Here are a couple that earn their place on any forager's shelf:
Abundantly Wild , (Adventure Publications , 2004) by Teresa Marrone, who lives in Minneapolis.
The Forager's Harvest (Forager's Harvest, 2006) by Samuel Thayer, a Wisconsinite.
A couple of years ago I was interviewed for an article on foraging in the Star Tribune, and I was happy to share my passion for this fascinating hobby. When I read the published article, though, I was more than a little dismayed. While it wasn't a total hatchet job, it did manage to characterize foragers as variously crazy, sketchy, "hippie-stoner," and slippery. The sort of person who, "Whenever they have given me a phone number, it has invariably been disconnected soon afteward," according to one Saint Paul chef.
Now, I don't think it's wise to protest too much on behalf of my own character; what I will say is that even a quick perusal of these two thoughtful, intelligent, well researched and extremely well written books should go a long way toward dispelling those sorts of hackneyed stereotypes.
Marrone's book is especially good on wild fruits and greens, has a section on the most common and easily identified mushrooms, and has loads of interesting recipes. It's more comprehensive than Thayer's, and takes a gourmand's approach to the topic. A quick flip shows tempting recipes for plum chutney, stuffed morels, wild greens pasta, pickled ramps, fiddlehead pie.
Thayer's take is perhaps a bit more that of the naturalist. He includes quite a few plants that I didn't know were edible, like spring beauty and marsh marigold, and others that I didn't know existed, like the "ground bean" or "hog peanut" (amphicarpaea bracteata). He's got a lot on wild roots--of evening primrose, thistle, burdock, and more. (From Thayer I learned that I need to dig much, much deeper for quality burdock than I did in this impromptu orchard forage.)
In Thayer's book I also discovered, much to my surprise, that I didn't know dookie about nettles. Now I know that what I always thought were stinging nettles (because they are indeed nettles, and they sting like the dickens), which I've encountered so often, so painfully, in shady river bottoms and along trout streams, are in fact wood nettles. Both stinging and wood nettles are abundant wild edibles; in Thayer's opinion wood nettles are superior in several ways to stinging nettles. These are some of the first forest plants to emerge in the spring, and I'm really looking forward to doing more with them this year.
Thayer evangelizes on behalf of milkweed; from Marrone I learned how to prepare acorns for the pot (though I haven't tried them yet).
Both books combine an infectious enthusiasm for wild foods with reminders to use all due caution in gathering wild plants. Both are detailed in their descriptions of edible plants and of potentially dangerous look-alikes.
In the end I can't say that you'll find one more useful or enjoyable than the other. If you want to forage for wild food in the Upper Midwest and beyond, you're going to want them both.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw