Harvesting a yucca. Photography by Ryan Spaulding

Savoring Wildlands

Eating Local from the Landscape

What does it mean to live closely to the earth, or to have a relationship with the food we eat? Most of us don’t live off the land, but we still want to feel close to it, and we find ways through different roles: rock climber, hiker, gardener, fisherman. When I travel in Santa Barbara County and want to connect to that unbridled terrain I call wildlands, I am drawn to the wild foods.

Food is how I communicate with people, so naturally food is how I can communicate with the landscape. I know this language; I venture out. And I sign up to take a weekend class on wild edibles at Quail Springs in the Cuyama Valley.

The class begins on Saturday morning with a slow walk up the creek bed to gather noshables for dinner. The air smells like sage and pine, and I wonder if we will cook with these desert spices. In fact, I wonder what will we eat all weekend and how will we prepare it? Will we gnaw on root stalks or search for grubs in the sand? There is a chance, and I’m game to find out.

Our instructor is the earnest, ambitious and whimsical JT Beggs, affectionately known by his Yucatan mentors as Juanito. He grew up in Santa Cruz, and his Mexican ancestors endowed him with sandy skin, coffee-colored hair and a wide, infectious smile. But JT’s most distinguishing characteristic is his genuine curiosity. He recently traveled to Guanajuato, Mexico, to visit his ancestors’ tierra, and to Quintana Roo, Mexico, to study traditional recipes with Maya elders. He returned wholeheartedly inspired and ready to forage.

The class is gathered together at Quail Springs in Cuyama Valley.

As we wander through the pinyon juniper woodland, JT and the other instructors point out edible plants. At the moment, students are looking at wild Brassicas—desert plume specifically. We’re learning to identify plants by family, much like Deborah Madison taught in her cookbook Vegetable Literacy. By learning botanical families, home cooks can recognize a plant, associate it with herbs or vegetables from the same family and feel confident about how to prepare it or pair it with other ingredients.

The Brassica family, also known as crucifers, grows wild across North America so this is a handy one to know. Four petals. Alternate leaves. Often yellow. Edible.

JT gives advice on how to harvest and eat wild foods. For raw greens, we should “harvest all plants at a young, sweet and tender stage” to avoid bitter flavors or woody textures. Still, our palates may not be accustomed to such bitterness, so JT recommends salting or blanching to improve the taste. He also instructs us to only harvest one-third of the bounty to ensure an abundant crop next season, and to be cautious of toxins—human or natural. Our group is safely guided by the collective expertise of our young instructors, watchful elders, field guides and cookbooks.

As we walk, stories flow. JT tells of his wanders, time with plants and elders who continue to rely on wild foods for sustenance. He brings his characters to life as he describes their foodways and generosity. We listen as we forage for manzanita berries to make an agua fresca for lunch. We also gather desert plume flowers that we will steam and mix with cotija cheese to stuff inside empanadas.

Before we head back to camp we make one more stop to harvest a yucca whipplei (Hesperoyucca whipplei). This desert asparagus (formerly in the yucca family) can grow over nine feet tall and has long, sharp leaves that will draw the blood of a less-than-cautious harvester. We can see the white, edible yucca flowers across the hillsides, signaling it is ready for harvest since it dies after blooming. Today we want to harvest a small, entire yucca so we can roast its heart and stalk. JT finds a yucca with a three-foot-tall flower stalk and asks for volunteers. Three men wield pickaxes and shovels to carefully dislodge the massive yucca while JT teaches us a harvesting song to honor the plant and accompany the work.

Maya Artemisia with the author making wild green dolmas.

We return to camp hungry and ready for lunch. The chef, Edith Maurno, announces the menu prepared by the crew: handmade gorditas flecked with young avocado leaves. Orange and nopal juice. Lamb’s quarters stuffed with goat cheese, dipped in egg batter and painted red with Edith’s chili sauce. Oh, this sauce. I love this sauce. I ask Edith for the recipe.

Edith runs the kitchen at Quail Springs and she holds the role like an archetypal kitchen maven. She stirs aromatic stews in giant cauldrons, bestows knowledge to the apprentices and from memory prepares recipes that carry a lineage. Her tranquil demeanor is due in part to her eight years in the desert, during which time she perfected dozens of salsa recipes—and I want to learn all of them. Edith pushes her dark hair behind her tan cheeks, smiles and sings me the recipe.

During lunch people sit in the shade and tell stories or ask questions about cooking and natural history. It seems that everyone in this class has dedicated hours or years to honing a specific skill, whether it’s seed-saving, bow hunting, baking sourdough or building pit fires. Through these interests, people develop relationships with the natural world, create bonds between generations and learn to be self-reliant. Although these skills are no longer needed in our modern world, they enrich us deeply.

