For Shawn Adler, foraging is a skill that is not only important to him and his culture, but a skill he uses in his day-to-day life.
Adler is an Anishinaabe chef and owner of the Pow Wow Cafe in Toronto’s Kensington Market and The Flying Chestnut Kitchen in Eugenia, ON. He centres much of his cooking around the use of seasonal ingredients provided to him by local farms as well as wild edibles he has foraged from the forest near his Eugenia restaurant.
Foraging is the harvesting of wild edibles, or “letting mother nature do the planting,” as defined by Adler. Although in the past this skill has been a crucial for human survival, with the invention of grocery stores, Adler claims it’s a craft lost in history.
Born to an Anishinaabe mother and a Jewish-Polish father in the town of Orangeville, about 60 kilometres outside of Toronto, Adler was taught at a young age the importance of foraging from his mother.
Adler’s mother first learned how to forage as a way to combat hunger at the residential school she attended.
“She said there was nothing around the school that didn’t get eaten, if it was edible. The kids were always eating it because they were always hungry.” Adler says.
Although Adler’s foraging background came out of a dark time in his family’s past, he has been able to use the skill to set himself apart in his cooking.
He expresses his heritage and culinary skills through his unique use of foraged ingredients. Adler, who forages all four seasons, loves to showcase the wild edibles found in southern Ontario in many of his dishes.
“I’m definitely into foraging, in terms of adding these little elements to my menus at both restaurants that not everyone has as easy access to,” he says.
In addition to showcasing the potential for using foraged ingredients to his restaurant goers, he is also passionate about educating the next generation of ethical foragers.
“My mother taught me what is edible in the bush, that’s from my indigenous culture and now I take my daughter out. I’m just passing on that tradition,” he says. He’s been passing down the skill to his eight-year-old daughter who he foraged for puffball mushrooms with this autumn.
He was also involved in the CBC web series Forage, which taught people to forage and cook with collected ingredients at home. “I go through the three rules of foraging: you should have the owner’s permission of the land, you should always sustainably harvest, which has been historically a problem in Canada, and then of course, you should have a knowledgeable guide,” Adler explained.
Along with the importance of ethical foraging, Adler says foraging is a way he connects to his culture. As he forages, he lays tobacco leaves down as an offering to the Creator, which is part of the Anishinaabe tradition.
“We smudge, it’s a similar ceremony (offering tobacco) to really slow your life down for a minute to say thank you and realize that it’s not all about us but the Creator has put everything here for us to use, it’s a pretty amazing to acknowledge,” he states.
When asked if he thinks that the practice of foraging will ever fade, Adler states that he hopes it is passed down through future generations. “Food is a great way to connect with the land, it’s cool to have the knowledge and it’s even cooler to be able to make restaurant worthy dishes with food that you just foraged.”
Written by Elise Kieffer
Photos provided by Shawn Adler