Text by Jennifer Meleana Hee | Images by Meagan Suzuki
When I imagine a modern-day lady forager, she is wearing a Clan of the Cave Bear-inspired, vintage Cro-Magnon frock. There is a delicate smear of mud on her shoulder, a floral crown on top of her sun-streaked braids. In her social media profile photo, she is emerging from a backlit meadow with her arms outstretched as if to say, “Dear Mother Earth, I love you this much.”
I am not this woman. I loudly curse nature, when nature leaves me writhing in pain following centipede bites, leptospirosis, or the multiple wounds I’ve reopened by tripping over thick roots or thin air. So how did I end up on the trails of O‘ahu every day? How did I end up with battle scars for a mere backpack of lilikoi? How did I tap into my latent gatherer and become addicted to hoarding wild edibles?
Ten years ago, I joined the Peace Corps, leaving the ridges and coasts I had tread and traced for most of my life for an unimaginable landscape: Bulgaria. In the small Eastern European town where I lived for two and a half years, my habits changed out of necessity. In my daily life, unaware of the farm-to-table movement revitalizing menus back home, I did what everyone in my town did, which was eat what was in season and cook from scratch. When I returned home, I became a cook, even though I had previously been a teacher and counselor and knew as much about the food service industry as did my adopted Bulgarian street dog.
Thus, my interest in foraging began with cooking and intensified with love. As a plant-based cook at a natural foods deli, I wanted to integrate as many local, sustainably grown ingredients as possible into the menu items. My curiosities led me on an urban foraging bike ride organized by an ethnobotanist friend, who took us from Pālolo into Mānoa Valley, stopping at landscapes and trees I’d driven by my entire life but had never considered snacking on. I learned the cob-looking fruit on monstera plants tastes like a botanical mash-up of pineapple and banana. (The large-leaved monstera is to suburban landscaping in Hawai‘i what the name Jennifer is to the birth year of 1979—everyone has it.) I learned you can munch on kiawe pods, and that you can pick up what appears to be a twig, eat it—and live.
Eventually, I enrolled in a permaculture design course to learn more about how food can be grown in a sustainable way that works in accordance with nature—as opposed to the current model of agriculture, which is ecologically destructive. (Think less pesticide-polluted runoff, more diversity of crops returning various nutrients to the soil and thriving without chemical inputs.) Our class spent weekends on different farms all over O‘ahu. During lessons, we would graze honohono grass, jaboticaba, katuk, cacao pulp, surinam cherry. Not everything was delicious, but the act of pausing to glean, discuss, and consider the possibilities invigorated me.
My enthusiasm must have been obvious, as I became the de-facto course chef enlisted to create meals for new permaculture design students. Every meal was like an eat-local Iron Chef episode. I definitely lost the moringa pod challenge, throwing away a giant bin after roasting, frying, and boiling them only to find that they were still rock hard and unpalatable. Many days, I wanted to ask for mercy in the form of a bag of frozen organic mixed vegetables, but chayote, cassava, whole kalo, jackfruit, sapote, soursop, and amaranth greens were thrust into my kitchen. I made jackfruit and cassava tacos, soursop tapioca, and sapote mochi. My produce boxes overflowed with the joyous gift of ‘ulu.
But I didn’t truly become a forager until I fell in love with a man who shifted the pace of my wanderings and the course of my palate. I am a trail runner, but he would stop us mid-run for a handful of gotu kola (a wide heart-shaped herb), Koster’s Curse (an invasive shrub with tasty berries), māmaki (leaves for medicinal tea), or ‘awapuhi (ginger goop for lustrous locks). The trails I had run on for years changed once I slowed to an observer’s stroll, searching amongst forest detritus for the orange pop of Jamaican lilikoi. Alert to peripheral hills, seeking the red glow of an untouched grove of mountain apple, my obsession shifted from distance and speed to discovery.
When the deli I cooked for closed, I had time to volunteer on small farms. Although I knew that I didn’t have the fortitude to spend my days planting cacao or turmeric in the blazing Waiāhole sun, this was my time to connect with the people who did. With every new flavor—from the strange, sweet, creamy tubers growing beneath mango ginger to fresh heart of palm—I wanted to return to the kitchen. Growers gave me ideas of what to cook with less popular but more sustainable ingredients. They made me appreciate the incredible challenge of growing food organically, the far from romantic stories of being able to thrive as a small farmer in Hawai‘i.
Today, about to launch a new food venture, I have amassed a little green book of farmers whose fields and lo‘i I proudly look forward to procuring from. The vegetables that were once ideal because I knew what to do with them—such as a bag of spinach—have been replaced in my meals by what I can find: the broccoli greens and sweet potato leaves that go uneaten in my parents’ garden, or the kalo leaf left behind in the lo‘i after a harvest.
The picture of a modern-day forager, if looking in the mirror counts, is a little less fur frock, a little more Lululemon. As a lifelong anti-socialite, I forage as a way to connect with strangers without having to interact with them. I can create a dish for an event and express to the community that a simpler means of sustenance is possible. I forage because seeking wholesome ingredients for myself—unpurchased, unpackaged, unprocessed—is subversive to the current model of our food system. I forage because it is peaceful, primal, and provides.