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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Wild Things

At a wilderness school in rural Hunterdon County, you can go back to your roots to discover the simple glories of salads made from Mother Nature’s finest weeds and flowers


The menu listed stinging nettle lasagna, spice bush tea, wild greens soup and clay-baked trout.

Sound like a dinner party on Gilligan’s Island?

Not exactly. These dishes and many more were gathered, simmered and served up by Mark Tollefson, 31, head chef of the Tracker School in rural Asbury in Hunterdon County one sunny summer afternoon recently. Tollefson is confident anyone else can find many of the same enticing wild edible plants in their backyard.

For this exceptionally creative chef, a mixed green salad might be a verdant toss of plants as well as weeds, including chickweed, daylily petals, purslane, wood sorrel and red clover flowers. For a side dish, he might go for potatoes boiled with spice bush. The veggie course might be a stir fry of milkweed buds, dandelion leaves, quickweed and grape leaves.

You, too, can eat like a Tracker School student — it’s the only nature, tracking and wilderness survival school in the state — even if you’re not the least bit interested in attending class. According to the chef, the plants he uses can be found in your suburban backyard, along a roadside or in a field near your home — and make fine additions to soups, stews and salads. In fact, you probably pulled one of these wild edible plants out of your garden the other day without even knowing it — thinking it was a mere weed unworthy of a trip through the salad spinner. And if it seems a little off-putting, Italians have been sauteing bitter dandelion and savory zucchini blossoms for centuries.

Many wild plants are “classic weeds,” according to Tollefson. You can’t buy the plants or seeds at your local nursery — ever see dandelions for sale? They are simply growing on your front lawn right this very minute. You just need to identify them. For instance, stinging nettle’s hairy slender leaves make it difficult to mistake. It looks like mint on steroids, with hairy little stingers that will snag your clothing and your skin. In fact, the leaves are so sharp you should wear gloves when handling them, but the plants are good for you and chock full of vitamins A and C, as well as iron. All they need is the heat of the stovetop or oven to neutralize their sting.

At the Tracker School, Tollefson demonstrates the use of wild plants to help students learn how to survive in the wild. But it will take time to get used to these edible unruly vegetables. The flavor of wild foods is more intense than their cultivated cousins. Wild foods also tend to be bitter to our taste buds, which are used to a more familiar, sweet taste — the kind found in supermarket produce that has had the bitterness hybridized out of it.

It can take up to one year to retrain one’s taste buds to make a complete transition to wild foods in the diet. The rewards of doing so can be huge; wild edible plants are bursting with essential vitamins and minerals.

The Tracker School attracts people who are determined, among other things, to see weeds in a whole new light. They come from all walks of life — teachers, lawyers, plumbers, college students, doctors, computer programmers — and from all over the world. A quick survey of the cars in the parking lot demonstrates the school’s powerful geographic pull — there are license plates from all over the country.

A tracker is defined as someone who follows footprints in the woods. Trackers are usually called upon to locate fugitives, missing persons, even escaped tigers. The Tracker School was founded in 1978 by Tom Brown Jr., a wilderness survival expert and master tracker to educate students in the art of tracking and survival. Most are here because they have read one of Brown’s books and want to learn more. Many are on an adventure-oriented vacation. Some love the outdoors and enjoy roughing it; others are here because they distrust technology and want to be prepared for the worst as Y2K approaches.

"I want to learn to be one with the earth," says student Shiri Reizer, 27, who came all the way from Ludlow, Vt., to attend a class. "This is information we used to know during ancient times. Eating this way is really healthy."

Classes usually last a week. The beginner, or standards class, costs $650; the advanced class is $750. When they’re over, students know how to identify edible plants, purify water, trap and skin animals, build a fire from friction, construct wilderness shelters, prevent sunburn using clay, and create cooking utensils out of rocks.

And, thanks to Tollefson, they also enjoy the wild goodness of mother earth. By cooking three meals a day for 100 hungry students, Tollefson, a Canadian by birth who previously worked as a restaurant chef, shows students how to bring a little nature into their diets. And that means, literally, going back to one’s roots — roots, leaves, flowers and buds, to be exact.

“These foods take some getting used to,” says Dan Stanchfield, 29, an instructor at the school. “They’re not chips and beer, and they’re not going to take their place.”

Stanchfield’s mother started him young on wild foods. “We used to have steamed stinging nettle with spinach and steamed cattail flowers rolled in butter. They were good — just like corn.”

