Kzoo Kitchens

‘My best teacher’

Nabe Shin, a staple at the Farmer’s Market and a forager for decades, on the life lessons and other sustenance found in a walk in the woods.

The woods in and around Kalamazoo County sustain Nabe Shin.

She cooks and heals with ingredients she finds there, and sells foraged produce at the Farmer’s Market. It’s an opportunity presented by Mother Nature and passed on by her own mother growing up in a small town in southernmost South Korea.

She is soothed by the woods, which reminds Shin of her oldest child, Mike, who died from COVID-19 in 2021.

“I go out in the woods every day, almost all day long, that’s my escape. I go into the woods, I talk to plants, I scream, I yell, and I cry, and I laugh, I smile – all that in the woods,” Shin says. “Nature is my God and my escape. Foraging gives me all the comfort that I need.”

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Done right, as consumer prices increase, a forager can save on food costs – and even earn an income – with full-flavored, vitamin-packed greens, nuts, berries, and mushrooms that can be found in most backyards, woods, and wild areas in the country. 

But doing it wrong could have dire consequences. A forager on someone else’s property risks violence from an over-aggressive property owner. The authorities can also get involved if a forager is picking crops that are endangered. Over-picking could also harm that crop the next season. And, the ultimate foraging faux pas: eating the wrong thing could cause illness or death.

Shin teaches classes, and shares her knowledge on social media, so others learn how to forage safely and sustainably.

Nabe Shin crouches down and points at a spot in the dirt. She's bundled up in a camouflage jacket and knit headwrap to protect against the cold.

On a cold day this past January, Shin donned her camouflage suit and started a trek into a remote section of woods in the southwestern Lawton area. The exact location of a cache is a carefully kept secret for foragers, intended not only to preserve their bounty but to prevent overharvesting and abuse by uneducated foragers who might strip the land of its wild treasure.

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The sleet was relentless, but a brief break in the weather had melted most of the snow, and reishi mushrooms were visible through the leaf-strewn woods. Reishi mushrooms are not an edible mushroom you’d eat for dinner. A polypore – a woody, multi-pored bracket-like mushroom often found on the sides of trees – it’s known to be beneficial for boosting the immune system and stamina but also may cause nausea, insomnia, and liver damage.

To the untrained eye everything just looks like leaves, but Shin zeroes in on the edge of an enormous cache of brown and tan reishi mushrooms. “These ones grow only on maple,” she says. Guidance like that illuminates what would have been an average grouping of dead or dying maple trees. “You make tea with this,” she says as she carefully removes the fungi and places them in a sack.

She gently replaces the leaves and fallen wood and stands up and begins to explain how she finds them: “So look under the grass. And usually, they follow the root system.” She points to a pile of fallen maple tree bark – and a motherload of reishi.

A tree trunk in the woods is covered in white fungus that look like rounded shelves sticking out of the tree.

“What I do, I leave all these in there and put it back to just the way it was,” she says, “so it comes back next year.”

Foraging is not just taking from the wild, she points out. It’s an approach to harvesting that preserves the future.

Experts are adamant that only experienced foragers should lead any expedition into the woods – not only to take care of the land with foraging etiquette, but to make sure the land doesn’t accidentally put the amateur forager under.

“It can be hard to start, slow, and very difficult at first as you’re not familiar with what you forage for,” says Hillary Cloetingh, who is contracted with the People’s Food Coop. The state requires licensing to supply places like grocery stores and restaurants. Chefs in need of morel mushrooms and other rare – and, thus, expensive – produce will contract with licensed foragers.

Some mushrooms are good for nutrition and flavor, some have medicinal or psychedelic uses, and others are poisonous. Ramps, the edible wild onion, looks similar to some flowering bulb plants that could make someone sick. A patch of ramps, meanwhile, can be destroyed if harvested incorrectly by taking out the roots or over-picking. Garlic mustard, on the other hand, is an invasive plant known for excretions that prevent the growth of other plants around it. “Have at it,” Cloetingh says.

a teal colander is filled with a variety of mushrooms, still dirty from being harvested.

Cloetingh learned from her father how to forage for morel mushrooms, a prize for foragers with a short season of just April and May, and credits her mother for tipping her off about a program of the Midwest American Mycological Information (MAMI) organization that offers a five-year foraging license and certification from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), which also offers pointers and penalties on wild food foraging.

“Foraging is a great way to get in touch with the specific place we’re living in,” says Tom Hunt, the Produce Manager at the People’s Food Co-op and a longtime farmer in southwest and northern Michigan. “There are a lot of lessons that foraging teaches and we’d benefit in daily life from. Becoming self-sufficient being one of them. To not take more than what you use so that nature can keep propagating itself is another.”

He credits this insight to Shin, “the area authority” and his teacher too. “You learn from others firsthand.”

Nabe Shin stands at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market holding several foraged plants she's selling. In one hand is a bowl of yellow fungus that looks like leaves. In her other arm, she holds a collection of various greens.

For Shin, that was her mother. “I learned it over the shoulder,” she says. “That’s how we survived. We foraged everything, ate anything foraged.” She finds many of the same plants here as she did in Korea, she says, “like wild ginseng. I find it here, you know, but in Michigan it’s illegal.” Shin refers to the fact that due to it being a threatened species, the harvest of wild ginseng is very restricted or in some cases illegal.

In 1973, when she was 19, Shin moved to North Carolina. “What can I say? I fell in love with a G.I. I just picked up my stuff and moved,” away from her parents and their family farm, the bedrock on which she made her own family unit. Three sons and a daughter. “I loved it,” she says.

Her Facebook posts are mostly of her daily adventures into her farm and woods here in southwest Michigan. Or old photos of her mother – “my best teacher,” she wrote – back in Korea, carrying an overflowing bushel of greens over her head and an even larger smile.

But some days, the pain of losing Mike swells like an unexpected storm. “This is me this morning,” she wrote earlier this month in a caption of a video of herself, tears flowing, her emotion as raw as the flora and fauna she turns to for survival. “When I lost my son Mike it rained for three days and tomorrow is the two-year anniversary. It’s raining again. This is [the] new me every day. This is what happens when you lose your child. Every day pain, struggle, waves up and down. So sad I have to be here and my son is not, I love you Mike.”

On his birthday last year, she posted pictures of a cake with his name on it, next to a photo of him and his family and sympathy cards of love and remembrance.

Shin has no formal chef’s training, but has been making and selling food regulated by the state’s cottage industry and farm laws for decades, in addition to raising familiar farm produce. She uses her extensive knowledge of Korean cuisine to create value-added food products like kimchi utilizing these wild ingredients.

When not at the Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market or in the woods, she’s likely at her farm and private foraging land at Bonamego Farms in Lawrence. On its Facebook page she offers classes and posts videos and lessons from her adventures in foraging – including recipes for dishes to eat and how to bring out the healing properties.

She reiterates the ease in which to incorporate sustainability in the experience of foraging. All of her harvesting is designed to put back what she takes.

On a wet January day of foraging, she added another foraging etiquette tip, so the spores that the mushrooms drop don’t go to waste: “Usually carry a basket though with holes in it. So that just spreads out the seed wherever you go.”

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