How to Find the Culinary Treasures Just Outside Our Doors

Sarah Bir's “The Fruit Forager’s Companion” helps readers connect with nature, whether by discovering the autumn olive or simply making homemade apple cider.

Photo by Melanie Tienter

With the advent of the industrialized food system and the immediate bounty that grocery stores spread before us, much of our ancestral knowledge from our hunter-gatherer origins has been gathering dust.

Sarah Bir, chef, writer and author of “The Fruit Forager’s Companion,” who will speak about the book on Sept. 1 at White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, seeks to remind us of our connection to nature and the tasty treasures that await those who are willing to look for them.
Bir, who hails from Marietta, a small Ohio town in Appalachia, left the region to study at the Culinary Institute of the America then moved across the country. After a few years of cooking, recipe development and experiencing the cultural ease of West Coast life, Bir felt pulled back to her hometown. She and her young family made the move, and, to help with the anxiety of this change, Bir began to talk long walks in the woods behind her daughter’s school.
For Bir, it was an opportunity to tune into the environment around her, reconnect with the plants of the region and find local ingredients she could cook with.
“One thing I didn’t realize until I got the galley copy is that the book is a manifesto for reconnecting with nature and finding ways to heal yourself as much as it is a foraging guide,” says Bir.

Photo by Andi Roberts

Much like the regional ecosystems that support the foods foragers seek, the foraging community has an ecosystem of its own. Through a shared interest in pawpaws (a uniquely Appalachian fruit), Bir got in touch with Andrew Moore, a Pittsburgher and author of “Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit.” At the time, Bir was working on a pawpaw recipe zine and Moore suggested she send a copy to the publishing house, Chelsea Green. That contact paved the way for Bir publishing her book with the house, which focuses on sustainability by using post consumer recycled fiber and vegetable inks. “I thought they’d let me publish the book the way I wanted to,” says Bir.
Bir collected information and developed recipes for “The Fruit Forager’s Companion” over time, testing each one and perfecting the guide. The book consists of 41 individually profiled fruits, which range from ones as familiar as the apple to the lesser known autumn olive. Many of the profiles include a recipe or two Bir developed. Recipes range from very simple, fresh apple cider (forage for apples and then press), to a guide to canning to more involved recipes that will entertain a more experienced cook.
Bir also includes a long and artfully written introduction outlining her philosophy on her connection with nature and information about preparing to forage. Even if you’ll never pluck an apple off a tree or set off into the woods searching for a pawpaw, Bir is adamant that this book is for everyone. “The magic of foraging is ultimately about the quality of time you spend interacting with the world around you, not the quantity of edibles you haul home,” she says.


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