Foraging: The East Washingtonian

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Leniqua’dominique Jenkins with the fruits of her labor.

As a child I grew up foraging. I recall riding my bike for hours with my cousins, running in and out the house for water breaks. After the fifth or sixth time, my mother would gently encourage us to “stay in or out.”

Our unanimous decision would always be “out.”

We spent the hours outside, pausing only to enjoy nature’s buffet. Hopping off our bikes, we would chew fresh sugarcane, pick oranges or pluck some of our neighbor’s sweet Japanese loquats.

As youngsters, we did not possess the language to describe our practice of living off the land. As an adult, I understand that my cousins and I were embracing the beautiful tradition of foraging.

African peoples have a long history of foraging. Their sacred carvings and hieroglyphics illustrate their relationship with nature. Drawing on these traditions, enslaved peoples foraged, trapped and fished to add more nutritional value to skimpy meals that were provided by their enslavers. Both the free and enslaved travelled with seeds embedded in intricate hair braiding to plant in their new homes.

In the wake of emancipation, former enslavers widened the rights of property holders to constrain foraging along with other efforts to disenfranchise and legally control the formerly enslaved and eliminate their ownership of land. This caused a shift in black attitudes toward foraging.

However, we are a resilient community. Like myself, blacks often got history lessons along with their dinner plates. Along with the meal, they memorized the shapes of the leaves of plants like collard and mustard greens that grew around them. Elders taught them the regional produce of the place they called home.

Foraging is not as complicated as one might think. My Deanwood community is one of the greenest in the District. Walking my dog Dynamite, I often notice the abundance of Virginia peppergrass, wood sorrel and dandelion.

Here is one of my favorite dandelion herbal tea recipes to encourage you, Dear Readers, to try foraging yourselves.

1. Collect fresh dandelion flowers. It’s safe to pick and consume the entire plant because the flower, leaf and roots are edible.
2. Carry upside down. This helps remove loose dirt and insects.
3. Wash the entire plant.
4. Remove the flowers from the stem.
5. Place flowers, dried or fresh, in a strainer. The strength of the tea is based on the number of flowers.
6. Pour boiling hot water over the flowers and steep for 4-5 minutes.
7. Add lemon and honey to taste. Use them conservatively because the flavor of the tea is very light and can easily be overpowered.

Foraging is beneficial, organic and economical. It promotes eating seasonally and sustainably. Most of all, it brings us uniquely closer to our history and culture.

Leniqua’dominique Jenkins holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston and has worked on Capitol Hill and in Africa, India and Spain. She is a preschool teacher at a language submersion school in Ward 7.