Pathway beside white fence containing a variety of wild edibles.

Wild harvest as an urban practice

December 2018

By Irena Knezevic

Windsor, Ontario, is in that part of Canada that geographically hooks into the US, and is paradoxically located south of the border, just across the river from Detroit. It is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Detroit South.” The moniker is in fact utterly appropriate. Like Detroit, it is a blue-collar town full of immigrants (largely white, European, but more recently also Lebanese and then Somalian) many of whom came to the city to work in the automotive factories that form the backbone of Windsor’s economy. It is also a city that, like Detroit, has a rich arts and culture scene.

In the heart of that city, just three or four blocks from the Detroit River, is an alley. This is where my mom, who lives in a condo overlooking the river and Detroit’s captivating skyline, picks all her grape leaves for dolmatas. We come from Bosnia, and we love stuffing vegetables of all kinds—peppers, zucchini, cabbage, onion, grape leaves. My stepfather is Greek, so dolmatas are a staple food for him too. Dolmatas make sense in their household. But the two of them live a comfortable urban retiree life, and don’t need to pick their food from alleyways where it’s free. My mom’s neighbourhood harvest is not a product of necessity. Yet, the delight in her voice is palpable when I phone her and she tells me about her recent harvest of mulberries in that same alley. The alley also offers nettle, wild strawberries, and dandelion leaves. Not far from there, she picks amaranth leaves (also known as pigweed or callaloo), and a few blocks over, just by the railroad tracks, is where she gets her rosehips for jam and tea.

Pathway with mulberry tree and other wild edibles.
Photo by Irena Knezevic

Ironically, her main harvest site, that alleyway, is on the way to her grocery store, a discount store that is part of the Loblaws chain. It is a store with the usual North American impressive array of products. My mom and my stepdad often walk to the store, to get some of their daily exercise. They buy their bananas and avocados there, and then stop in the alley for a wild harvest.

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Wild strawberries and other wild edibles growing along a laneway in Windsor. Photo by Irena Knezevic.

My mom’s voice goes pleasantly high-pitch when she tells me about her most recent harvest. Why do you do it, I ask. “It just gives me such joy,” she responds. I reflect on this and think of all the ways we critique urban food. I think about the “Big Food” machine and its mythical uncritical consumer. And then I wonder if we truly can grasp all the food practices that take place in our cities. Here we have Windsor (a working-class town), a frugal immigrant eater (unphased by contemporary food trends, and only marginally interested in food politics), and a discount grocery store owned by Canada’s largest grocer. It’s a Big Food’s dream. And hand-in hand with that, there is a wild harvest that springs from the crucible of global migrations, informal food economy, urban ecology, and food literacy (my mom knows her edibles!) If I think of sustainability of our food—economic, social, and environmental—I seem to never be quite as close to it as I am at my mom’s dining table. Her dolmatas are more than comfort food; they are a form of cultural and environmental activism. They are also—intentionally or not—a political statement. But most of all, they are a loving act that has little to do with nutrition and everything to do with nourishment.