Foraging, I said to the couple across from me. It's kind of the thing here.
Foraging, it's kind of the thing that the chef, Iliana Regan, that young soft-spoken woman in kitchen whites with her arms covered in tattoos who just served "edible soil," has become known for. "She forages," I whispered. The restaurant, of course, was Elizabeth, the buzzed-about debut of Regan, who, until recently, was best known for ambitious underground dinners she served in her Andersonville apartment. Elizabeth, tucked beside a tire store in Lincoln Square, has become the foraging hub of Chicago, a point that, Regan said, "feels blown out of proportion, since foraging is something I've always done."
"Foraging?!" the woman across from me asked.
She and her husband had come to Elizabeth on a stray recommendation. They were the only two people at our table who hadn't heard about foraging; who didn't know that foraged food had become a restaurant trend; who hadn't heard of Noma, the famed Denmark restaurant (often called the best restaurant in the world) that bases its philosophy around foraged ingredients; who didn't know how Noma set off a literal land grab among chefs; who didn't know foragers were landing book deals.
I considered mentioning the nursing home in California where three people died recently after eating mushroom soup inadvertently made with foraged (poisonous) morels, but that wasn't a restaurant. Plus: Elizabeth was not cheap (about $180 a pop for the "Woodland" menu), and, as Regan explained, several dishes included foraged ingredients.
Why kill the mood?
Besides, this woman across from me was as unpretentious as you would ever find in a Chicago restaurant that bills itself as "new gatherer cuisine" and serves wild-rice-crispy treats with cured deer. For conversation, she told me about how she lectured her 8-year-old daughter the other day as they drove through Indiana, only to glance in the rearview mirror and realize her daughter had been flipping her the bird the entire time. She told me her mashed potatoes were better than the potato and truffle dish we just ate. She was funny and loud, and her husband tackled each intricately constructed dish in a single, abrupt scoop, then nonchalantly pushed each plate aside — the 17-course tasting meal as assembly line.
When I finished telling her about foraging, she said: So her mother, who would pull off the highway and grab handfuls of dandelions, then cook them down, who had done this her whole life — her mother was foraging?
Suppose so, I said.
"Seriously? This is a thing?" she responded. "What the (expletive)?"
Which is exactly the question that led me to Elizabeth in the first place: How much foraging can a foraging restaurant in Chicago do? Who forages? What about the winter? A friend who knows more about food than I do told me to contact Nance Klehm. "She is the foraging Jesus," my friend said, which, as foraging ethics go, turned out to be not absurdly far off. Klehm has lived in Chicago for a couple of decades and occasionally foraged for restaurants (including Elizabeth), though generally she hates the idea of selling foraged finds: "I am not that impressed by someone who slices a beet, pours something on it, calls it $15, then wants applause."
A fifth-generation horticulturist, she grew up on a farm in the northwest suburbs, daughter of the noted horticulturist Roy Klehm, who owns Klehm's Song Sparrow Perennial Farm in southern Wisconsin. When she started foraging around Chicago 15 years ago, she was one of a few urban foragers, she said. She's since led foraging tours along Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, though Montreal in winter, through downtown Warsaw, Poland.
"But it's become a feeding frenzy these days, relatively speaking," she said, "and it's kind of disturbing because I don't know if the land can support this many people picking over it all the time." For the past six years she has led Chicago foraging tours, though primarily, she explained, she does this so people will learn about their environment: "I want to make the invisible visible."
I made plans to meet her in Logan Square to forage.
So did 18 others.
As we waited for Klehm to arrive, I noticed these people brought dogs, hiking lanterns, spelunking helmets, fleece. Klehm arrived 15 minutes late and apologized, but said the day had been crazy because she just found out she had been named an Utne Reader Visionary of the Year, though mainly for foraging while really she's a soil person.
"Soil is sexy!" she said. "I say it all the time. Nobody listens. Soil is sexy!"
She slipped into her backpack and took off toward the Kennedy Expressway, walking so fast the group split into three groups, each trying to keep up. At the base of the Kennedy she put down her lantern on a concrete embankment and went hunting, head down. She found an apple against the curb, held it up, kept moving. Skateboarders rose and fell beneath the underpass. She dug in an unpromising patch of dirt. She pulled up a root. "Best time to collect roots," she said, holding up her lantern.