Urban Foraging

By Sasha LaPointe

Santa Fe, NM  –  During the spring of 2010, I assisted my mother, the head of Lushootseed Language Research, in her first Cultural Knowledge Sharing Conference held at Seattle Pacific University. I was delegated the most crucial of tasks: I got coffee, worked the book table, arranged and rearranged the spread of Lushootseed dictionaries and anthologies of Coast Salish stories, and even sold a couple of books.

Two women from the Northwest Indian College who had set up their presentation on the revitalization of Pacific Northwest traditional foods caught my eye. They unpacked in the center of the main hall: a large paper sack of cedar, bricks of beeswax, little vials of essential oils and bags of herbs. They had a small propane burner that sat like a cauldron between them. Witches. I was immediately intrigued. I got permission to abandon my post to move up front to participate in the workshop.

The women, Elise Krohn   and Valerie Seagrest introduced themselves and the work they do for Northwest Indian College with traditional foods. They presented their cookbook, as well as a walk through in producing a healing skin salve using cedar and comfrey collected in the Northwest.

In their book, Feeding The People, Feeding the Spirit: The Revitalization of Pacific Northwest Foods, Krohn and Seagrest explore the power of indigenous knowledge. Through the first half of their book, they discuss the oral histories and the legends of the Coast Salish people, as well as ceremonies and lifestyle. They provide a glimpse of what pre-contact life might have been like for the tribes in the Puget Sound area. The first half of the book also breaks down the food stereotypes people might have regarding traditional Northwest diet, mainly the idea that the Natives of the Coast Salish region existed on Salmon and shellfish alone. Krohn and Seagrest provide examples of the diverse and complex foods that the region has to offer. The book teaches its users to cook with indigenous knowledge. The chapters are packed with facts about the food that grows native and wild to the Puget Sound area. For example, they provide an easy recipe for a healthy tea that calls for only Spruce tips and boiled water. The tea is rich in vitamin C and good for the immune system. They list the reasons why consuming wild game meat as opposed to industrialized beef is better for you.

Incredibly inspired by the presentation, I felt intrigued to explore their ideas of incorporating traditional food in an urbanized area. I told my boyfriend we were not going to do our grocery shopping at the Trader Joe’s down the street from our house, that we wouldn’t be eating pizza or Thai take-out.   He was amused enough to venture with me thirty miles from the Seattle city limits to a green belt in the suburban Everett area. There, I collected skunk cabbage, stinging nettles and wild greens. Using the book I was able to produce a delicious, one hundred percent local and sustainable meal, without traveling too far. With the recipe in the book, I prepared a meal of baked salmon wrapped in skunk cabbage, topped with stinging nettle pesto and served with a wild greens salad. The skunk cabbage wrapped the fish tightly, preserving the healthy amino acids, the many vitamins as well as the delicious flavor. According to the cookbook, the nettle pesto provided Vitamin C and the wild green salad was also packed of nutrients.

The meal was relatively easy to prepare, and afterwards we felt great. There was a noticeable difference, the way our bodies reacted when consuming the protein, vitamin rich foods as opposed to the common diet, high in salts, refined sugars and fat. We had leftovers for days. I stored the left over nettle pesto in the fridge right next to the package of meatless buffalo wings and left over vegetarian spaghetti and meatballs. The fresh wild food looked out place next to shelves of overly processed “health” food. The assessment of my own fridge left me with this notion of an ancestral diet, and I searched for signs of this new wave of food consciousness in the Seattle area.

In the Spring of 2013, the Beacon Hill Neighborhood in south Seattle will open the first Food Forest in Washington State. The food forest will be a wild foods garden planted on public land for the community to participate in planting, maintaining, and harvesting. The space will provide a variety of wild edible plants native to the Puget Sound area, and the food will be available to the beacon hill community.

The idea of wild native plants available in south Seattle’s urban Beacon Hill neighborhood is a big step. Next to a dentist’s office, nestled between a busy street and a driving range, it’s hard to imagine the seven acre strip thriving with Salal berries, blueberries, fruit bearing trees and other foods, there available for any community member to pull over, harvest and snack on.

My house, kitty-corner to the site, has a view from the porch. I can see the harvesters now. Soccer mom’s on their iPhones standing by while excited kids hunt and gather for an afternoon picnic. I see elderly ladies hunched over for wild strawberries, shoulder to shoulder with kids in studded vests and band patches. Dumpster divers will rejoice in the fresh available produce, no longer having to visit Madison Market’s garbage.

The Beacon Hill Food Forest is a step in the right direction concerning cultural preservation. It proves that there are communities out there interested in maintaining a healthy and sustainable way of existing. With actions like the Food Forest, communities across the country stand a chance against a colonized diet.


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