Five Shades of Foraging: From Secret Menus to Wilderness Findings

By Foodable Industry Expert Suzy Badaracco of Culinary Tides, Inc.

The media is being peppered with stories of foragers. Think of foraging as an extreme form of “local.” While the most stringent locavores eat foods produced within 150 miles of their home, foragers may gather food on their own property, local parks or wilderness areas. And while these stories could easily be dismissed, put aside — it would be a mistake. To underestimate a trend and the ripple effects it can create is a rookie mistake. Foragers are brave souls. Not only are they taking the time to educate themselves to seek wild foods, but they are risking illness or death itself to consume their discoveries. You would think foraging would surface during a recession, an economic downturn, because to forage would save money on food. But a Recession is a fearful time, so people are not in a risk-taking mood. Foraging, instead, resurfaces during economic recovery. Foragers are either extremely smart or tremendously crazy. Both types of foragers exhibit confidence and fearlessness, both of which are recovery behaviors.

The Future of Foraging

Will this weather the storm for years? In a smaller form, yes — and it will be impactful while it’s in the spotlight. Consider the birth. Foraging is a morph off the “local” trend. A morph is a type of birth that occurs when a cousin (closely related) of a trend steps into the spotlight. The new cousin doesn’t kill off the original trend, it just steals the spotlight.  You know you are dealing with a morph because the other cousin is still active, just not as prominent. A morph doesn’t cause a death, which is why the “local” trend is still here while foraging is standing in the spotlight.  

Foraging has already spawned a complex support structure and is attracting various “groupies.”

You May Be a Forager and Not Even Know It

There are three variations of foraging, including:

The Optimal Diet Model, also known as the prey model or the attack model: The behavior of a forager that comes across different types of prey and must choose which to attack. How desirable a prey item is depends on variables such as the time required to find, capture, and consume the prey, and the energy it provides.

Patch Selection Theory: The behavior of a forager whose prey is concentrated in small areas, known as patches, with quite a bit of travel time between them. The model examines how much time will be spent on one patch before moving to the next.  Movement depends on the travel time between patches and the energy acquired from one patch versus another.

Central Place Foraging Theory: The behavior of a forager that returns to a particular place to get food, or to hoard food, or feed it to a mate or offspring. It may involve hiding places.

Photo Credit: CSUPomona.edu

Photo Credit: CSUPomona.edu

Foodable WebTV Network

Foodable WebTV Network

Human Foraging Behaviors

Recently, Optimal Foraging Theory has been applied to the foraging behavior of humans. However, the other theories can apply to people as well. An example of Patch Selection Theory would be mushroom foragers. They learn where certain mushrooms tend to grow and will return to the area to find the same variety seasonally. Central Place Foraging can be seen in the food truck/street food trend. The urban forager returns to the same street truck to experience the same food and may introduce the location to friends or family. There is also a “coolness” in secrecy.  Not revealing the location to everyone, but keeping it a bit of a secret – thereby hoarding the find. Secret menus, which are popping up in the food industry, are also an example of this theory. Secret menus contain items on restaurant menus that are not listed on the menu board or menu. A customer must know to ask for the item to receive it.

Some examples include:

In-N Out – Animal Style Fries: fries, cheese, signature sauce; Monkey Style Burger: a cheeseburger with animal style fries stuffed inside

Starbucks – Thin Mint Frappuccino: Tazo green tea frappuccino, java chips, peppermint syrup, mocha syrup

Taco Bell – Cheeseurrito: tortilla, cheese, green onions, nacho cheese; The Incredible Hulk Burrito with green guacamole instead of nacho cheese

Wild and Urban Foraging

Foodable WebTV Network

Foodable WebTV Network

When foraging is describing natural elements, there are also two types of behavior: urban foraging and wild food foraging. Urban foragers seek common wild edible and medicinal plants in urban neighborhoods and local wilderness areas. Wild food foragers are more extreme and may include more extensive processing methods such as those required for cattail and acorn processing. Both foragers may look for animal and plant materials. Some of the more common plants collected by foragers include mushrooms, greens (sorrel, dandelion, kudzu, etc.), nuts, berries, wild grapes, and seaweed. Common animals collected by foragers include snails, clams, oysters, crickets, crabs, and scallops. The difference between foraging and hunting is that the prey sought by foragers are not as mobile or they are easily caught in groups, like crabs.

In the end, foraging signals a revival in consumer confidence, courage, experimentation, risk taking, exploration, whimsy, vision, and imagination. These consumer behaviors are exactly what should be encouraged to pull them out of the economic doldrums.