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Groceries From Off the Beaten Path

A Lesson in Foraging


As a child growing up in Pasadena, Christopher Nyerges used to sit in the hills, gaze down at the sprawl of Los Angeles and wonder how Native Americans managed to feed themselves without supermarkets.

Three decades later, he knows, and he wants us to know too. He routinely leads trips through those same hills, teaching anyone who is interested how to harvest a meal from what looks like scrubland. Courses range from a three-hour walk gathering wild food to full-blown survival courses involving trapping and shelter-building classes.

A Saturday class gathers at the end of a suburban street in Altadena. The San Gabriel Mountains loom nearby, but the only semi-wild vista in immediate sight is a footpath leading around the back of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Still, Julia and Russ Buenafe from Corona are psyched. If they were dogs, their tails would be wagging. This, it soon emerges, is not their first course. They are repeat customers and in the afternoon will tackle advanced survival skills.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 29, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Poisonous mushroom--The mushroom identified as an edible bolete in this picture that ran on Page H3 of the Food section Wednesday is actually an amanita, which can be poisonous. It is most easily identified by a small ring midway down the stem.
PHOTO: Poisonous mushroom--The mushroom identified as an edible bolete in this picture that ran on Page H3 of the Food section Wednesday is actually an amanita, which can be poisonous. It is most easily identified by a small ring midway down the stem.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 4, 2001 Home Edition Food Part H Page 2 Food Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Not Edible-The mushroom in a photograph that accompanied "Groceries From Off the Beaten Path" (March 28) was an amanita, which can be poisonous, not an edible bolete. You can tell the difference by the small ring around the stem of the amanita.

"We live in an area like this and wanted to learn about it," says Julia Buenafe. As she speaks, her gaze follows two red-tailed hawks sweeping above in crazy loops. "They're mating," she says.

A trilling sound comes from mountain squirrels. In a sudden flash of blue, a jay streaks by. "It's addicting," says Russ Buenafe. "The more you learn, the more you want to know."

Before we even leave the street for the footpath, Nyerges is squatting by yellow mustard growing near a roadblock and bagging it for lunch. "When you go to Bristol Farms, they have bags of this designer salad," he says.

Making our way down a dog-walking path, Nyerges spots more flowers and scrambles up a hill. All mustards are edible, he says, handing out flowers. Talking us through the anatomy of the flower, he has us recite it back: "Four petals, four sepals, six stamens, one pistil," we chime.

Nyerges repeatedly tests our recognition of the same plants as we spot them throughout the walk. "If you don't recognize something, never eat it," he declares, glowering for emphasis. "What's this?" he demands, holding up a pretty, rather lacy-looking plant, then answering his own question: "It's hemlock-more than enough to kill all of us."

We are still skirting JPL's chain-link fence when Nyerges is suddenly off-path again, this time nimbly climbing down a hillside to score a cactus paddle for our lunch. Before he bags it, he teaches us a trick to judge its tenderness. "Listen when the knife goes through," he says. "If you don't hear it, it's very wet and succulent. If you do, it's woody and fibrous."

He hands us each trimmed tasters. It tastes like bell pepper.

By the time the path joins a main road, we have been shown native black and white sages that can be used in balms. Mugwort has been recommended for kindling, willow bark for a kind of wild aspirin. Several of us hold crushed California bay leaves to our noses and inhale rapturously.

As we follow him, rapt, Nyerges finds dandelions and their wild cousin, sow thistle. Our focus has shifted so thoroughly to our feet it comes as a surprise to realize that we are entering the Angeles National Forest. The suburbs give way to an oak-shaded wilderness. The sound of rushing water rises to a roar.

Nyerges spots a pair of mallards and, straightening like an excited pointer, he lets rip with a pair of duck calls. For one enchanted moment, he is a big kid, a Hungarian American boy playing Gabrieleno Indian in the woods near his house.

Shepherding us across the stream, he and the Buenafes find a patch of watercress. Seeing it clinging to rocks in rushing spring water helps make sense of the roots we see in the stores. Nyerges makes a discreet harvest, leaving far more than he takes.

But the next discovery is not bagged for lunch. It is an amanita mushroom, quite poisonous, says Nyerges. He gently scrapes the soil away to reveal its root bulb, gill structure and powdery-looking cap.

Soon, however, he has found some bolete family mushrooms, which, though edible, are old and full of maggots. "Feel the stem," he says. "It's mushy. You know it's rotten." But this does not stop him from using it to illustrate the varied mushroom anatomy and to show how to cut away pores (no gills in this branch of the fungus family) and keep the normally edible white flesh.

On we trek, Nyerges showing us how to get water from succulents called rock roses growing from cliff sides and revealing the original wild lettuce and narrow-leaf plantains.

Two and a half hours in, it's lunch time. Nyerges cuts some aloe leaves, finds a sheltered spot by the stream and begins shredding the aloe. In a trice, he's bunched the shredded leaves and is washing his hands in the stream with what is now nature's own anti-microbial soap. The shredded leaves, he says, also "make excellent rope."

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