Some of the best hunters in the South use neither guns, bows nor fishing tackle. Today, we visit with some of our region’s most sharp-eyed foragers in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia — folks who are providing wild-grown foods of all sorts to friends, neighbors and, of course, adventurous chefs in Birmingham, Jackson and Atlanta.
Tim Pfitzer is extolling the virtues of wild mint when he abruptly hits the brakes and pulls onto the highway shoulder. Reversing his high-mileage Honda CR-V, he backs up a few dozen yards and points to a small white cloud clinging to a tree.
“Oyster mushrooms,” he says. “Too high to harvest. But there are more in these woods.”
Good hunters are keen-eyed, skilled at spotting prey. But Pfitzer hunts without a gun. Using his senses, and knowledge gained over years of foraging, he bags wild edibles and delivers them to some of Birmingham’s most creative chefs. He also gathers sassafras (the original root in root beer) and other ingredients that go into cocktail bitters, pestos and jellies he sells with foraged produce at the city's popular Pepper Place farmers market. And while Pfitzer enjoys the thrill of the hunt, “the main reason I do this is to spend time in nature,” he says. “That and enjoying and sharing the flavors of what I bring back.”
Humans have always foraged, but the practice dwindled in an age of processed foods and supermarkets.
“My grandmother foraged,” he says. “It kind of skipped my parents’ generation, but it’s coming back. For me, it’s a passion.” A prescient photo shows him as a young boy in the Marshall Islands, where his father's job took the family, smiling beside a wagon full of coconuts he gathered.
Pfitzer and others are tapping the South’s wild abundance.
Early in this century I moved to Birmingham from the irrigated desert of Los Angeles, where both the flora and the population consist largely of transplants from far and wide. Having spent my adult life in the arid West, I found Alabama’s enveloping greenness exotic. It reminded me of the jungles of Asia and Latin America. Months later, on a flight over the Rockies, I realized my attitude had flipped: For the first time, the brown badlands below seemed foreign.
Despite the outsized influence of timber and mining interests, the South still teems with natural life. Alabama alone has 4,000 native species and is the fifth most biodiverse state in the U.S. The top four are much larger, better-studied Western states; renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson believes that with the likely number of undiscovered species, his native Alabama could actually be number one.
Interest in wild edibles has never been higher among the adventurous chefs who rely on Pfitzer and other foragers. One always-in-demand item is watercress, which thrives in northern Alabama’s many natural springs, growing almost year-round in some because of their consistently favorable temperatures. Many value the peppery tang of this member of the mustard family — and its nutritional value.
“Watercress has more vitamin C than orange juice and more iron than spinach,” Pfitzer comments as he cuts some from a verdant mass at the headwaters of a spring-fed stream (it’s also a source of calcium and vitamins A, B, E and K). The square he’s clipped will grow back; next time he’ll clip a different section.
“Everything is sustainably harvested,” he says, as he shakes a few tiny freshwater snails from his sandals. “And these limestone-filtered springs are very clean.”
Bags of watercress go into a big cooler alongside a clump of reindeer moss (actually a lichen) and a speckled pheasant-back mushroom (aka a Dryad’s saddle) as big as a dinner plate.
“That mushroom’s going home with me,” he says. “We’ll have it for dinner.”
Edible mushrooms are a high-value product, and he can sell all he finds. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of underground networks of mycelium, called an ecological Internet for their complex symbiosis with trees and other organisms. But without favorable rainfall and temperatures, the mycelium lie dormant.
“A couple of years ago I found a thousand pounds of chanterelles,” Pfitzer says. And this year, marked by spottier rains? “So far, only 30 pounds.” At least, as fungi-seekers say of mushrooms, "they can hide but they can't run."
Part of how foragers decide where and when to look is traditional — for example, looking for harbinger or host species. The appearance of trilliums and flowering redbuds in early spring tells Pfitzer that morel mushrooms will soon be popping up. Some mushrooms like certain tree species. Read the landscape, look for the plants, and with experience you know which habitats will foster what you desire. Thus has it always been, he notes: "Europeans have been harvesting mushrooms and growing them in caves for thousands of years."
But this ancient practice is now enhanced by cutting-edge tools. Pfitzer uses a digital meat thermometer to measure ground temperature, a GPS unit to find and record fruitful sites, Instagram (as @herbincalabama) to share images of his finds with chefs and other foragers. Aided by hashtags for specific plants and places and general ones such as #wildfoodlove and #foresttofork, Instagram has become the jungle telegraph for the region’s foragers, a forum for comments, tips and pics. Even armchair foragers can relish Pfitzer’s finds — sumac, pawpaw and maypop fruit; edible flowers; oyster, lobster and other mushrooms; wild shiso and mint; spice-bush berries, elderberries, mulberries, blackberries and more.