After lunch JT brings everyone together to preview the afternoon. Tonight’s dinner will be a labor of old-fashioned love as the 30 students prepare a spread of wild menu items. He invites us to participate wherever we wish and float between stations as our curiosity beckons. He offers no sign-up lists and trusts that everything will get done. We get to work.

JT Beggs shows off the empanadas.

Someone starts a fire in a wood-burning oven to bake flatbreads. In the kitchen, a group cuts butter into flour to make the dough for the desert plume empanadas (see recipe). Women of all ages roll dough across forks to form acorn gnocci. A student begins to grind coriander and garlic in the molcajete—the Mexican mortar and pestle—to make a paste for the Mediterranean chicken stew. Another group builds a fire to pit-roast the yucca overnight, which we will eat the next day.

Some people drift towards the most exotic menu items but I want to practice a skill that I am likely to use in my home kitchen so I help make dolmas. Instead of grape leaves we use mallow and stinging nettle (the kitchen crew blanched them earlier to removed their sting).

While we prepare the wrappers, I hear an unsyncopated drum beat in the background—the sound of people crushing pine cones against the hard ground to extract the prized pine nuts that will go into the dolmas. We will also want tartness, so someone heads up the canyon to pick berries from an oak-leaf gooseberry plant. Someone else gets fresh mint from the garden. Once everyone returns and we have our mise en place, we begin to roll tight little nuggets of brown rice, sauteed onions, chicken stock, pine nuts and gooseberries. Will anyone notice if I eat just one? 

I take a minute to revel in the afternoon and think about the weekend. We’re all working on different projects, but the afternoon is largely unstructured. This relaxed environment nurtures our curiosity and creativity, and we’re able to make discoveries that lead to deep understanding. How big do I build the pit fire? How thin do I roll the pastry dough? My life in the city is just as overscheduled and rewarding as the next person’s, but I reap deep joy from slowing down.

In a recent speech, well-known chef and Slow Food advocate Alice Waters said that “Slow-food culture is not as flashy as fast-food culture, but it’s richer and deeper and truly fulfilling and life-affirming.” I look around on this breezy afternoon, and I think everyone here would agree.

Dinner preparations continue. The sun moves across the sky. Every kitchen depends on chaotic choreography as the dancers prepare for show time and our kitchen is no exception.Men continue to tend fires as the flatbread and empanadas come out of the wood-fired oven. Acorn gnocci arrive on the buffet line. So do the malva and nettle dolmas with pine nuts and gooseberries. Then the Mediterranean stew with the flatbread. The long table is set, candles are lit, grace is said; it’s time to eat. As we taste our effort, the landscape becomes a part of us.

Once the plates are empty, and the dessert is brought out (California bay nut ice cream with lavender-blueberry cake), so are the jars of botanically-infused vodka—and the toasts. We raise glass after glass of Pacific Wax Myrtle cordial to praise abundance, friends, sacrifice and ancestors.

The toasts remind me of the final lines from Gary Paul Nabhan’s “A Terroir-ist’s Manifesto”:

“We, as humans, have not been given

roots as obvious as those of plants.

The surest way we have to lodge ourselves

within this blessed earth is by knowing

where our food comes from.”

I am feeling deeply lodged. And ready for bed. The next morning I drift into the kitchen to see how I can help and what else I can learn. I join the assembly line and flatten masa into disks so they can puff and brown on the comal. This morning we’ll eat tortillas slathered with goat cheese and honey, and eggs with mint and mallow—most of which is cultivated at Quail Springs. Once again, the nourishment is tied to the land.

Our last activity for the weekend is to tend a mature oak tree on the property as an optional service project. Our group gathers to spread ash on the roots and clear dead branches to minimize fire damage. We suspect that this individual oak tree has produced protein-rich acorns for many generations, and our effort may encourage it to continue. By no coincidence, our departing lunch that afternoon is acorn bisque with winter squash and roasted yucca on the side.

The sun starts to dip and we know it’s time to go. As we get in the van, I think about the wild food projects I want to do at home, and I plan to harvest wild greens to make empanadas. We turn onto Highway 33 and cross the threshold back to civilization, carrying bay nut–cacao truffles to remind us of the sweet weekend and wilderness.

Back in Santa Barbara I’ve started to see wild foods pop up on local menus, such as the acorn tagliatelle at Barbareño or the local sage bitters at The Good Lion, and I hope our modern, convenient world continues to make room for wild, slow food and the culture it invites.


Melissa Fontaine lives in Goleta and works for the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. On weekends, you can find her in her garden or on the Ellwood Bluffs.

Originally published Fall 2015