A Chef’s Foraging Journey, Urban and Ancient
Story by Sanford D’Amato
Photograph by Dominic Perri
I was weaned by a professional shopper, my mother. I must have spent half of my early years in her tow shopping the meccas of my hometown, Milwaukee, through the 1950s. You could find me sitting for hours in the dreaded chair posted outside of every dressing room, waiting and waiting while the controlling person with the money tried on every stitch of available clothing. This was always followed by a placating reward: a visit to the deli for a tasty treat.
To balance out that early experience was my father, a grocer and a fruit and vegetable savant. I would accompany him on his daily trips to the early-morning produce markets, where we would scour various purveyors’ wares to find the most luscious examples of the season’s bounty. After we loaded the station wagon, we were off to a satisfying workingman’s breakfast.
That Pavlovian training laid the groundwork for the “pro shopper” that I am today. I understand discounts and sales and have the patience to spend hours sliding hangers on a sale rack until that real deal appears. That patience and eye for detail has carried over to my cooking profession. I always “work” a farmers’ market by getting there right before opening and checking out every booth for quality and price before making any purchases.
As much as I revel in a good deal, there is one word that transcends it: free. Those magical four letters send my adrenaline into hyper-flow, whether it’s a trade show where I leave with two shopping bags full of promotional key chains, wristbands, and sun visors, or braking to a screeching halt at a street-side “free” sign to load whatever it is into the back of the car for closer inspection.
I realized I was hooked during my first week living in New York City in the early ’70s. I muscled an oversized wing chair with rotted fabric—but a still-sturdy frame—from the spot where it was left out on the street up to my miniscule fourth floor walk-up apartment, where the only place it would fit was in front of the stove.
Ironically, I have spent my life in a profession built on the concept of free product. In the earliest days of cooking, all cooks were first hunters and gatherers. This brings me to one of my most admired avocations: foraging. Foragers are the sultans of free, possessing skill and knowledge that most of us have lost through centuries of pre-packaged commodity food.
Throughout the years of my cooking career, I have worked with many foragers, but beyond digging up clams on the Connecticut coast or stumbling over puffball mushrooms larger than a beach ball, I’ve always just waited for the delivery rather than make that sometimes life-or-death decision (as with some mushrooms) on my own. Beyond the wealth of young dandelions growing in the cracks of the city sidewalks, the urban setting in which I spent most of my life was a barren foraging location.
With our move to Hatfield, which is plopped right in the middle of prime rural farmland on the banks of the Connecticut River, our former scenario has taken a fast 180° turn. After 30-some years of buying foraged fiddleheads and ramps for our former restaurants, now I just have to hop on my bike and, within minutes, I’m filling my lined backpack with a mother lode of each—fresher than I’ve ever had. And I know that this is just the appetizer to my years of gathering ahead. This balance between hunt and reward is my dream shopping experience. Only one thing makes it better—they’re free!
Read more about foraging for fiddleheads in our Cover Story.