Essay

My Mom Has Always Foraged—A Year Into the Pandemic, I Understand Why

"From my mom’s perspective, there’s no shame in survival—and thus, absolutely no shame in foraging."

February  5, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

"Did you eat your ginkgo nuts today?" My mom’s anxious, familiar refrain turned in my head even after we spoke. The next morning, I investigated my crowded freezer, where she stashes said ginkgo nuts. The bag was still full.

The first thing my omma does upon arriving at my home (we don’t live together, but are in a "pod") is open my fridge and freezer. Like a discerning chef, she wants to know which of the ingredients and home-cooked dishes she brought over last time I actually ate, and which I didn’t. Today, she’s disappointed. She puts the bag back in the freezer and peers up at me accusingly. "You didn’t eat any ginkgos," she says, her voice heavy with the kind of disappointment that non-Korean parents likely reserve for kids who’ve hosted a kegger while they were out of town. "Ginkgo nuts make your blood circulate and memory sharp," she reminds me.

I shrug and admit that I missed out on my chance for better circulation and memory enhancement the day before (and the day before that), now feeling somewhat guilty. My mom forages for ginkgos in a glade near her Southern California house, handpicking each fruit. With an impromptu forager’s pouch slung cross-body, she sniffs out her old haunts every week—she’s visited these ginkgo trees for almost a decade. She brings home her stock, cracks each pungent golden fruit to reveal the magical, memory-improving nut within, and rinses, shells, roasts, and freezes each one. Then, nuts packed in a little cooler, she brings them to me.

Omma has carefully taught me recipes for employing ginkgo nuts: in her jook, the rice porridge is lovely studded with nutty roasted ginkgo; her samgyetang is a soup of poached whole Cornish hen stuffed with rice, ginseng, and, of course, ginkgo nuts. Despite loving the taste of the nuts, I’ve formed a strange oppositional relationship with them—and with my mom. The more she pushes the ginkgos and their recipes on me, the more I push them—and her—away.

As the pandemic became more frightening, my mom only increased the extent of her foraging, gathering edibles like a frenetic squirrel preparing for winter. She’s also gardening even more, because winter in SoCal is the time to harvest spinach, lettuce, and peas, among many others. Part of it is about staying busy ("busy" is her favorite word, after "free"). But also, exhausted with the worry of operating her restaurant, she closed it a couple years ago, so she’s without an income at a troubling time; I was laid off during the pandemic, and can’t help her financially as I’d like to. Foraging is now both a health strategy and a survival tactic for her.

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Top Comment:
“I have many fond memories of foraging with my mom. In Alberta we don’t have the same options as you, but we forage for mushrooms, asparagus, Saskatoon berries, blueberries, and hazelnuts. We actually had the opposite reaction of your reaction to foraging. I was proud of it. Not a boastful proud, but the same kind of pride I take in teaching my own daughter to preserve the foods we grow. There’s peace and wisdom in being able to venture outdoors and collect food that the earth has benevolently provided and nourishing your body with it. It also connects you to the plant life around you. But after reading your article, which I much enjoyed, I now recognize that my husband is maybe a tad embarrassed by my foraging. Perhaps because he provides well for us, and it’s a blow to his pride that I would do this. But for me, my mom, my foraging friends, it’s about receiving a beautiful, tasty gift that the earth (or God, if you believe) has provided. And if I can build beautiful memories foraging with friends and family, that’s all more reason to do it. ”
— Nathalie
Comment

Though I've written articles about foragers, was a member of the New York Mycological Society, and have taken many formal foraging tours, when I see my mom picking up something from the ground and tucking it into her bag, I find myself embarrassed. It's odd to me—I'm so proud of my mom as a cook, and yet something about seeing her forage for acorns in our wealthy suburb of Los Angeles makes me feel apprehensive.

I’d characterize my hesitance as an effort to preserve "middle-class respectability." Though we rent, my husband and I hustled hard to build this life for ourselves and our son—the ethos of which is built around organic kale from Whole Foods, not foraged dandelion greens. When we play in the park with my son, my mom pauses to pick up a few plantain leaves or some sage. Unconsciously, I find myself walking away from her, hoping my Madewell purse, Warby Parker glasses, and minimalist gold jewelry telegraph my status, my middle-class respectability, to the other women around.

