Happy Sunday, friends! This is what I plan to be the first of many special guest Q+A sessions for Oak + River Books. Today’s is extra special because Mecca Ilminen – my sister, an eclectic spirit, and the family forager – is sharing her truths on growing up in the Midwest, edible plants, and creative license with your recipes, along with some of her own photos.
Q: Happy birthday, Big Sis! Time sure flies – over 20 years ago our parents moved us to Wisconsin. Can you talk a little about how growing up in a rural environment helped shape who you are today?
A: I spent a couple of decades right next to kitchi-gami (Lake Superior). It has shaped my idea of a good time, from picking blueberries every year around my birthday in the Moquah Barrens, seeing live music performances at Mt Ashwabay, and biking around Madeline Island. I’ve participated in that blistering February tradition of snowshoeing across Chequamegon Bay and have done the October Whistlestop half marathon a couple of times. A mile from that beautiful inland sea is where I met the person who puts up with me every day.
When you and I lived with the grandparents, I believed for a long time that agates were fossilized dinosaur eggs, courtesy of our grandfather’s accent that made the word sound like “eggits.” He knew and never bothered to correct me.
Q: Now that you live in a more urban setting, what are some practices you have to reconnect with nature?
A: The Twin Cities are actually built around nature spaces. According to Meet Minneapolis, the farthest anyone has to go to access a park is six blocks. I am surrounded by trails and lakes. I’m particularly fond of the Minnehaha Creek. We’ve been talking about buying a kayak. (Visit the Parks page on Meet Minneapolis to learn more).
Q: I consider you to be the family’s forager. When did you first get into foraging?
A: Growing up in northern Wisconsin, we would often go raspberry picking near the house. I remember a golden variety that Grandma was so excited to show us, and they were of course delicious. We also picked buckets of blackberries in the back field. In the Midwest, raspberries ripen in July and blackberries ripen in August.
As for when it all began, I usually blame Dad. He got me started on clover flowers when we first moved north. Looking back, my interest in eating things I find outside is Mom’s fault. She was the one who introduced me to honeysuckle.
Q. What other kinds of things do you like to forage? Are there any things you find that aren’t commonly known to be edible?
A: Since moving to the big city, my foraging habits have shifted upward off the ground. More recently, I have been all about mulberries. This delicious sibling of the fig is prolific in southern Minnesota. I’ve gone out picking every few days for the last month, and if you see me, I usually have red fingers. I’m currently monitoring several areas with wild grapes and recently scored a food mill for making juice. I had a positive ID on some chokecherries but the birds got them before I did. Closer to the ground, I also found several patches of false solomon seal that should ripen in the next month. (Visit Edibile Wild Food for more info on false solomon’s seal and its inedible counterpart.)
When I still lived up north, I would go out for wild strawberries, wild leeks, milkweed, goosefoot, dandelions, daisies, curly dock, sheep sorrel, plantain, clover, fiddlehead ferns, and wood violet. I also had what felt like a private patch of wild plums off of the Tri-County Corridor. I made some fine tartlets with those plums.
I get some strange looks in late Spring when I grab a clump of Siberian elm samaras and stuff them in my mouth. They look like small, round green wings, but are the fruiting part of the elm tree.
Q: What are some recipes you’ve made with the things you’ve foraged?
A: I like to eat as I go, but last year mom did make me a lemon cake topped with fresh wild blueberries we had picked together. For things I have served to other people, I have used wood violet in place of spinach in lasagna and sauces. I really want to try my hand at making dolmas since grape leaves are so plentiful, and plan on making sumac-ade.
The last foraging update I sent to the family was that I had stumbled upon blackcap raspberries. I did gorge myself trailside, but some made it home and into a grilled cheese sandwich made with aged gouda and farmer’s market French bread.
I’m a fan of daylilies and roses. I’ve been told I make very sexy salads.
Q: It’s important to distinguish between edible and inedible plants and fungi. What books or other resources have you used as a guide?
A: So this is where I get out my copy of The Forager’s Harvest, Samuel Thayer’s first foraging guide book. (I also have a copy of his second book Nature’s Garden and just ordered Incredible Wild Edibles: 36 Plants That Can Change Your Life.) Grapes are the most common plant I come across that has dangerous “look-similars.” Moonseed and Virginia Creeper are two easily mistaken plants Thayer references in his guide, and I have encountered both.
|Leaves||Green, simple, 3-5 lobed/|
heart shaped with toothed margins
|Green, simple, 3-5 lobed/|
heart shaped with smooth margins
|Red in late Summer/Fall, |
palmately compound leaf with 5 leaflets
|Elongated cluster||Elongated cluster||Umbrel-like cluster|
|Seeds||2-4 seeds||Single pitted “crescent moon” shaped seed||1-3 seeds|
Samuel Thayer and Melissa Price’s website: https://www.foragersharvest.com/#/
Link to Viriginia Creeper USDA page: https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_paqu2.pdf
Q: When I spend time in nature, I usually prefer to go solo so I can really connect with my surroundings. Do you feel the same way and/or are you part of a community of fellow foragers and hikers?
A: It’s more a function of my work schedule that so many hikes are solo, but I love having company. When I was in Duluth I would often go out with coworkers to the local trails.
Q: Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share with Oak + River Books readers?
A: It is perfectly acceptable to take an iced coffee with you on a nature walk. Do what keeps you active and makes you happy. Also, you should always bring a container in your purse or bag; pockets are not an appropriate means of conveying soft fruit.
Flowers or succulents? Flowers
Beach or mountains? Mountains
Favorite season? Autumn
Prettiest places you’ve hiked? I’ve spent many days on the Duluth portions of the Superior Hiking Trail; Houghton Falls is a must when I go home to the Chequamegon Bay
Last place you went camping? The last place I slept in a tent was near Mammoth Caves in Kentucky; last place I went camping for the experience and companionship was right outside of Badlands National Park in South Dakota
What animal would you be any why? I swim slowly and on my back, so probably an otter
Thanks so much to you, Mecca, for sharing your insights and I hope you had a great birthday weekend! Stay tuned for more great content from Oak + River Books…
Disclaimer/Disclosure: Views and opinions shared by guests may not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Oak + River Books. Information contained within this post are for entertainment purposes only and should not be used or referenced as professional advice. Please contact a professional for information regarding any of the contents above, particularly edible versus inedible substances. Unless otherwise noted, photos on this post are owned by Mecca Ilminen and used with her permission and she is to be credited in any sharing of the materials contained on this post.