“Online research is important; it informs my foraging and makes it more productive,” he says. “The Internet also allows me to exchange information with fellow foragers all over the South and beyond.” He sometimes ranges beyond Alabama to go foraging with friends from this online community, benefiting from their local savvy.
Most foragers have more or less conventional jobs, preferably work that complements their quests for wild foodstuffs. Pfitzer works for Royal Lagoon Seafood, selling chefs Gulf-born goodness — and, sometimes, the foraged ingredients he finds. His friend Joseph Hosey is a timber cruiser. “That means I inventory forests,” he explains. Armed with a forestry tech degree, he sizes up tracts of timber, measuring tree height, width and age. As he roams, he keeps an eye out for wild edibles.
“The more time you spend in nature, the more you notice,” he says. “The amount of knowledge Tim or I have is about the equivalent of a 6-year-old Native American. We’re just getting the easy stuff. I’ve read that by the age of 10 a Native American was supplying 60 percent of his food for himself.”
Hosey is based in Mississippi’s Jones County, where his family settled in 1807. This was a land of tall trees and yeoman farmers, not high cotton and slaveholders. They famously rebelled against the Confederacy, driving out its tax collectors and conscriptors — as depicted in the recent movie "The Free State of Jones." (Hosey played an extra, aided by his tintype-worthy beard — and harvested 20 pounds of chanterelles on location.) "I grew up Pentecostal, with no TV, playing in the woods,” he says. "Later I got into organic gardening — then I started realizing there's an organic garden everywhere, far better than I could create."
That free-range garden offers the blackberries and huckleberries he gathered as a boy, as well as elderberries, dandelions, greenbriars (their tender new growth tastes something like asparagus), sumac (its berries have a tart, lemony flavor), and more. He looks for hardwood trees to find the mushrooms that favor them, while tracking rainfall and temperatures using various websites. He says, "The last couple of years I’ve been selling some, mainly mushrooms, to chefs" (such as Louis LaRose of Lou's Full-Serv in Jackson).
"Sometimes I'll come across the remains of an old homestead in the woods," he says. "The house is long gone, but you can still find some of what they planted — fruit trees, garlic, onion, daylilies" (the original, orange daylilies were entirely edible, but some modern cultivars aren't). Increasingly, he can relate to how his Jones County ancestors lived in a remote land lacking rich soil.
"They grew rice in the swamps, foraged for wild berries and fruit, found honey in hollow trees, and raised cattle in the forests of longleaf pines," he says. "And their children were as wild as Indians."
Foraging's back-to-the-land ethos recalls the Vietnam-era counterculture. But while the "wild gardeners" I've talked to are no doubt rugged individualists, they're also plugged into the modern world.
"Some guys see foraging as a way to disconnect from society," says Hosey. "I see it as a way to connect with others and share knowledge using high-tech tools. We're a digital tribe — it's great to gain that sense of community." Naturally, he met Pfitzer through Instagram, where his handle is @freestateforager.
That's also how Pfitzer connected with Kyle Forson, whose Instagram moniker could be a jazz fusion band: @mylesjonesproject. A seasoned chef — most recently at Atlanta's The Spence, earlier at New York outposts of chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten (ABC Kitchen) and Thomas Keller (Bouchon Bakery) — over time, he says, "I came to realize that my passion is for the ingredients, not preparing them. I got interested in foraging about the time Rene Redzepi came along."
At his highly acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, Redzepi showed the world how foraged edibles could uniquely express Nordic flavors and seasons; more than any other chef, he legitimized their use in creative kitchens everywhere. For ambitious Southern cooks, the inference is clear: If remarkable ingredients can be wrested from the harsh Scandinavian environment, there must be plenty more in their lush backyards.
Finally, this year Forson decided to get out of the kitchen and into the field. "I spent a few years walking in the woods learning to identify things," he says. "You start to recognize all the good things people don't notice anymore — plantains, mulberries, dandelions, wood sorrel, wild garlic — even in town, literally popping out of cracks in the sidewalk. Before grocery stores, this was the way of the world."
Like Pfister and Hosey, he combines foraging with complementary work, as a trout-fishing guide in northeast Georgia, often on the scenic Soque River, a Chattahoochee River tributary. He can forage before and after fishing. Both require taking cues from nature — identifying insects to select a fly that a trout will hit, spotting morel-friendly ash trees — though foraging is decidedly not catch-and-release.
Forson is equally grateful for Instagram and other high-tech tools.
"GPS lets you take on expanses of woods without too much worry about getting lost," he notes. "Google Earth can help you scout an area for the right conditions" — waterways, say, or south-facing slopes with a promising mix of trees. "Half of my effort is scouting," he adds, "so my time in the field is more fruitful." He likes to use the mesh sacks onions come in, especially for mushrooms: "They're big and porous so you can spread spores, propagate as you forage." He also packs a hammock with a bug net, "which you can use for sleeping, but also to haul stuff out."
