Ellen Zachos, author of Backyard Foraging, and other titles, originally got into foraging via her work at New York Botanic Gardens. She now splits her time between New Mexico and Pennsylvania. For a few years, she has been sharing her plant knowledge with bartenders across America on our behalf. Her new book, The Wildcrafted Cocktail has just come out, so we took the chance to ask her a few questions.
Were you always a drinker? What’s brought you to cocktails?
EZ: Well, I wasn’t born a drinker, but I recently found out that an interest in mixology is in my genes. My dad died a few years ago and when we were going through his stuff we found a photo of him behind a bar in a classic, shaker-over-the-shoulder pose. I hadn’t realized he’d put himself through law school as a bartender. He actually didn’t drink. At all. But he always had a full liquor cabinet and loved being able to offer guests a good cocktail.
I’ve always appreciated a good cocktail, and my interest in foraging definitely extended to both food and drink. But when I started working with The Botanist back in 2014, teaching foraged mixology workshops to mixologists across the U.S., it was inspiring. I learned so much from the mixologists I worked with, it motivated me to take my wildcrafted cocktail making to another level.
What do you get out of working with wild stuff that you don’t get from other things?
EZ: So many things! First, of course, are the un-buyable flavors that you won’t find on any store shelf. I love those flavors for how they taste, and I also get a kick out of knowing how unusual they are. When you go out looking for your own food, it’s adventurous on many levels. You never know what you’re going to find, you have to be open to everything around you, you get creative with your recipes. It just makes cooking and mixology so much more exciting.
Do you want to mention any key influencers or memorable turning points in your becoming a fully-fledged forager?
EZ: Leda Meredith and Sam Thayer. Leda is a dear friend of many years. We went to school together at the NYBG and worked together as gardeners in NYC. She was the first forager I knew personally, and we still enjoy walking in the woods, fields, and parks, foraging, then bringing our bounty back to the kitchen. It’s an adult playdate as far as I’m concerned. Sam is the number one forager in the U.S. today. Not that it’s a contest; I find the foraging community to be very generous and remarkably un-competitive. But Sam’s books are impeccably researched, both from a literary point of view and personal experience. I’d admired his work for years before becoming a part of the annual Midwest Wild Harvest Festival in Wisconsin which is organized and run by Sam’s wife, Melissa Price.
What’s your favourite ever thing you have found, and your favourite ever thing you have made?
EZ: I’ve never been more excited than the day I found my first wild mushroom. It was a perfect Chicken of the Woods in the middle of Central Park. Mushrooms are especially exciting because they’re so unpredictable and a good discovery still makes me yelp. I remember the mega, lobster mushroom harvest from last fall, finding my body weigh in maitakes in 2015, the black trumpets I discovered growing in my own lawn (!!!), and of course, a girl never forgets her first morel. So I’d like to give a general answer here and say mushrooms are my favorite thing to find.
Where is the foraging movement at in the US right now, from what you see?
EZ: It’s growing, but still seen as somewhat fringe-y. At least now, when you tell people you’re a forager, they mostly seem to know what the word means.
In restaurants, I’m seeing more foraged foods on the menus, which is encouraging. I think people are fascinated by the possibilities and the power of foraging, but nervous about being able to do it themselves. That’s where education comes in and that’s why I love talking about the subject as much as possible.
I like to feed people. Nothing is more convincing than a taste or sip of something delicious.
How does foraging inform what you think about the future?
I have just finished reading the most wonderful essay by Sam Thayer in response to an article in the Huffington Post. Against claims that foragers harm the environment, Sam gives detail about how foragers, in fact, are custodians of the environment and that it’s up to us – within our capability – to save it. I felt more hope after reading that essay than I have since the election.
Botanist Gin drinkers can order a signed copy of The Wildcrafted Cocktail by Ellen Zachos here http://www.backyardforager.com/books/ >>