Omma doesn't care about respectability, though, only survival. I think a lot of other people can relate, especially right now. Struggling to put food—any food—on the table, every day, is the reality for so many sufferers of this pandemic-induced recession, who are using techniques like triple-couponing, bartering, and foraging to supplement government stimulus and unemployment checks.

From my mom’s perspective, there’s no shame in survival—and thus, absolutely no shame in foraging. I've been trying to get to the bottom of my discomfort: Why does it bother me when I see her forage for something that I would drop in my cart if I saw it neatly packaged at the grocery store, emblazoned with "local" and "organic" labels? Why do I accept foraging with her when we’re in Korea, or when no one is watching, but find repulsion in it in an affluent American neighborhood?

My only answer thus far goes deep, psychologically speaking, venturing into the emotional entanglement of identity and race that hurts to unpack. It’s rooted in layered socioeconomic implications: growing up poor in rural central Illinois, as an Asian-American whose mother foraged long before foraging tours were available to the public or celebrity chefs on TV extolled the virtues of (and charged hundreds of dollars for) a hand-foraged meal. I’ve subconsciously internalized a neocolonialist view that American items are superior to Korean ones. Even though I write about Korean and Korean-American foodways, some parts of me still think a plate of shrimp and grits with a bottle of wine is superior to a comforting bowl of jook with ginkgo nuts and a makgeolli.

Indeed, shrimp used to be a poor man’s food, and food respectability fluctuates with sociocultural perspective; still, my mother’s foraging triggers an inferiority complex built up over my lifetime. These insecurities were fed by absorbing decades of pop culture and advertising that privileges rich over poor, white folks over folks of color. By bullying at school over my kimbap for lunch. By a capitalist society that teaches that food is to be bought, not foraged.


Looking through the lens of the pandemic, as we collectively find ourselves approaching a year of life changed, I’ve found my views on my mother’s foraging starting to shift. I’m beginning to truly celebrate locavorism: Now, most of my produce comes from my mom’s garden or her foraging. Every week, I find wondrous garden-picked savoy cabbage and foraged purslane in my crisper, fresh from my mom’s tote. I’ve even joined her for some recent expeditions, and discovered some gems of my own.

In this time of crisis, I’m deeply impressed by her resourcefulness, her tenacity, and her will to not just feed her family, but to feed us the best meals, rich with life-extending nutrients. Unimpressed with store-bought dandelion green teas, she foraged her own, drying the root, stem, and flowers into a base for slow-cooker tea. Unwilling to pay top dollar for store-bought kale chips, she foraged plantain leaves and made her own crispy snacks. Unable to buy enough persimmons to dry for the cinnamon-scented punch sujeonggwa, she bartered with my neighbors: tree-trimming services for all the persimmons she could carry home.

My mom has the gumption to do what she does, regardless of the thoughts of others. Her inherited knowledge pays more heed to ancestral traditions than modern trends. Foraging will never be a fad for my mom—in fact, when I once excitedly told her I’d gone foraging to promote locavorism with a bunch of Slow Food USA folks and explained its growing popularity, she had a quick retort: "Girl, I’ve been doing that since before you were born. I’m the original slow food!"

Winter here is a ripe time for foraging fresh ingredients for dotori-muk-muchim (acorn jelly salad), dandelion salad, and roasted ginkgo nuts. Come April, the yucca will bloom, their white creamy blossoms dotting the mountain slopes, and the wild radish greens will sprout on the mountain flanking our favorite hiking trail. The pandemic will still rage, and I may still be unemployed. And my resourceful, intelligent mother, who implements the knowledge of our ancestors, will be out on the mountain slopes, her shovel and tote bag in her hands. But this time, I’ll be with her.

What views of yours have changed over the past year? Let us know in the comments.


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24 Comments

Dave May 1, 2021
My parents were not foragers, though reading your article I wish that they had been. Your words bring thoughts to my mind of the relationship that my parents had. Quite honestly I was so oblivious to all that they had done for me, how much they loved me, throughout my life that I didn't realize it until in was in my 30's. I find that embarrassing and sad. Fortunately, I was able to show them that I understood that they loved me and appreciated all that they had done before they passed. Yes, I was embarrassed by many things that my parents did, but I came to understand if not necessarily appreciate. I am thrilled and happy for you that you and your mother are able to connect and share your love while you can enjoy life together. Thank you.
 
