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The Urban Forager

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A Day in the Life: David Siller

By Ada Kulesza


David Siller is secretive about his work. Territorial, even, with just a touch of paranoia. So he insists on ground rules if I am to accompany him on his rounds.

"I don't even want you to say if the places are rural or urban," he insists. "Don't even describe them."7278632184_b93e8af787.jpg


But, how close can I get in saying where he carries out his work?

"You can say it's the Philly area," he says. "That's it."

With that, we settle into his Mazda pickup, to begin the hunt in his secret green places.

His day begins around 4 p.m.  When it ends, eight hours later, his truck bed is filled to the brim with exotica so desired by chefs in Philadelphia: watercress, cattails, nettles, fiddleheads, ramps, an edible flower called Solomon's seal, a gigantic mushroom improbably named chicken of the woods, locust flowers, dandelion greens... the list could go on.

It's all out there, closer than you could ever imagine, hidden in plain sight -- not to you and me, who see only unvariegated green, but easily spotted by Siller.

David Siller is a forager. More specifically, an urban forager. He forages edible plants out of the forest, supplying high-end restaurants, somewhat-classy pubs, and farmer's markets. What Siller picks today, you could be eating tomorrow at restaurants such as Pumpkin, Russet and the Monk's Cafe in salads, breads, side dishes, even as part of main courses.

Even though Siller also farms on his fixer-upper homestead in New Jersey (which has no running water), his lifeblood -- and most of his income -- comes from foraging seasonal, local (or happily established exotic) plants.

His job hearkens back to something humankind has done forever, yet it is rare today. He's a hunter-gatherer -- in a Mazda pickup.

But don't take him for some hippie, no matter how soiled his blue Crocs, trousers, wool cardigan and sweat-stained cap appear. He's a businessman. He talks fast and works fast. He's energetic, lean and muscular, with hazel eyes and a penchant for uttering out loud his appreciation of the pretty women we pass on our way to the first site.

The capped truck bed is filled with cartons of wild ramps and locust flowers he's already picked today. The whole truck smells like dirt and stale green onions. The cab's littered with trampled pieces of paper, dust and empty coffee cups.

We park and he beelines straight to the spot like a hound on a scent; it takes less than five minutes to find ourselves at a pond stuffed full of cattail, tucked into a protective shell of reeds growing around the water. The cattails look like overgrown blades of grass.

"The season for these guys is almost over," he says, going straight into the shin-deep water, bending down and tugging at one of the plants. "You want to get the ones that are about three feet tall, and we're looking for a lot of white at the bottom."

Only the bottom part is edible, with the cool sweetness of a cucumber and the sourness of sorrel. We harvest seven bunches, and still haven't dented the mass in the pond. But Siller will be back.

It's no wonder Siller paranoid about letting the public see into his business. He's in a one-man niche.  He pays no rent, needs no land, rents no space and uses only a tank of gas each week. He has no overhead besides his gear: a knife, and a beat up white stock pot that he places on an electronic kitchen scale he uses to weigh the produce, a bag of rubber bands, and a stack of Acme plastic bags.  And that's it.  No high-tech gear, no electronic gagdets for tracking his prey. Just one man in the forest with keen eyes. The lone hunter.

Siller tosses the bunches of cattail and his gear into the truck, guns the Mazda and heads to the  next, and biggest, site, where an immense surprise awaits him.


Solomon's Seal

Siller insists on secrecy and muses to himself about how to describe the sites. They're definitely green, definitely wooded, and the only trails are the ones Siller left with his part-time employee when he made his rounds the previous weekk.last He parks the Mazda and disappears into the wood, pointing to the carpet of green on the forest floor, saying, "Watch out for that poison ivy."

We descend into a ravine. He catches sight of Solomon's seal in the corner of his eye, gasping in excitement. Truly a rarity (therefore, fetching a good price), he says, "I'll only harvest a little," leaving some of the blossoms to fruit and produce seeds.

He cuts the Solomon Seal.jpgbranches, with palm-like leaves shielding a single row of white flower bells. "Try one," he says.

The velvety blossom tastes a little leafy at first, then bursts into a marshmallow-apple sweetness. Truly a grand prize. No one has ordered the flowers, but Siller's confident someone will buy them.

"Feel free to ask me if you want to know what something is," he says, already 20 feet ahead of me, even though he's in Crocs and I'm in hiking boots. I point to the rug of two-foot-high plants with leaves that look like spades growing everywhere. "That," he wriggles his eyebrows, "is one of my favorites -- stinging nettles." The leaves have tiny itchy stinging hairs on their undersides. They're prized for medicine by herbalists and for food by chefs.

