The Forager | Chicago
Dave Odd can barely set foot in Chicago without seeing a plant he would rather eat than trample.
A professional food forager, Odd says he can identify more than 1,000 edible and medicinal plants and up to 250 species of mushrooms.
“No matter where we’re at, where we go, I can guarantee that we’ll see at least 50 edible things,” Odd boasts.
He gathers a container full of wildflowers from a sidewalk, frantically picks handfuls of gooseberries from a riverbank, and rips dozens of lush green leaves from a grapevine in an alley. A sign that reads “Don’t Feed the Rats!” hugs an adjacent telephone pole.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Oh, how do you know a dog didn’t pee on it or there was a rat nearby?’ And I always ask, ‘Do you even know what country the last apple that you ate came from?’ And most people don’t know,” Odd explained. “If you can see it and pick it yourself, you know that it’s fresh and that it’s good, there’s nothing better. Rinse it off, you’ll be fine.”
Later in the day, Odd transports his locally picked finds to Jam Restaurant in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, where the chef purchases and prepares his wildflowers, gooseberries, grape leaves, and other plants, for a multi-course “Eat the Neighborhood” feast.
“Generally speaking, I judge my pricing based on how much of a pain it is to pick,” Odd says. “I charge a dollar a minute, so if something takes me ten minutes to pick a pound, I’ll charge ten dollars a pound for it.”
Odd launched his business – Odd Produce – in 2009 and estimates that he has supplied foraged goods to more than 300 restaurants to date. He also hosts dining events and foraging tours where he not only points out plants that are edible, but also those that are toxic.
While Odd has had an interest in nature since he was a child, foraging was not his first profession.
He originally pursued a career as a stand-up comedian, until the pitfalls of life as a starving artist hit Odd head-on. Often unable to pay for meals, he would eat foraged foods like daylilies from his alley.
Odd later upgraded his diet when he discovered an abundance of wild mushrooms. After he could no longer tolerate another bite of a chanterelle, Odd sold some of his bounty to a farmer’s market and discovered there was a demand for foraged foods.
Soon Odd was selling his products to restaurants and fielding specific foraging requests from chefs across the city.
From spring through fall, Odd spends his days foraging in the Chicago area, but when winter hits, he drives a van down to Florida, forages wild citrus and tropical fruits and hauls them back to the Midwest.
No matter what the season, Odd takes pride in offering his customers handpicked delicacies that are not typically available in grocery stores.
“Anyone can make a great meal out of stuff you get at the grocery store, too, but there’s that extra layer of awesomeness that you picked it yourself,” Odd explains. “I’ve always had this hunter-gatherer mentality, and there’s something very satisfying viscerally in our DNA to go out and find something and get nutrition out of it. I recommend that everybody tries it once or twice to see if they can do it.”
— Sean Keenehan