Moving Stories: Videos from the American South.
Searching for More Than Just Food
Crew & Credits
Elaine McMillion Sheldon
Directed, Edited & Produced - Elaine Sheldon
Cinematography- Elaine Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon
Written Story by - Kerrin Sheldon
Still Photography - Tiffany Noé & George Echevarria
Run Time: 7:16
Release Date: 06/24/15
Tiffany Noé wanders the early-morning streets of Little Haiti in Miami. She’s north of downtown and across the bay from the neon lights and parties on Miami Beach. Here, the streets are quiet, with some local residents popping out to say hello as Noé walks by. She’s searching for something that not many people take to the streets of north Miami to find: food.
Noé is a forager. She’s also an urban farmer, CSA owner, garden installer and author, doing it in all in a place that not many see as a food-centric location.
“People don’t think of Miami as a very agricultural place,” she says.
Noé wants to show the people of Miami that the action of foraging is not only a fine practice, but also one that has been part of our country’s history much longer than grocery-market shopping.
“Foraging is traditionally American,” she says. “It’s a pastime that everyone’s parents or grandparents in the South can tell you about. Going out and gleaning the apple orchard and then making a jelly out of them. Just doing a lot of those traditional American things, like making pie, but doing it with the extra-weird, tropical, native plants you can find down here — and that you can forage for.”
To help spread the word, Noé released a book about her exploration in the world of edibles in Miami. Featuring beautiful photographs and vivid descriptions, the book has since sold out and made Noé a magnet for new foragers in the area. The book even sparked a group of eighth graders to start a foraging club.
“One of the most fulfilling parts about the project is that people now come up to me and tell me what they’ve foraged for, or they’ll ask me if I know about this type of food they’ve found, and that’s really cool — learning about something new.”
Her path to urban foraging in the Lower 48’s southernmost metropolis wound through plenty of different landscapes. In her former life, the one where she didn’t wander the streets looking for tasty treats, she was an art gallery manager in another area not known for its agricultural production: Berlin, Germany.
“I didn’t really have a connection to agriculture, but I was very interested in that process,” she says about her time in Europe’s industrial center. “Then I learned about foraging and was like ‘Oh, even though I live in this giant city and I have this fancy desk job, I can go out on the weekends and collect rosehips from my neighborhood park that I can then boil down and make jam.’ How cool is that?”
After her stint in Germany, Noé moved to London to complete her graduate degree but found herself becoming more entrenched with the primal activity of foraging for food. The period that followed included stints on organic farms around the United States and delving deeper into the exploratory aspect of foraging. Noé is drawn to foraging because it is an inherently human activity, something that has been done by the generations before our own. Noé even foraged for the same nettles her grandma foraged for to provide sustenance during World War II.
“Foraging gives you an excuse to slow down, get out of your car, walk around, meet your neighbors, and really look in directions that you’re not used to,” she says. “It’s a cool way to get to know your city and get to know your neighbors.”
On the streets of Miami’s Little Haiti, Noé ducks her head into the hedges and bushes that line the public sidewalks, plucking out what look like tiny red pumpkins: Surinam cherries. Despite their name and appearance, which suggest they would have a sweet flavor, the reality is something a bit less appetizing.
“They taste like armpit.” Noé admits with a small smile, “but they are often paired with a good amount of sugar and other ingredients to make a juice that’s really popular in Brazil.” That would also explain the small fruit’s other name: Brazilian Cherry.
While the raw Miami version may not have what I’d assume to be the sweaty taste of armpit, its sweetness upon first chew does indeed quickly shift to a pungent aftertaste that sticks to the tongue. A strong amount of sugar is recommended.
But being a tropical location, Miami’s flora have more in common with the plants of the Caribbean than other regions in the United States — including the rest of the South. Before Miami became the city of nightclubs, art deco and “Miami Vice,” it was a swampy area that was ripe for growing tropical fruit that tastes much better than armpits, including large patches of pineapple, coconut and mango trees. Plenty of these local favorites are still scattered around the city, and foraging communities celebrate mango season like their own personal holiday.
In the meantime, Noé is always on the hunt for her favorite, monstera, which produces a corn-on-the-cob shaped fruit that she describes as “dinosaur-like” in appearance. She describes the fruit underneath of the plant’s scaly outer skin as a “banana that also tastes like a strawberry and a pineapple.” But because the ripening period is sporadic and takes up to a year, finding a ripe monstera is uncommon. Today, no monsteras are ready for consumption. We forage on throughout the neighborhood, plucking and snipping at anything edible.
Because of the similarity to the Caribbean flora, Noé’s neighborhood of Little Haiti has residents that are used to partaking in this traditionally non-urban activity.
“This culture is very used to having food everywhere, and also having it be free. So people forage around here all the time. They steal our bananas,” Noé pauses, realizing the irony of her words and, with air quotes, rephrases her statement with a slight smile: “They ‘forage’ our bananas … but from our property.”
And while it may seem that foraging is an inherent contradiction to property rights, for Noé and the many foragers in the Miami area, it’s more about using the food that is at their disposal — and helping educate people about the delicious bounty that is often just outside their front door.
“There are a few different reasons why we forage. One is to gain access to new, unique, and free food,” she says. “And the other is to waste not. There is a lot of food that ends up falling on the ground, and I think it’s important that people are taking advantage of as many food sources as they can.”
Knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking them about the monstera or mango trees in their front yard creates not only a community of foragers, but also creates opportunities for others to take advantage of the bounty that nature has awarded us with and highlight the importance of understanding where and how we acquire our food.
“There’s definitely a new appreciation for originality, I think. We’re just moving so fast into a techno-centric future that there are people who are pulling back and saying, ‘Wait a minute. Some of this stuff we’ve done in the past was really fulfilling and really important, like picking a bunch of something while it’s in season and canning it.’ That’s great and that will always be great.”
While partaking in an action that by nature a search for provisions — the search for sustenance — Noé and others like her are seemingly finding something much more valuable: a reconnection to the land and their surroundings. In their quest to find little and delicious discoveries within an urban environment, they’re re-stringing a connection to a past that many of us have forgotten. A past that valued knowing where your food came from and the pleasure of physically obtaining it.
“I like the idea of putting down your iPhone, getting together with your friends, and making a bunch of mango something,” she says. “You can pickle mangos, you know. You can pickle everything!”
People like Ms. Noe are one of a growing number who understand that life is more than instant satisfaction and fleeting gratification. They know that deliberate action, taken over time, and then building a community to partake in that action, is a permanent fulfillment that doesn’t wither with the seasons.
That’s not a realization you’re just given — you have to search for it.