At the bottom of a ravine Siller starts cutting away at the heads of spicy wild watercress growing amongst monstrous skunk cabbage leaves. "This watercress is almost done," he sighs. "It's starting to flower. Once it flowers it's really no good." The pickings are slim and he follows the stream deeper into the ravine, disappearing again.

Beyond the dense green, he lets out a whoop and starts laughing. When I get to him, he's hugging a huge, cauliflower-shaped, orange and yellow mushroom growing out of a felled tree.

"It's chicken of the woods!" he says, snapping a photo with his iPhone. He's overjoyed - it's the thrill of discovery, along with the thrill of big profits.

"It looks a little on its way," he says, more to himself than to me. He examines the edges, which look like they've been nibbled by insects. He flips open his knife and cuts off a piece, pressing it with his fingers. The mushroom is moist and springy, smelling meaty, earthy, and tastes divine - and a little like chicken.

He starts sawing away at the base, sets down his electronic scale, plunks his stock pot on it, and stuffs chunks of the mushroom into several of his Acme plastic bags. All told, the mushroom clocks in around 30 pounds. He calls a friend for the market price.

There are two more little clusters growing on the log -- they'll be big chickens in a few weeks. He'll be back for those. Leaving the Solomon's seal and mushrooms in their bags on the forest floor, Siller walks along the creek to a pool, a throne for a plush mat of blossomless watercress.

Shin-deep in water, he cuts tufts and stuffs them in bags, handing them to me. I'm squatting on a fallen log in the creek. I weigh each bag, measuring one pound into each, and I try to keep the mounting bags of watercress, the scale, the pot, and myself from sliding into the creek. Siller works quickly; in 10 minutes we have 19 bags.

"That's good," he pronounces, taking up all the watercress-filled bags, the unused bags, the pot, the scale, and his Crocs, leaving me to totter on the log, trying to get across the creek dry. He comes back to give me a hand, and then asks me to stay as low as possible when we get near the road so no one will see us.



Flowering Chives

As afternoon turns to twilight, we head back at the truck load up, jump in, and head to the next site.

Siller knows the place well because he used to work there, though it looks different than before. A lot different. He pulls up the gravel road leading to a  farm.

"Wow, this place looks great," he whistles, bounding out of the car.

Spreading across two acres or so, it's planted with rows of lettuce, cabbage, kale, and broccoli,, surrounded by fields still waiting to be planted, Chiva Flower.jpgsome fruit trees and bushes, and a complex of greenhouses in the center.

This co-op farm produces food for Philadelphia's farmers' markets and local groceries. Siller's friend, a farmer, and his apprentice lean on shovels in a kale patch. They're just about done their day. Siller praises the farm.

We're standing by a patch of anise hyssop and pull off the leaves -- a mellow flavor of anise, no doubt perfect as a pitcher of iced tea. Siller uproots two -- one for me, one for him -- to transplant. The farmer points the way to the chive patch, where Siller seeks flowers. There are only a bunch, but Siller pulls them up.

Back in the car, Siller worries if he spent his time inefficiently coming here.

I found it a pleasant interlude; he argues with himself out loud, trying to reason with himself that he hasn't seen the place so long, it was worth it. Still conflicted, he pulls into a cheesesteak joint for dinner.

Siller grew up in rural Kimberton, Pa., and he says he's loved nature and plants since childhood, yearning to know their names.

"I was really starving for the knowledge in high school but there was no one who could teach me. I taught myself mostly. I wanted to learn in college but I didn't go to the right college."

He thinks for a second and says, "I feel like when I was a kid I probably sold things as well. I've always liked selling stuff, food especially."

He studied economics at Bucknell University and then headed south. Still, he never stopped selling.

"After college there were wild apple trees in Virginia and I spent two years picking and processing them," he says. The rest of his 20s, he says he did every job imaginable, including panhandling. He's a curious mix: orthodox flower child for all appearances, with his sheep's wool cardigan and mud-caked legs, but with a great thirst for money.

He started foraging regularly while he worked at the farm, which is how he knows the spots. He came up with his idea to make foraging a business when "I sold nettles to an herb store and locust flowers some places."

He cold-called restaurants and found some clients. "They all wanted fiddleheads. I brought this enormous bag to one restaurant and they took them from me. I sold it to them at a huge loss (compared to the market price), but that restaurant has taught me so much about this process."

That was a year ago.

 Since then, Siller has made his great leap forward into being an active forager.

