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Foraging for taste of the city

Christopher Borrelli

December 13, 2012

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Foraging, I said to the couple across from me. It's kind of the thing here.

Blank stares.

Foraging, it's kind of the thing that the chef, Iliana Regan, that young soft-spoken woman in kitchen whites with her arms covered in tattoos who just served "edible soil," has become known for. "She forages," I whispered. The restaurant, of course, was Elizabeth, the buzzed-about debut of Regan, who, until recently, was best known for ambitious underground dinners she served in her Andersonville apartment. Elizabeth, tucked beside a tire store in Lincoln Square, has become the foraging hub of Chicago, a point that, Regan said, "feels blown out of proportion, since foraging is something I've always done."

"Foraging?!" the woman across from me asked.

She and her husband had come to Elizabeth on a stray recommendation. They were the only two people at our table who hadn't heard about foraging; who didn't know that foraged food had become a restaurant trend; who hadn't heard of Noma, the famed Denmark restaurant (often called the best restaurant in the world) that bases its philosophy around foraged ingredients; who didn't know how Noma set off a literal land grab among chefs; who didn't know foragers were landing book deals.

I considered mentioning the nursing home in California where three people died recently after eating mushroom soup inadvertently made with foraged (poisonous) morels, but that wasn't a restaurant. Plus: Elizabeth was not cheap (about $180 a pop for the "Woodland" menu), and, as Regan explained, several dishes included foraged ingredients.

Why kill the mood?

Besides, this woman across from me was as unpretentious as you would ever find in a Chicago restaurant that bills itself as "new gatherer cuisine" and serves wild-rice-crispy treats with cured deer. For conversation, she told me about how she lectured her 8-year-old daughter the other day as they drove through Indiana, only to glance in the rearview mirror and realize her daughter had been flipping her the bird the entire time. She told me her mashed potatoes were better than the potato and truffle dish we just ate. She was funny and loud, and her husband tackled each intricately constructed dish in a single, abrupt scoop, then nonchalantly pushed each plate aside — the 17-course tasting meal as assembly line.

When I finished telling her about foraging, she said: So her mother, who would pull off the highway and grab handfuls of dandelions, then cook them down, who had done this her whole life — her mother was foraging?

Suppose so, I said.

"Seriously? This is a thing?" she responded. "What the (expletive)?"

Dig this

Which is exactly the question that led me to Elizabeth in the first place: How much foraging can a foraging restaurant in Chicago do? Who forages? What about the winter? A friend who knows more about food than I do told me to contact Nance Klehm. "She is the foraging Jesus," my friend said, which, as foraging ethics go, turned out to be not absurdly far off. Klehm has lived in Chicago for a couple of decades and occasionally foraged for restaurants (including Elizabeth), though generally she hates the idea of selling foraged finds: "I am not that impressed by someone who slices a beet, pours something on it, calls it $15, then wants applause."

A fifth-generation horticulturist, she grew up on a farm in the northwest suburbs, daughter of the noted horticulturist Roy Klehm, who owns Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm in southern Wisconsin. When she started foraging around Chicago 15 years ago, she was one of a few urban foragers, she said. She's since led foraging tours along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, though Montreal in winter, through downtown Warsaw, Poland.

"But it's become a feeding frenzy these days, relatively speaking," she said, "and it's kind of disturbing because I don't know if the land can support this many people picking over it all the time." For the past six years she has led Chicago foraging tours, though primarily, she explained, she does this so people will learn about their environment: "I want to make the invisible visible."

I made plans to meet her in Logan Square to forage.

So did 18 others.

As we waited for Klehm to arrive, I noticed these people brought dogs, hiking lanterns, spelunking helmets, fleece. Klehm arrived 15 minutes late and apologized, but said the day had been crazy because she just found out she had been named an Utne Reader Visionary of the Year, though mainly for foraging while really she's a soil person.

"Soil is sexy!" she said. "I say it all the time. Nobody listens. Soil is sexy!"

She slipped into her backpack and took off toward the Kennedy Expressway, walking so fast the group split into three groups, each trying to keep up. At the base of the Kennedy she put down her lantern on a concrete embankment and went hunting, head down. She found an apple against the curb, held it up, kept moving. Skateboarders rose and fell beneath the underpass. She dug in an unpromising patch of dirt. She pulled up a root. "Best time to collect roots," she said, holding up her lantern.

