On a four-block jaunt around the Mordecai neighborhood, you can forage the makings of a pretty decent salad: ground ivy, lawn asparagus, overgrown-garden fennel and wild scuppernong grapes – garnished with a sprig of pepper weed plucked from the side of a utility pole.
It’s all there, pushing up between sidewalk cracks, spilling over a picket fence, pushing through the lawn of a city park. On Saturday, roughly a dozen fresh-produce enthusiasts rummaged through the urban greenery in search of edibles, guided by a pair of women who’ve taken a full Raleigh inventory.
Since the spring, Piedmont Picnic Project has led a half-dozen foraging walks through Raleigh, covering 100 miles of greenway, identifying 70 different plants fit to eat. Elderberries. Sassafras. Honeysuckle. They stress safety and etiquette, advising their followers to use a guide and ask permission before picking even what looks like a weed.
“Usually, people look at you really weird, but I’ve never had anybody say no,” said Amanda Matson, 30. “It’s worth it if you come home with a five-gallon bucket of plums.”
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Matson and Elizabeth Weichel, 31, started the Picnic Project out of a mutual interest in food and history, beginning with a blog and then a party, which they named Cocktails and Mayonnaise. At this party, they served drinks made with gathered blackberries and homegrown borage, an herb that tastes a bit like cucumber.
“It used to be called ‘Nature’s Merrymaker’ because it was supposed to lift your spirits,” said Matson, “so we called it ‘Nature’s Prozac.’”
They also made cocktails with cobbler fruit, including crushed ice and straws. Both of these features, Weichel said, were extremely hip items in the 1830s.
Flush with that early success, they created a foraged ingredients booth at Cooke Street Carnival near downtown last year, drawing a long line of children eager to work their giant nutcracker. Then came the walks in March, each one starting from a different place. In the first 100 days of spring, the pair walked the extent of Raleigh’s greenway system.
On Saturday, the group began at Person and Franklin streets, where they picked a pepper weed and passed it among the walkers, promising a zing. Later they passed a giant bush of fennel on Delway Street, and then a black walnut tree at the historic Mordecai House, where Matson explained how to extract the nuts from their tennis ball shells.
“Some people try to run over them with a car,” she said, “but I’ve heard that can be dangerous. I usually do it the hard way: with my hands and a pair of gloves.”
In all, Piedmont Picnic wants people to understand the context of what they eat. They hope one day to have their own space with a common kitchen for classes and demonstrations. Meanwhile, the ingredients are scattered everywhere, waiting to be picked up.
Follow the culinary wanderings of these foragers at www.piedmontpicnic.com. They advise people to beware of snakes and poison ivy while gathering natural ingredients, and to avoid areas such as railroad tracks that are sprayed with herbicides. Be sure to ask permission before picking anything on private property.