Andrea Gentl came to New York 20 years ago to study photography and never left. But she's a country girl at heart. Today, one focus of her photography is shooting wild foods. And to shoot wild foods, first she has to gather them. Photographs by Andrea Gentl.
Above: French walnuts, collected by Gentl.
Gentl's interest in wildcrafting began as a child in Western Massachusetts: "At a young age, I realized that wild foods were all around us. I could eat fiddlehead fern, sweet clover blossom, or sour grass (sorrel)." At home her family incorporated wild edibles into their cooking, too, gathering wild berries, quince, elderberry, and occasionally, feral apples. Andrea recalls spending hours looking for teaberry or wild cranberry bogs in the fall and winter.
Above: Feral apples and wild watercress.
But after a childhood spent romping in the woods, there were intervening years in New York City when, Gentl explains, "I kind of forgot about these childhood experiences of gathering wild foods." Recently, and since starting her blog, Hungry Ghost Food and Travel, her interest in wild foods emerged again. Reading about restaurants at the cutting edge of the Nordic food movement (Noma, Faviken and Mattius Dahlgren specifically) and their use of wild indigenous foods to create a local culinary experience made Gentl realize that she had always been interested in the terroir of a region.
Above: Wild mushrooms from New Amsterdam Market.
Early in her career (Gentl works commercially with her husband Martin Hyers) she covered the legendary Manka's Inverness Lodge in Northern California. Andrea explains that Manka's had been using wild foods from its inception. "Gatherers came to the back door with piles of wild blackberries or mushrooms, all fish and meat was local." On another assignment, she and Hyers were sent to the Northern Californian woods to cover Connie Green, a Bay Area mushroom gatherer. Assignments like these reinvigorated Andrea's education about what wild plants were edible and how they were being used in restaurant kitchens.
Above: Oyster mushrooms.
Today, Gentl and her family live in New York City and own a tiny farmhouse in the woods of the Upper Western Catskills, in Delaware County, New York, where an expanding food community is thriving. Friends Inez Valk and Justus Kempthorne own Table On Ten in Bloomville and use wild foods in their kitchen at the restaurant, where it's not unusual to find a milkweed frittata or wild dandelion greens pizza on the menu.
Above: Sautéed hen-of-the-woods mushroom with fermented black garlic over chopped parsley salad with bergamot lemon and olive oil.
Gentl explains that learning about wild foods is a lifelong process, but she has certain mentors who have helped her along the way. Les Hook and Nova Kim of the Vermont Wild Food Gatherers Guild have more than 70 years of wild and medicinal food gathering knowledge between them. For New York locals, Gentl recommends taking a trip to the New Amsterdam Market where the duo occasionally sells their finds. On a recent Sunday, they came bearing 90 pounds of wild mushrooms. (Les and Nova will be a giving a wild foods lecture at Jimmy's 43 in the East Village on November 24.) Gentl has also worked with wild food gatherer Evan Stusinski, photographing his finds. The two searched for wild ginger in the Vermont woods. If you prefer to turn to books for mentoring, Gentl recommends Euell Gibbons' book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, which she used as a guide to explore what she had growing around her house in upstate New York. And finally, for the tech-inclined, there's Steve Brill's Wild Edibles App.
Above: Harvested dandelion root, roasted.
For wildcrafters like Gentl and her mentors, the relationship with the woods and the foods found there is a respectful one. Foraging, a term which Gentl explains has negative connotations that date to Medieval times, can conjure a sense of pillaging the earth, rather than caring for it. Andrea's tips for gathering wild food?
- Take what you need and what you will use.
- Never pull a whole plant from the ground; if you pull entire sections of the plant you are compromising or eradicating its lifecycle.
- Always leave some of the plant to reproduce and some for the wild animals.
Gentl is the first to say, "Becoming knowledgeable about wild foods is a lifelong path. Like cooking or gardening, there is no one book you can read or class you can take. You must commit to leaning slowly year by year. Wild food is based on the rhythm of the seasons. Each season and each year I learn something new."
Above: Dandelion root tea.
And as for the appeal of photographing wild foods? Andrea says, "There is no faking a wild blackberry bramble or a mushroom just picked in the woods, dirt and leaves still clinging gingerly to its edges...An insect bitten mushroom or a spotted feral apple; it's nature at its most beautiful and it is about as far away from a grocery store as you can get. Life is about those imperfections. I try to embrace them."