Saturday, October 8, 2011

Free Food All Around

It boggles my mind how much free food goes to waste in this country because either people don't see it as food, see it as an option, or just flat out don't realize what it is.   When driving down the road with my family yesterday, we noticed scores of black walnuts, smushed into the road, a man raking apples out of his yard (we presume to throw away.  If we hadn't been in a rush, we might have stopped and asked him, since windfall apples could still be made into some pretty awesome cider!), and my 2 year old excitedly was yelling "PEAR!  PEAR! PEAR!" when we approached where we had gotten a total of about 1 1/2 bushels of pears free recently because they had three pear trees in their yard, didn't want the pears, so they stuck a sign on the side of the road offering "free pears", an offer my kids and I were glad to accept!

I was actually contemplating this during my son's most recent soccer practice, as my 2 year old and I gathered black walnuts from schoolyard.  A woman was out walking her dog and approached me to see what I was doing.  She said she'd seen those green balls a lot when she was out walking and even stepped on a few.  She thought they might be some kind of apples or something and was quite fascinated as I described how they went from being annoying green balls that got in the way of the lawnmower to being high quality food for my family.  Later, as I was shelling acorns while supervising my kids on the playground after practice, she came up to me again and told her friend that was with her (who didn't seem so fascinated) about the walnuts and asked what I was doing now, if this was the next step in the walnut process.  I told her that walnuts were much too messy to be dealing with at the playground and that I was working on more free food, but a different kind of nut.  She seemed to think this was somewhat interesting, but I doubt it made any sort of long lasting impact in her life.  Like a person commented on my article about how everyone can afford healthy food, "I don't know many people who are willing to scourer <sic> around for fruit and nuts, that's just not realistic."

Why isn't it realistic?  Free food is all around us, from the broadleaf plantain and dandelion greens that I'm constantly tempted to slip in with my spinach that I'll be blanching and freezing (so no identifiable leaf could later be separated out and I couldn't then be asked "what's this?"), to the pears and apples I mentioned above, to the walnuts and acorns I've been "playing with" the past few days.  It wasn't even a big time commitment to gather the pears, just a quick walk with the family or popping out of the car for literally 5 minutes or less when we were on our way somewhere else.  The acorns were gathered at the trailer park's playground (yes, I should finally be getting some acorn recipes up soon!) while I watched my kids play, until they and their friends joined in the "fun" of helping to gather them.  And like I mentioned, the walnuts were gathered while I had to be at the school for my son's soccer practice.

You want to wear your grubbiest clothes when processing black walnuts...and thick, impenetrable gloves when handling the husked walnuts.  They are called "black walnuts" for a reason (and I now have blackened thumbs and fingers, as well as tanned palms for not heeding that advice more carefully.  Fortunately, I am not a princess, so I don't care).
The processing of nuts can be a bit trickier, but still can be very doable, even if one is short on time.  The neighborhood kids joined right in the fun of stomping the walnuts to get them out of their husks, then it was just a matter of separating them out from the goo, washing them off (with the freakishly warm weather we've been having, I mostly just "powerwashed" them with the jet stream on the sprayer nozzle), and setting them in a cool, dry, dark place (the back of my garage) to cure for two or three weeks.  Yes, the acorns are time consuming to shell, but I'm doing them at odd times when otherwise my hands might be idle, like while watching television or during the car ride I mentioned above (for the rest how to process acorns, see this post).

With the growing number of people going hungry in this world and even in this country, isn't it nuts that so much of this fantastic, free food just goes to waste?


  1. Not realistic? Thats when you know they live in a self-contained bubble. Foraging is all the rage in some places, even in NYC.

    And there are plenty of people who are more than happy to do it. I know I spent hours collecting blackberries from my husband's office parking lot this summer. I do the same with wild ME blueberries....which is the only way to get real wild ones and those are famous nationally, lol.

    I am surprised how few signs I see for free fruit from homes with it all over the ground. I stopped at one up the street (where the apples are strewn over the sidewalk and porch and rolling down the street) and asked if I could have some in return for helping tidy the yard.....they refused saying ti was creepy that I asked. Even after I explained I wanted them green so I could make pectin and later for sauce, jelly and butter and would gladly share the fruits of my labor with them. I tried putting a want ad on Craigslist as well for crabapples and got no replies.

  2. You betcha! I LOVE to forage! There are fiddleheads in the spring along the roadside, blueberries in late summer, blackberries & apples a plenty. There are even classes here in Maine on gathering and processing acorns for flour. I haven't found a walnut source yet, but I'm keeping my eyes open for that one. I am fortunate to have an apple tree in my yard. They are not the best eating apples, but they make great applesauce and dried apples. Last year we harvested 200 pounds! We love free food - and, it's organic.

  3. I just got back from harvesting crabapples. A lady offered up her tree for free picking! I get crabappples in the winter by climbing a tree and shaking it. I also get blueberries, raspberries, rosehips and high bush cranberries.

  4. Wow are you guys all Mainers here? ;)
    I've done this, but I didn't know it was called 'foraging.' I have picked free blueberries on the tops of hills and in the woods, and picked apples off the side of the road. They're so pure that way.
    Kristen, I'd love to know where those classes are that you mentioned. I remember, my mother's neighbor would thank me profusely for getting the apples out of her yard, so she wouldn't have to rake them up.
    It trips me out when I read this old cookbook I have, and what they would eat! All these nut trees around, littering the sidewalks, and I never thought about eating them.
    A lot of people (like myself!) don't know what to look for while foraging. If people had this information literally handed to them, they'd be more likely to use it. Our library sometimes puts out a display with books and free literature on this subject.

  5. as a kid, my parents had us throw all the walnuts in the dirt driveway and then they would drive the truck over them. My grandfather would have us save the hulls and made true walnut stain for his woodworking. love your site by the way!