The best way to introduce wild foods into the diet is by using a bit of camouflage to trick unsuspecting children and dubious spouses into eating them uncomplainingly. Mix them into familiar dishes, such as Tollefson’s lasagna, which he gives a new twist with the addition of stinging nettle leaves. Another important rule: Start out slow and keep it simple.

Simplicity, in fact, is what survival is all about. To survive, all you need are shelter, water, fire and food — in that order. No remote control, no automatic can opener, no e-mail. “Wilderness cooking,” the term for Tollefson’s creations, embraces this simplicity. Of course, simple does not mean you can’t be creative.

“There’s no reason it has to taste bad,” Tollefson says. “A glass of water when you’re feeling really hot tastes great.”

Though food is the least important of your troubles in a survival situation — people can usually last for about two weeks without eating — it can take up about 80 percent of your time. Hunting, foraging, trapping, skinning, digging — these food-related activities take a great deal of time, though the first priority should be constructing a shelter, finding water and building a fire, says Brown. On top of that, survivors must also create all the tools needed for the procurement of food, which include baskets, traps, utensils, bowls, spits and tongs.

Brown is concerned with the hang-ups that many Americans have about the exotic — which may explain their infatuation with meat and potatoes.

“We overlook what’s out there,” he says. “We restrict ourselves to a couple of kinds of grain, a couple of kinds of meat, a couple of kinds of vegetables. We try to see how many ways we can cook potatoes. Why not try pond lily tubers? Most people have a yard full of dandelions, yet they’ve never fried them up in fritters or had them in salad.”

Tollefson says his mission at the school is to “bring thanksgiving to eating food.”

“The time and energy that goes into food is no less than a miracle,” he says.

Something prepared with great care and attention is likely to taste better than something just thrown together, but Tollefson says it’s more than that. When you truly appreciate the labor that goes into a dish, you approach eating with “thanksgiving.”

Former head chef at Wild Rover Restaurant in Victoria, British Columbia, Tollefson took classes at the Tracker School in 1992. He says he became interested in the school after reading one of Brown’s books in the library. After the classes, Tollefson began to rethink his role in the restaurant business. When he was offered the job of Tracker School chef last year, he jumped at it.

“When you cook in a restaurant, there’s no real underlying meaning behind it,” he says. Some of the dishes he prepared then were tequila chicken and cedar bake salmon. Now, he might make a rainbow trout with clay.

Clay-baked trout, as it’s known, is made by seasoning trout with lemon, spices and onions, wrapping it in a burdock leaf, smothering it with one inch of clay, and laying the sticky package on ashes in an open fire. The result? Moist, juicy fish that melts in your mouth. And if you get bits of clay on your trout, that’s okay too — the muddy stuff contains numerous vitamins and minerals.

The cooking technology of the ancients — which is the only technology that can be used in the wilderness — combines hardened clay, grasses, rocks, sticks and fire in numerous ingenious combinations. For instance, there is the reflector oven, a shallow pit anchored by a clay “reflector wall,” in which Tollefson bakes soda bread. Another ancient invention is the griddle — a flat slab of granite that is heated with rocks from the fire on which Tollefson fries up pork chops without oil.

Homemade beef jerky is made on a contraption resembling a clothes drying rack, except that it’s made from maple branches and tied with twine. Meat, Tollefson explains, is cut into thin strips, then draped upon the rack. A pit of coals underneath the rack also contains hickory and mesquite chips and is far enough away from the meat so that only smoke, not flame, affects the meat, dehydrating it after about four hours.

"I think we have forgotten many very important, very basic things," says Dan Fette, 45, a student from Denton, Texas, who decided to attend a class after reading one of Brown’s books.

Before stove tops, there was rock boiling. Reminiscent of the children’s book, "Stone Soup," clean rocks that have been heated by the fire are placed in a bowl filled with meat and vegetables. The water boils and — voilà— soup’s on.

Steam pit cooking is probably the most common ancient cooking technique. A deep, narrow pit is lined with hot rocks and grasses. Tollefson stuffs a whole chicken with mushrooms and garlic, places it on the grasses, and arranges squash around the bird. He then covers the pit with more grasses and rocks and finally with dirt, totally sealing it. This, he says, will cook the chicken without burning it. Since the pit is sealed, no oxygen will be able to make its way in, and as every good Scout knows, you can’t have a fire without oxygen.

When the chicken comes out of the pit, the meat is so soft it slides off the bones. Tollefson’s students need no further convincing that those ancients were on to something.