Many think of ramps as a northern plant, but you can find them at higher elevations in northern Alabama and Georgia.
"I love walking into an Atlanta restaurant with 20 pounds of ramps that were in the ground two hours ago," Forson says. His customers include chefs Zach Meloy (Better Half), Craig Richards (St. Cecilia in Buckhead), Drew Belline (No. 246 in Decatur), and Scott Long (Brezza Cucina in Ponce City Market).
For Forson and other foragers, educating chefs is part of the process. Like other purveyors, they may give chefs product samples for them to play with. Edible flowers can do more than prettify plates--use them in salads, stir fries, and more. Pfitzer makes and sells floral jellies from the flowers of redbuds, kudzu, Queen Anne's Lace, wisteria and other plants. Pawpaws (aka hillbilly mangoes), maypops and other native fruits can add distinction to everything from cocktails to sauces to desserts. Roasted acorns and chestnuts can be ground into flour that can be used for baking or thickening sauces.
One of Pfitzer's most enthusiastic supporters is Chris Hastings of Birmingham's Hot and Hot Fish Club, winner of a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the South.
"We've been using wild edibles for more than a decade," he says. "Meals should inform you where your feet are. That’s Alabama, baby."
If farm-to-table emphasizes fresh, seasonal ingredients, "forage-to-table takes that to another level,” Hastings says. “Some of these things are only briefly available. Mushrooms may come up after a warm spring rain and be gone in a few days. It’s all about celebrating the moment, whether as a chef or as a diner.” Hastings has incorporated foraged ingredients in everything from drinks to multicourse menus — notably his Forager’s Walk special, which showcases watercress, hickory nuts, chickweed, cat-ear dandelion, field onions, pine needles, mushrooms and other plucked-from-nature produce.
Like Hastings, Birmingham chef George McMillan III (of FOODBAR) values the added flavors, textures and colors he gets from foraged edibles.
“It’s fun for us to experiment with what Tim brings us,” he says. “For diners, the effect can be subtle or it can lead to an a-ha moment” — as with the purple pop of his beautyberry buerre blanc. The menu for McMillan's Forest-to-FOODBAR dinner last fall included pork skin noodles with foraged chanterelle and trumpet mushrooms and a sumac beurre blanc, juniper-crusted venison with roasted chestnuts and wild mint pesto and wild shiso and persimmon ice creams.
Having previously cooked at some well regarded Birmingham restaurants, Pfitzer treats wild ingredients with a respect chefs appreciate. "I'm more a foodie than an environmentalist," he says. "I'm in it for the flavor. But I really appreciate the bounty of nature."
He's also aware of the medicinal value of certain plants.
Scientists and pharmaceutical companies are increasingly looking for new medicines in the plant world, a natural pharmacy full of potent but little-known compounds. An ethnobotanist at Emory University, Cassandra Quave, is combing through folk remedies and wild plants to find antibiotics to counter the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Native American ginseng, which has proven health benefits, has been foraged and exported for profit since the 18th century; federal and state governments heavily regulate harvesting and trading it, but with Chinese buyers now paying $800 a pound, the coveted wild root is threatened by overharvesting (by, among others, Appalachian opioid addicts who need cash for drugs), deforestation and global warming.
I join him for another plant-prowl. In the city, near his home, he points out berry-laden junipers in the shadow of Interstate 20 and watercress flourishing in a spring-fed culvert. Paying more attention while walking in my neighborhood, I'd brought home wild garlic, figs, pears and persimmons. But Pfitzer prefers exurban foraging (because watercress is only as clean as the water it grows in). We drive on, pausing to harvest red sumac berries from roadside bushes. Parking on the edge of a new subdivision, its architecture and landscaping a tidy monoculture, we head into the woods it was carved from.
Foraging is a kind of moving meditation, a way to inhabit not only the outdoors but also the present moment. Pfitzer moves through the forest like a berry-hunting bear, attentive and deliberate. He spots a large fungus sprouting from the base of a tree.
"That wasn't here three weeks ago," he says. I ask if it's edible. "You can eat any mushroom once, they say," he replies with a smile. "This is a Berkeley’s polypore, and it's definitely edible." He cuts loose the two-foot-wide growth and puts it in a bucket. I go home that day with a chunk of it, which later provides an evocative taste of the woods.
There’s an undeniable, Edenic romance to foraging. Pfitzer will tell you that it can be hard, hot (or cold) work, requiring determination and a tolerance for bushwhacking and discomfort. But the payoff for tuning into nature goes beyond flavors. It can yield something sublime. Standing in a clear, shallow creek, he gestures with a handful of watercress at the verdant surroundings.
“This is my church,” Pfitzer declares. “This is my spiritual time.”