December 20

The Morel of the Story — Less is Morchella

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What Wild Food Foraging Taught Me About Scarcity Mindset and Work Fatigue

As someone who grew up in the midwest, I was surprised by how many people forage for fun upon moving to Portland, Oregon— not to mention how many restaurants are dedicated to sourcing wild foraged goods.

Portland has temperate seasons which offer an ideal climate for foraging year-round— but fall is for finding mushrooms. It’s obviously a very wholesome activity so I was excited to find a class for newbies through a program called Wild Diversity

Our hunt for chanterelles was a day after the first fall rain in the Tillamook Forest, or the unceded, ancestral lands of the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, Clatskanie, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, and Nehalem. 

It is respectful to note ancestral lands when foraging, but also relevant. Due to our capitalistic/colonialistic upbringing, Americans have an accumulation mindset. As our guide, Michelle, said, “It teaches us that scarcity creates a higher value, which motivates us to hoard things and thus creates even greater scarcity.” 

A great example Michelle gave— do you (fellow Portlanders especially) know of a “secret river spot”? 

It is unfortunate we see natural resources as something to keep to ourselves. We do this because we see through a scarcity lens—we’re afraid if too many people know about these places, they’ll be taken over—colonized by our own community. 

We fear places that are special to us will succumb to overcrowding, littering, or worse. If we can collectively change our mindset to caring for natural spaces, we can share in everything natural resources have to offer. 

Setting a great example, Chef Cameron Lee Dunlap of Morchella, a restaurant offering wild foods in Portland Oregon, shared, “​​There’s a quince tree at my dog park and I got 20 pounds of quince for free. I told everybody there ‘Hey these are all market-quality quinces… If you want them, take them before I do— I’ll eat all the fruits.’” Share the wealth, but don’t let wild fruit go bad! 

Foraging is for everyone; It’s a great way to connect with nature. Here are some things everyone should keep in mind when first starting out.  

To Be an Ethical Forager:

  1. Use the Rule of Thirds.

Forage no more than 1/3 of each individual species and only take what you can eat. Leave some for other foragers and animals, allowing the species to remain strong (so you can come back). 

  1. Do research.

Some areas are protected for Indigenous/cultural use, wilderness areas, or private property. Check if you need a permit. Never harvest endangered or threatened species.

  1. When in doubt, don’t cut it out.

Never harvest without identifying. Test new foods by eating small amounts to ensure you don’t have an allergic reaction. 

Morchella Chef Cameron Dunlap’s passion for foraging began years ago when he had just found a new job on Poached— “Somewhere way better, and [the chef] put a wild ingredient on a plate,” he remembered. “I started seeing these connections that, to some chefs, the local, wild ingredients are the ones that are most exotic and unique and that was really beautiful. So I started going on adventures out to the Tillamook Forest and into some of the surrounding wooded areas and just identifying plants and then—when I was comfortable enough— bringing them back to the restaurant and using them.” 

Dunlap has been developing the idea of wild foods for a long time and had a pop-up called Origin Wild. “Eventually, when I had an opportunity to open my own restaurant, I knew what my concept was going to be.” 

That restaurant—Morchella—finally came to be in late 2021. Named after morel mushrooms that pop up in the spring, Morchella joins a family of foraging restaurants popping up all over the country, such as Momofuku Ssam Bar in Manhattan, Forage Kitchen in Oakland, Foraged and Found in Seattle, and Fresh Forage in Ann Arbor, MI.

There are quite a few benefits to foraging…

  • Environmental— 

Using foods that haven’t traveled the country/world means zero emissions.

  • Taste— 

They taste as fresh as they are.

  • Health— 

Wild foods ripen before harvest and retain their nutrients rather than being chemically treated, like commercially bought food. In addition, spending time in nature reduces stress and boosts your immune system. 

  • Spiritual—

A forager is in touch with the local seasons, with the surrounding land and nature, and with the food they consume. A forager knows what wild foods grow where and when, and that brings a feeling of comfort and connection.

  • Money—

Foraged food is free.

In addition to each of these benefits being amplified through a business setting, restaurants that source wild foods gain more control over their menu costs and customer expectations. 

“Product lines are still screwed up. People can’t get things they used to get or they’re twice as expensive, or it’s a different brand, a different product,” Dunlap explained. 

Besides being able to gracefully sidestep supply-chain issues, Morchella draws a more flexible diner. “There’s a trust that’s been started with the customer— we have a small menu, everything is thought out, everything is good. We have [great cooks], so come for an experience and don’t have your nose up.” 

When I asked Chef Dunlap what is most rewarding about Morchella as opposed to other restaurants, he said, “That’s easy. We’re all happy.

“It’s less about giving the customers what they want and more giving them what they need that we can give them. That way nobody gets stressed out and we’re able to show up every day and be excited about our jobs— I think that’s the goal right? The last few years really showed us that a lot of this isn’t sustainable and it hurts. It hurts physically and mentally and so we need to make the job better,” Dunlap said. “To think about the future and make it a good job going forward.”

The chef’s outlook is in line with a more sustainable, less accumulation-based mindset. We need to be thinking more holistically. If we are burning the candle from both ends, we won’t have more to give— and neither will nature if we pillage through it. If workers are burnt out and feeling unappreciated, they won’t be able to stick around long. And if you take more than you are welcome to in nature, food species will be less bountiful in the future. More is not always better and burnout is not cute. As industry workers, we sometimes forget that.


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About the author

Olivia Breting has spent more than half of her life working in the service industry. Being a big-time food and beverage nerd played a significant part in her landing in Portland. In her spare time, she likes sketching, fiddling with clay, cuddling her cat, watching/quoting The Office, riding her bike, planning events, being chaotic, and oversharing on social media.

About the author

Olivia Breting has spent more than half of her life working in the service industry. Being a big-time food and beverage nerd played a significant part in her landing in Portland. In her spare time, she likes sketching, fiddling with clay, cuddling her cat, watching/quoting The Office, riding her bike, planning events, being chaotic, and oversharing on social media.

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