We have stopped for dinner and he's ordered a cheeseteak. He uncaps a mango soda, waiting for his food to arrive. He's tired. He just bought "The Homestead" in New Jersey for $30,000 in cash outright and spends all his spare time and income fixing it up -- another $30,000 invested so far, and, he grouses, he pays $150 in taxes a month, but it's not bad. No running water, but a great deal. He showers at a nearby YMCA.

 "Ultimately the goal is independence from money," he says. That's why he charges all the places who buy his goods retail.

At first he doesn't want to say how much he charges, then he realizes I intend to stick around for his deliveries so he first divulges the price of the mushroom. Then, one by one, prices of the rest of what he has foraged.  But first he makes me promise not to write about the prices, either.

Secrecy is the watchword, lest some wannabe competitor reads the prices, raises his eyebrows, grabs a knife and a clutch of plastic bags and heads into the woods.


Stinging Nettles

The night has turned frigid and windy as we head back to Center City. We park across from Pumpkin on South Street and take a quick inventory of what we've gathered: 19 pounds of watercress, five pounds of locust flowers that taste like ethereal bits of honeyed candy, 45 pounds of ramps, three pounds of poke, one big Stinging Nettles.jpgchicken of the woods mushroom, a bunch each of stinging nettles, lamb's quarters, and chive flowers, and a few strands of Solomon's seal.

Not all the orders have been filled, and he has goods no one has ordered, but Siller is a natural salesman and he's confident. "I'll just bring it in and they'll go, 'Thank you, thank you so much.'"

It's a profitable amount of produce however you slice it, and Siller's lucky he's found his niche. But the irony of his role in the food chain doesn't escape him.

What he gets for free gets ever more expensive as it winds its way from the fields to his pickup and ultimately to beautifully arranged plates at high-end restaurants. What's local and found in the woods is more expensive than the processed foods shipped nationwide to fast food restaurants and grocery store shelves, even more expensive than the kiwis and bananas imported from places like Mexico and Honduras.

As we started our day together in the city, Siller would point to highway medians crawling with Japanese knotweed, which is edible as a young shoot, or the bushes growing along Delaware Avenue, which turn out to be yucca. He points: "See that yucca right there, that flower? It grows into a fruit that's edible."

He'd never harvest from the side of the road, but it shows that edibles are everywhere. He also points out that his customers buy things most people want to keep out of their gardens: dandelions, cleavers, nettles. Gardeners use pesticides to rid themselves of these plants.  David Siller makes a decent living out of finding them in green public spaces and selling them to fancy restaurants.

Pumpkin is a fancy place, intimate and lit for ambience, where the dinner rush has dwindled to stragglers tarrying around bottles of wine. The chef and staff appreciatively finger the mustard greens. A line cook pops a locust blossom in his mouth.

Wallet feeling thicker, with another order from the chef in hand, Siller admits, "I've never gone to these restaurants I sell to." They are too expensive for his taste.

Next is Russet, not far away. The chef's in a spacious back room, drinking dark beer with his staff. We drop off some ramps. The sous chef picks one up and inhales deeply, saying, "I love these things." The chef goes for the mushroom and Solomon's seal as predicted, and he raves about the nettles, which he uses for bread and a dish called nettle sformato, "A cross between souffle and flan, with stinging nettles, tomato fondue and parmesan cheese," he explains.

We drop a carton off at the kitchen at Monk's, which is far smaller than Russet's. The chef nearly jumps up and down at getting poke. Siller warns her, "You know you have to boil it and toss the water three times, right?" She brushes him off, gazing lovingly at the shoots, saying, "I know, I know."

Chefs, foragers and farmers appreciate how briefly these local exotics abound.

The season for ramps is nearly over, Siller says. Overall, in the spring the harvest "plateaus, peaks and then goes down at a steady pace. This year (the season) began in February. As soon as I had a warm day I did a plant walk. The season peaked three weeks ago in terms of beautifulness."

By midsummer, Siller's wild-foraged foods will be replaced by the first fruits of farm harvest, when the region's heirloom tomatoes and berries take center stage. But Siller still has a long night ahead of him. He'll work until midnight, then fill orders for watercress tomorrow.

After shivering behind the truck weighing ramps for Mariposa, he warms up in the cab, talking dreamily about his unborn kids and wife he's never met romping in the fields around the homestead someday.

All his work plants the seeds for a future life. For now, he says wearily, "I need about a week off at this point." This hunter's day is nearly done.

Cover Photo: Russet's nettle sformato 

Story photos:David Siller by Ada Kulesza, Google file art



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