently Japanese Knotweed, invasive bane across the United States though it is, makes a handy substitute for rhubarb. Russ had made “rhubarb” squares (my term, not his; he had a much more appetizing name) with the stuff and they were amazing. Several other treats were presented as were a variety of teas, all an experience in themselves. The real standout as far as my taste buds were concerned were the toasted hickory nuts. They taste like nothing else.
For the outdoor enthusiast a program with Russ Cohen is not to be missed. It is truly a perspective-altering experience. If you can’t attend one of his programs, he has written a number of articles published in a variety of periodicals and also has a book, Wild Plants I Have Known… and Eaten. If you are able to attend I would highly recommend going to Hildene, especially if you have never been. It is a magnificent place for the outdoor and history-minded. They also carry Russ’s book in their top notch museum store.