Sharon T. May 1, 2021
I realized now, reading the foraging story, how much my father taught us about foraging when we were little. There was a huge vacant lot next to our house, and from there, we got asparagus every year. The little creek yielded up watercress. There was a nearby vacant lot filled with something he called lambs quarter. I wish I could find it now. He caught frogs and we had frog legs. Of course every "volunteer" in our garden was cherished. We had a huge victory garden as well, and fruit trees: pie cherry, Bing and Royal Anne, grapes, peaches, Italian plums, apples. We raised chickens and rabbits and had a cow. My mother had grown up a little like Laura Ingalls, and made soap and churned butter (while teaching full time and making all our clothes and cooking and baking everything from scratch, canning and freezing everything for the winter, and making our only "soda pop" -- homemade root beer.) Of course I now have my Pandemic Victory garden on a tiny plot and compost just as my father always did. Such good memories from Dakota Kim's story, and such good lessons for our wasteful society.
 
gh May 1, 2021
It's 5 AM I'm reading your article through tears and having to re-read segments because I am moved deeply. Thank you for writing this article and to Food52 for publishing.
 
Lazyretirementgirl February 21, 2021
Your story resonated with me. My mom grew up in the ozarks, in the depths of the Great Depression, dirt floor poor. As a child, I was always embarrassed by her grabbing edible plants in our suburban neighborhood, or picking up trash to throw away properly. Other kids did give me a hard time about, too( “ you eat weeds!”) so it wasn’t just my imagination. I only realized how completely I had absorbed her ways when my own kids ( now in their thirties) rebuked me for foraging and trash picking.
 
belinda February 21, 2021
What a great article! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and feelings. It sounds like your mother could hold her own set of classes to pass on her heritage knowledge.
 
Susan P. February 14, 2021
My background is similar to yours except that my mother is Pennsylvania Dutch, as in NEVER WASTE ANYTHING. She was a single parent who grew up in the era of victory gardens. We ate dandelion salad, wild asparagus, wild garlic chives, and more. My special pleasure was homemade black raspberry pies. Picked the berries myself very early on a summer’s morn, came home and made fresh pies. Delicious! Now I excuse my gardening as “ so much easier than hauling food from the store” and my thriftiness as “well, I a bit of a greenie”. Both of which are true, but also part of a proud heritage.
 
patricia G. February 14, 2021
I'm glad you found your way back to foraging with your mother, Dakota. I've had such a different experience. Foraging, for my European family, was a way of marking the seasons and enjoying nature's gifts. Elderflower cordial to mark the beginning of summer, blackberry expeditions before going back to school. Making jam, sealed in pots with wax, for the winter pantry. Gathering mushrooms, and nuts and small plums for sloe gin to enjoy during Christmas. So foraging for me has always been an act of celebration. And I've never been happier to accept what nature offers than in the past year.
I could not survive on what I forage, though I've learned that I can find something wild to eat year-round (a shellfishing license helps, where I live.) But gathering and cooking wild or feral food brings extra pleasure to my table. You'd be hard-pressed to buy autumn olive jelly in a store, and opening a jar of my precious jelly now in the dead of winter to spread on toast, or eat (like you would guava paste) with cheese, or serve as a condiment with meat makes breakfast, lunch and dinner special. My French aunt describes this way of eating as "une cuisine personalisée." (It's hard to write that without auto-correct interfering so I hope the French sticks!)
One of the things I've learned over the past year is there's nearly always something green out there for the soup-pot, or to toss into pasta or an omelette, or to make a pesto. Nettles, garlic mustard leaves...if I can't go shopping for greens I can go for a walk in my neighborhood and find what I need. How I'd enjoy foraging with your mother, Dakota!
 
Nathalie February 14, 2021
I have many fond memories of foraging with my mom. In Alberta we don’t have the same options as you, but we forage for mushrooms, asparagus, Saskatoon berries, blueberries, and hazelnuts. We actually had the opposite reaction of your reaction to foraging. I was proud of it. Not a boastful proud, but the same kind of pride I take in teaching my own daughter to preserve the foods we grow. There’s peace and wisdom in being able to venture outdoors and collect food that the earth has benevolently provided and nourishing your body with it. It also connects you to the plant life around you.
But after reading your article, which I much enjoyed, I now recognize that my husband is maybe a tad embarrassed by my foraging. Perhaps because he provides well for us, and it’s a blow to his pride that I would do this. But for me, my mom, my foraging friends, it’s about receiving a beautiful, tasty gift that the earth (or God, if you believe) has provided. And if I can build beautiful memories foraging with friends and family, that’s all more reason to do it.
 
