Gleaning/Urban Land Scouts

Katie Ries began Urban Land Scouts as her MFA thesis show in 2010. The project is an inspiring combination of art, food, and urban life. Katie is spending a year working at Beardsley Community Farm and continues the Urban Land Scout project. She will also be tending the Bonnaroo Victory Garden.

If you are interesting in learning more, there is a series of free Urban Land Scout workshops at CAC Beardsley Community Farm every Wednesday from 5-7 pm beginning on March 23rd and ending May 25th. The Level Four Workshop: Wild Edibles will be on April 13th. We will be joined by master forager and gardener, Jeff Ross of Blackberry Farm, and learning about some of the wild edibles growing in our city.

how did you become interested in gleaning?
I probably first learned about gleaning in Sunday school growing up in Nashville. (The Lord lays out gleaning as a rule for Hebrew farmers in Leviticus…in case you were wondering.) I returned to the idea as I was preparing for an art show and thinking a lot about land, economy, and the tensions between the ideals and practices of the various local and sustainable food movements. I later decided to host Gleaning Tours in which we would gather to scour urban neighborhoods for dropped fruit, nuts, and wild edibles. After the Gleaning Tours I started thinking that in addition to foraging in town, we could be laying the groundwork for future gleaning by planting edible perennials and trees in public and common spaces.

what is gleaning?
Traditionally gleaning is the practice of allowing the “poor and alien” to pass through harvested fields and collect what remains. It shows up in the Torah as well as the Quaran and is a pretty radical idea of how landed and landless people should interact. There are many  farms today that let gleaning groups come through post-harvest and collect food for food pantries, but  a more apt parallel for contemporary gleaning might be dumpster diving.  I think I should also distinguish between gleaning and foraging.  The Gleaning Tours could more accurately be called Foraging Tours in that we did not pick through farm land, but instead looked for what we can find in the urban wild. Most of the people who came on the tour were educated, middle-to-upper class white people–not typically the “poor and alien” as they are described in Leviticus– and I used the term Gleaning to raise questions about the social and environmental obligation that we have as privileged “landowners.”

what is your favorite meal or dish from gleaned items?
I made a great pear sauce this fall from pears I collected on 3rd avenue. I stirred it into plain yogurt with pecans from a friend’s tree. I also tried to make chestnut butter from foraged and roasted chestnuts, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind. Might try that again later.

you have told me you don’t like to cook but you do have a very distinctive and interesting relationship with food. can you describe that?
While I can follow a recipe, I am not very confident in the creative aspects of cooking. I think I’m also a lazy modern person who waits until she’s very hungry before she starts thinking about what to eat and then wants food immediately. I think that’s the tension between my slow-foodie impulses and my contemporary life: I want the quality of slow-roasted/home grown/hand made/etc. without always being willing to commit the time, energy, or money necessary to enable that quality.

best/most random gleaned food item?
Chicory root! It has a beautiful chocolaty smell when roasted and is powerfully bitter. One of the Gleaning Tourists pointed it out as we toured 4th and Gill and now I see it everywhere. That pleasure of discovery and recognition is a big part of the appeal of foraging for me. I think it builds a new intimacy with land that typically doesn’t inspire the same kind of sublime feelings you might have in, say, the Smokey Mountains or at the ocean.

most unexpected edible you know about?
What’s unexpected is how many urban “weeds” are edible. Robert Birkholz wowed me when he fried dandelion heads on the stem. I’m excited to try making dandelion wine this spring. Booze from my yard? Hell yeah.