"Take this in," she told the group, illuminating the gnarled stump. A moment later, we were following behind again. This time, outside apartment buildings, homes. I had pictured her wading into thickets of autumn leaves and branches. Instead she stuck to sad, trampled patches and found a bounty of flowers, roots, lettuces. She told us about a 125-year-old pear tree she found in Chicago. When asked where the tree was, she said she would never say. When a man pointed out what many were thinking — that she was foraging where people walk their dogs, and she wasn't washing anything before she ate it — she said she believed in eating whatever bacteria was on the plant when she found it.

A guy sitting on his stoop smoking a cigarette watched with amused eyes.

She rooted along bushes, just beneath windows where people could be seen on couches playing video games and watching TV. She pointed to plants and explained origins; she said many times that not everyone should do this unless you know what you're doing. Outside the gated garden of a school, she asked a friend to jump the fence; the friend did, letting Klehm into the garden. She emerged a minute later with apples. The tour began to feel like a long, vaguely illicit pop-up restaurant.

Though when I asked if she could sell what she collected, she said, "I'm not one of those foragers who sees dollar signs on nature."

When Jared Van Camp, the chef at Nellcote on Randolph Street, introduced himself at the end of the forage, she looked visibly irritated. She doesn't want to suggest to chefs — who often call for advice, though she rarely helps — that a smorgasbord is waiting to be exploited: "Why should I be supplying a restaurant I could never afford to eat in?" But Van Camp told me later he went on the tour because he had been to a farm dinner of foraged food, and he had felt ashamed.

"I thought to myself, 'How is it that I am a chef, and I don't know how to identify or pick stuff?' I felt so stupid and I felt like I needed to know how to do this if I was going to be able to call myself a chef now."

An ancient practice

The good news for Klehm is that foraging for restaurant ingredients isn't especially practical for a Chicago restaurant. This is not the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is more agreeable to foraging and woods more plentiful. The commercial scene in Chicago is small. There's Klehm, who, again, is not all that helpful to restaurants (though she did recently show Greg Hall, the former brewmaster of Goose Island, how to forage on land he bought in Michigan), and there's a handful of mushroom pickers who sell to local restaurants.

There's also Dave Odd, a stand-up comedian. He began foraging professionally after turning a small profit on mushrooms that he stumbled across during a hike in Indiana. He provides foraged food to City Winery, Blackbird, Longman & Eagle; most of the restaurants along Randolph Street have bought from him. He used to forage in parks and along roadsides, though now, he says, he negotiates with landowners. "Or like, there was a nursing home in the southern suburbs with an apple tree, and I asked, 'Can I pick your apples before they rot on your lawn?' That kind of thing does happen.

"I think it's hilarious how this is an alien concept to people, when foraging food is one of the oldest things humans have had to do. When I take people with me, I will pick a apple off a tree and offer it, and they'll be like, 'No, I don't know where that thing has been.' And I'm like, 'It's from here! It's from this tree!'"

And winter?

That's when Odd becomes a hunter of small, hidden ingredients at obscure markets, he said. "Some people say it's shopping, not foraging, but it is foraging if you see it as a needle-in-a-haystack job."

As for Regan, the public face of Chicago foraging: She grew up in Indiana, foraging woods with her father, "always curious about what I could and could not eat." In Chicago she foraged neighborhoods and wooded areas but, the truth is, running a restaurant means she is not actually foraging that much anymore. She's buying a lot of ingredients from food importer Rodrick Markus.

Also, winter means "a lot of preserving and freezing," she said. "This is the time of the year I break my rules. In the winter, the fact is you just can't be as locally sourced as you can be the rest of the year." She added: "What foraging is done for us is done in rural areas. We do not forage in preserves, though people seem to think that. We are not pulling up weeds in Lincoln Park and serving them. This is not happening. I like to highlight foraged items, but that's on a smaller scale."

Indeed, at my dinner at Elizabeth she served foraged Queen Anne's Lace, carrots, celery root, walnuts — often in tiny pieces, rarely as the focus of a dish. I pressed my fork into foraged lamb's quarter that resembled a coral sponge. Like the best of her foraged dishes, it had a slight grit.

"This," the woman across from me said, "is not my favorite thing in the world."

I liked it.

I thought it tasted like dirt. But then, so did she.

cborrelli@tribune.com