Tama Matsuoka Wong is a professional forager, corporate lawyer, and mother. She collaborated with New York City’s chef Eddie Leroux to create the book Foraged Flavor, a field guide and cookbook. When her family moved back to New Jersey, she wanted to help alleviate her daughter’s allergies by growing their own food. Gardening proved to be a challenge, and then she discovered native plants. In her quest to eradicate invasive plants, she had guests who mentioned that the “weeds” were edible. That is where her foraging journey began before growing into Meadows and More. Wong provides workshops, land management and maintenance consulting, and foraging receptions and banquets. She has been featured in many news outlets including CBS Sunday Morning, the New York Times, National Public Radio Science Friday, and Oprah. In 2013, she was nominated for a James Beard award, and gave a TEDxManhattan talk, “How I Did Less and Ate Better, Thanks to Weeds.”
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, globalized farming has reduced the number of cultivated crops from 100,000 to 30, placing stress on food demand as world population rises. Diversity in crops, especially that of indigenous plants and natural wild ecology, can help alleviate food poverty, diet related diseases, and support sustainable environment and economy.
Food Tank had the pleasure of catching up with Tama to talk about foraging as well as her upcoming project.
Food Tank: Will you share a bit about the Wild Farm project you are launching this month?
Tama Matsuoka Wong: The Wild Farm is really the next step. So basically I’ve been foraging and have people working for me. I can’t fulfill what people want from foraging. An example is sumac. A lot of people cut it down because they think it’s poisonous sumac. We only hear about the bad stuff, and it’s really easy to tell them apart as the poisonous sumac is white and red. It’s a spice, and all of the sumac we get today is from Turkey, and it’s a different type. There’s a big demand, and I need to get a more consistent supply. We need to study how long it takes to make a tree and produce fruit. [The project] will have a controlled area to study this, and see how long it takes.
I’ve been taking away things [conservation groups] don’t want, and noticed they were preserving farms, and more and more fallow fields were being taken over by biofuel corn, and the soil is bad. I went to them and asked what if I take one acre? I knew a farmer who couldn’t use one spot for hay and asked for that spot to use for the sumac. I found out a crop preserved for farmland is defined by the state, and I had to go to the state to get approval for planting trees – kind of a nightmare. Every time you do something first, it’s a huge effort. If I didn’t keep going by and imagining sumac growing there, I might not have finished.
Also, engineers will design a sumac grinder, to grind it into a spice. Sumac was written up as a food trend of the year; it is very high in antioxidants, A and C.
We’ll have a farm where the restoration is the crop. Part of what they’ll study are community plants. Deer really love it (sumac) so they have to fence it. No irrigation or fertilizing, wild plants like poor soil or soil that has not been amended. Wild plants are more healthy, because they develop their own [defenses], so they have more antioxidants.
We will probably plant them in an organized fashion. Sumac is a colonial plant, it forms suckers. I’ll have some control, but not over-prune it; let them do what they normally do. That’s sustainable, it’s a perennial, you don’t have to have human inputs. It will be harvested by hand. The only mechanical thing is grinding it.
FT: Would you ever plant weeds on purpose or just allow them to grow in the places they chose?
TMW: The answer is YES and it depends on what type of “weed” it is. If it is invasive, I would not plant them on purpose. There are more than enough to harvest. If it is a native plant, yes I would and do plant them, and allow them to spread and create more plants on their own. I set out a sustainability code for each species highlighted in Foraged Flavor: red (plant and harvest), yellow (harvest 20 percent and plant), and green (invasives and nonnatives: harvest all you want). Some edible plants should not be harvested at all, such as trillium.
FT: What would you tell land conservationists who want to get rid of what they call invasive plants in order to make room for more natives?
TMW: It will be difficult to “eradicate” them, but you can get help [from foragers] to control those that are edible so that there can be more balance and diversity in the landscape.
FT: If someone wants to get rid of their grass and plant edible natives and “weeds,” what are some plants they should grow first?
TMW: If someone has a lawn, they should look first to the parts of the lawn where things don’t seem to grow well (too wet or too dry). Look at what the plants are telling you first before deciding what to “grow.” After hanging around ecologists and gardeners for years, things that are planted where they don’t want to be tend to “wink out” after three to five years and ultimately don’t sustain themselves. There are plenty of good “weeds” that are already growing in lawn areas if you just stop spraying them and let the plant life grow more than two inches high.
FT: How long after you began foraging, were your daughter’s allergies alleviated? Did you notice any other benefits?
TMW: My daughter’s allergies were better after we moved to rural New Jersey and I started to be very careful about what we were eating. But when she was foraging herself her allergies were relieved even more and for myself I no longer have been so bothered by hay fever. Whereas, I had gotten to the point where I had to take Claritin every day for a few months, but after I started foraging, I took less and less.
After our family started eating all the recipes in the book (and thus eating more than 80 plants in season), we started to notice our tastes had changed and we didn’t feel like snacking that much. We felt fuller when we ate them.
FT: What do you recommend for how to keep wild greens in the refrigerator?
TMW: As soon as you pick them you should keep them in a Ziplock bag out of the sun and in a cooler. Many will keep in the refrigerator for more than a week. In fact some chefs told me they last longer than regular greens.
FT: What gets you through the winter? Do you freeze or dry plants, or grow any inside in a window?
TMW: Many of them freeze well, if you blanch first. I also make jams and dry them. And of course there is always hickory bark, juniper, and pine which are good to forage in the winter.
FT: What are some of the challenges faced by new foragers?
TMW: They have to consider the stewardship of the land, and proper identification of things. Some people are nervous and some are not. Some are nervous about dandelion. If you’re nervous, it’s very easy to get information, we identify things all the time. So just send it to me by email, we’ll post it, and identify it. If they’re still nervous and have a backyard, look at all the red, and label it.
FT: Are there three top tips you would give new foragers?
TMW: Just start with one plant, get to know it, and relax. Foraging is an experience to enjoy. You get rewarded with good food on top of it. Be curious: plants are moving around and every year is different. Be humble. There is always something to learn in the face of nature.