Frank C. February 14, 2021
Very simply have always honored our most cherished trait....changing of your perspective. Very well written
 
Karen February 14, 2021
You had me at “the kind of disappointment that non-Korean parents likely reserve for kids who’ve hosted a kegger.” Your article then fulfilled on its opening potential; from the way you made “subconsciously internalized a neocolonialist view” personal and narrative, to the way you slowed us down to foraging speed as it developed—beautiful, insightful, inspiring.
 
Kj February 12, 2021
This was a beautiful article! I’ve never foraged, but would love to. This brought wonderful memories of my grandmother and I walking through her garden in North Carolina.She would always have on an apron ,( with pockets) so she could put fabulous tasting tomatoes in,but not before she would wipe one off with her handkerchief and hand it to me to eat . I now have my own garden and grow tomatoes that usually get eaten before they are brought in the house. Thank you for reviving lovely memories!
 
Sourdogal February 22, 2021
My Kansas grandmother would hand us a salt shaker before pointing us at the ripest tomatoes and saying, "Watch out for the rattlesnakes, girls!"
Here in the Northwest, I forage wild berries, chanterelles and wild mint for tea. As kids walking home from the schoolbus, we picked lambs quarters and feral asparagus for dinner, carrying a pocketknife in our lunch pails to cut them. That would get you kicked out of school these days!
 
Winifred R. February 9, 2021
I need to know your mom. My parents would ditch, give away, or ignore food that I would forage at home as a late teenager. (In my case blueberries, grapes, and similar). I would have appreciated somebody who could enjoy my labors and help me find more things. Now I garden and grow, but know there’s lots more that I should know about. Wish you were closer so our extras had a family who could appreciate them and would teach me more recipes.
 
Mimi6 February 9, 2021
Omg my mother was Korean, passed away after Christmas. Growing up we would go to Maryland & Pennsylvania from Florida she would tell my stepdad to pull over on country roads & forage all the time my sister & I would be so embarrassed but those foraging stops always bring some delicious food. Your article brought back such wonderful memories of a truly wonderful woman how loved feeding us nutritious meals. Thanks for the smile & tears!
 
OnionThief February 9, 2021
I grew up in the 70's in Idaho. We foraged choke cherries and elderberries for syrup, wild lettuce and asparagus from roadside ditches (So much asparagus), picked gooseberries, blackberries, raspberries and rose hips from old abandoned farmstead gardens and graveyards. And in our rural community, gleaning the edges and corners of fields was a time honored tradition. No one actually PAID for potatoes, when you could grab 300 pounds for just the effort of picking them, already grown, from the ground I think I would have been more self conscious of this if we had lived in town, but instead it was more like a treasure hunt that could happen every time we left the house.
Of course, I also thought we were rich. All i saw was the rows of jewel toned food in our pantry. In reality we foraged and gleaned (and hunted an elk and 2 deer each fall, raised an enormous amount of fruits and veggies in Mama's garden, and bartered with the local old dairy farmer, milk for pickles) because that was how we go to eat.
 
ymj101390 February 8, 2021
haha why are Korean moms like this tho... even in the middle of NYC, my mom and her friends would go out into random forests to forage for weeds that she'd steam and dehydrate to turn into various namul over the winters. I had to eventually yell at her to stop because it felt dangerous, just a couple of little ladies hanging out in forests all the time, and who knows what's in the run offs watering this stuff.
 
MG February 6, 2021
Had to read the last few sentences through teary eyes. Thank you for sharing this story- I connected on so many levels, especially with the passive aggressive resistance of the banchan my loving mom insists on sending home with me.
 
Jackie February 6, 2021
I had German grandparents like your Mom; I'm so grateful for the knowledge that they passed on. If I lived in LA, I would love to hire your Mom for an outing of foraging!
 
witloof February 5, 2021
Love this story! Thank you.
 
Rebecca F. February 5, 2021
this story is so lovely—thank you for sharing it with us, Dakota!
 
eakesin February 5, 2021
Thank you for sharing this beautiful essay. This type of writing keeps me subscribed to Food52. I hope F52 will continue to inspire us with writing and great recipes!