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Foraging in the Pacific Northwest Is a Search for Hope Amid the Pandemic

Seeking ingredients from local plant life during quarantine helps one home cook reflect on her past as a homeless teen

A few of a blackberry bush with ripe fruit on a clear, sunny day
Blackberry season is over, but the author made use out of the fruit for meals over the summer.
Sabra Boyd

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This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

When peak blackberry season arrived at the end of August, wildfire smoke soon followed, casting a claustrophobic haze in martian shades of orange, red, and yellow. I wheezed behind my mask, squinting to find ripe fruit through the razored canes in West Seattle. My arms felt grimy, coated in a fine layer of ash. This was not the idyllic Instagram scene that “berry picking” normally elicits, but months of quarantine had elevated my anticipation of blackberry season to a level of excitement that rivaled all the summer’s canceled concerts.

Once inside, I washed away the berries’ gray sediment and prepared a fillet of salmon to be served with a white wine shallot blackberry sauce. After sautéing the shallots, I deglazed the pan with a splash of chardonnay. I pressed the blackberries through a mesh sieve to remove the seeds, then simmered the sauce on low heat. I missed restaurants and going out, but cooking at home with seasonal ingredients had been a welcome alternative to punctuate the monotony of sheltering in place. Seeking small joys like this helped me navigate the searing isolation of COVID. It also reminded me of when I was a homeless teenager, foraging and dumpster diving to survive.

At age 14, I was homeless, living alone in the woods of the Olympic Peninsula. Before hitchhiking to Seattle, I lived in the woods south of Dungeness Bay. I also found shelter in other places: a cave above the Elwha River; near Lake Angeles and Hurricane Ridge; Salt Creek; an abandoned house in Eden Valley; the banks of the Hoh River; and in the goat barn of a hippie commune.

I could not stay in a shelter or ask for help: I would have been arrested as a runaway or returned to my abusive family, who had kicked me out for being gay, although I am bi. Until you turn 18, it is essentially illegal to be on your own unless you have the resources for a lawyer to help you legally emancipate.

Cooking with a compact backpacking camp stove, I foraged for roughly half my food and kept the rest locked in a bear canister. Misidentifying species and unknowingly eating something poisonous can be deadly, so I only consumed wild plants that I could confidently identify.

Occasionally, I returned to check on my two younger siblings in Port Angeles, and I continued attending high school so my mom wouldn’t get in trouble with Child Protective Services. I worked seven days a week, rotating between jobs as a caterer, maid, pastry chef, landscaper, barista, caregiver, and organic arugula farmhand. I also worked for a Sequim deli, where I prepared salads and sandwiches in between German-American retirees ordering head cheese. I stole precious moments to sit in the walk-in freezer, my favorite perk of working in food service. In the summer, I worked for a catering company that cooked for the Sequim Lavender Festival, where the purple perfumed haze made me dizzy. Feeling nauseous from the pounds of fragrant flower spices, I escaped out the door of the prep kitchen to gasp for breaths of unscented air.

When I realized that living feral in the forest would not be sustainable forever and that I wanted to go to college, I hitchhiked to Seattle. The first night, I cowered from the rain beneath the eaves of Pike Place Market. In the morning, an elderly homeless man found me in the Westlake tunnel. He jostled me awake and warned that I would get arrested for sleeping. He bought me coffee and advised me to go to the U District, where I could safely blend in as a disheveled-looking freshman.

I hid in the basement of the University of Washington undergrad library, where I scavenged for discarded bagels and pizza, and dodged security guards when they did their nightly rounds. (I would later be diagnosed with celiac disease, but when I was homeless I subsisted on whatever I could find.) During summer months, I looked forward to blackberries in the U District and Capitol Hill to supplement my diet of dumpster-dived pastries tossed out by cafes. Decades later, I would work for the UW as an administrative specialist, inundated with imposter syndrome as I walked past the places where I used to sleep as a teenager.

Since COVID-19 first shut down Seattle, I have tried to creatively stretch ingredients to reduce trips to the grocery store and practice social distancing. In spring, I carefully cut stinging nettles for a cassoulet, blanching the greens so they would be safe to eat before adding them to the haricot beans. The herbaceous spinach flavor added a brightness to the cassoulet’s rich flavor. Although nettles are not a classic ingredient, they added a contrasting color and texture to the humble dish that was traditionally composed with whatever was available. In summer, I gathered thimbleberries, salmonberries, and osoberries that looked like tiny clusters of cherries and tasted like grassy plums. But no matter how much I forage and cook during quarantine, I can’t distract myself from thinking about how so many of the places I relied on for shelter as a teenager are closed now.

Libraries, cafes, and college campuses saved me and provided a safe place to rest when I was overwhelmed and without a home. There is only so much I can do to help now that I am housed, but I pack lunches for homeless neighbors who have no choice but to live outside during pandemic months that have included violent clashes between protestors and police, as well as blanketing wildfire smoke. I help friends who are homeless search for housing and jobs and navigate college. It is daunting and feels insurmountable, but I do whatever I can because I know that I did not survive and make it off the streets alone.

When it finally rained this year, the blackberries dripped with soot. I reached to pick a berry and the dregs of West Coast wildfires ran down my wrist in a brown river. Birds that had fallen silent for a week during the heavy smoke cover began to sing again. I felt hopeful. And not just because I could breathe again. Fall is my favorite season, and I looked forward to chanterelle hunting as the weather turned colder and precipitation slowed alerts of new wildfires. In areas that have burned this summer, it is unlikely there will be any chanterelles this year, according to Paul Stamets, Olympia mycologist and author of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. When I asked Stamets if ash from distant fires might have any impact on soil acidity or mycelial fruiting bodies, he told me that it should not have any influence because ash and wildfire smoke is quickly neutralized by rain. Most hopeful is Stamets’s forecast of a bountiful morel harvest when it warms enough after winter months in late March or April.

Last week I left extra kale, tomatoes, and tomatillos that I grew on my neighbors’ doorstep to safely socially distance, and I made food for local homeless neighbors because I bought way too many beans in March. For now, this is how I can stay connected. After surviving homelessness, I know what it feels like to be completely alone and isolated. Cooking for others and foraging makes me feel calm, especially when all the stresses of this year can make it difficult to concentrate or feel like anything I do is enough.

Now, when I make salmon with blackberries or hunt for mushrooms, I do it more for the meditative qualities and less out of the resourceful necessity it was when I was a homeless teenager. Like everyone else, I look forward to someday throwing dinner parties and going out to restaurants again. But for now, reconnecting with the skills that helped me survive keeps me from burning out when it feels like the world is burning. I love how cooking cultivates a hyperfocus and the rest of the world melts away, much like searching for the first yellow pop of a chanterelle through the autumn leaves.

Fall mushroom season began a little late this year because of how dry September was, but I still hope to gather enough that I can share with my neighbors.