Forager reaps his living from nature's bounty

David Siller sells to the Farm and Fisherman, Pumpkin, and Lacroix.
David Siller sells to the Farm and Fisherman, Pumpkin, and Lacroix. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 07, 2011

Driving along a suburban road, David Siller was discussing his sauerkraut business when he spotted the long limbs of a mulberry tree arching over a low stone wall.

He pulled over his Mazda truck, shut off the engine, grabbed an empty quart container, and began judiciously plucking only the white, ripe berries from the tree.

"Josh likes them," he said, referring to Josh Lawler, the chef and owner of Pine Street's Farm and Fisherman restaurant. Later, Siller would head back to the city and sell his booty of berries to the chef, who would toss them in a summer salad or turn them into panna cotta for dessert the following day.

It was just another day at the office for Siller. The 32-year old is an avid yogi and has various sources of income: There's fermenting cabbage for Cobblestone Krautery, working with area schools on farm-education and gardening programs, keeping up his website, yosoybean.com, leading walks, and this - foraging for wild ingredients that he can sell to Philadelphia restaurants.

The Farm and Fisherman, Pumpkin, and Lacroix are his current restaurant clients, and all that his one-man operation can handle. The personal service he provides is something "you don't see often," said Pumpkin chef and owner Ian Moroney. "It makes me feel like everything in the world is not just business."

His clients also like what he's proffering: Unique ingredients, plucked from nearby earth just hours before. "A lot of times we are pulling stuff out of his box and putting it right on the plate because it's so amazing," said Moroney. He recalled with ease the stinging nettles, sorrel, and rare radish pods that Siller brought him recently. "We like to challenge ourselves and learn something new," Moroney said.

His natural life habits keep him lean, but strong. His fingernails are dirty; swarming mosquitoes don't bother him, and his mobile toolshed of a truck, where he is, sort of by accident, growing a potted tomato plant, looks like a display at a science museum.

Siller dedicates at least one day of his week exclusively to restaurant foraging, although he's constantly spotting things worth pulling over for. His eyes can't help but scan the terrain. Where others see messy lawns, unkempt parks, and unseemly grasses growing through sidewalk cracks, he sees digestible opportunities. Weed isn't a bad word to him; they are as alive and important as the neat rows of vegetables growing in his school gardens.

On a hot Thursday in mid-June, he headed over to Cheltenham High School, where the two vegetable gardens needed some TLC. Students who aren't seaside for the summer swing by to help Farmer Dave, as they call him, care for their garden.

Katherine Streitwieser, 16, kicked off her flip-flops, dug her toes into the dirt, and began to weed. Before she started pulling at will, she double-checked with Siller.

The sprout near the lettuce was jimson weed. On the other side, it was patience dock. "It's edible, not at this stage though," Siller explained. "It's in the buckwheat family." There was also lamb's-quarter, which, interestingly, is the same species as quinoa. The kids popped anything that Siller said was edible into their mouths. "It's nutty," Streitwieser commented.

It's hard to stump Siller. He spent years learning from his walks, reference books in hand, as well as from other naturalists. He keeps fastidious notes and reads a lot. He doesn't watch TV or spend too much time on the Internet. He cooks most of his meals at home, experimenting with food that he has foraged or grown.

He doesn't know everything, but like a NatGeo host, he can reason his way there. "If I can tell it's from the mustard family, then I know it's edible. All mustards are edible, but some are too spicy to enjoy."

There are always exceptions, though, he added. "Poison hemlock is in the same family as carrots, but it's poisonous. Socrates ate it and died."

Soon enough, as the weeds were removed by the students, an impressive garden emerged, with rows of colorful lettuces, beets, cucumbers, castor beans, rhubarb, and herbs. The students quickly filled up a large, reused box with their harvest. They gave some goods to the school custodians and dropped the rest off at a local church.

The rest of his afternoon was spent on the hunt for restaurant-bound bounty. He asked that the location of his finds not be published. It is, after all, his livelihood.

He waded through a field of tall reeds and picked purple poofs of milkweed. He headed to a spot for purslane, filling a supermarket shopping bag full, and even more spots for daylilies and elderberries, which were easily nudged into his container.

His success is in nature's hands. In the early spring, he can find a lot: There's wild sorrel, and garlic mustard (which he doesn't understand why people like). Ramps and fiddlehead ferns - two wild foods that have recently crossed over to the mainstream - can be lucrative.

"I do care about money, and I'm trying to make a lot of it," he said. "I just can't do something that ruins my soul."

All of these odd jobs pull in more cash than his previous post as farm educator at Weavers Way Co-op, and now he doesn't have to deal with office politics or set hours. "I want to help people live to their fullest potential," he said.

Siller made his way back to Center City, taking stock. He figured he could get about $35 or $40 for an hour and a half of rummaging. Not bad.

He backed his truck into the small alley beside the Farm and Fisherman, and knocked on the side door. The chef, Lawler, came out in his whites. The two crouched down on the street, surveying the goods. Lawler bought everything Siller had.

"Is it too early for cucumbers? Can you pick the ones with the flower attached?" asked the chef. "I know you'll make more money from the big ones, but I'll pay the same."

Siller told Lawler about an impending mushroom hunt in Virginia. "Call me and tell me what you've got," instructed Lawler. Now, there's actually a justifiable reason for his next adventure.


Contact staff writer Ashley Primis at 215-854-2244, aprimis@phillynews.com, or @ashleyprimis on Twitter.

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