For Forager Justin Rashid, the Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep—and Filled with Things That He Can Eat

updated 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Justin Rashid wrestles his blue station wagon along a bumpy dirt track twisting through the woods of Michigan. The car is dented, scratched and caked with mud, a veteran of many trips to the forest. Suddenly, Rashid slams on the brakes and jumps out. He plunges into a clump of blackberry bushes, oblivious to the thorns snagging his jeans and shirt. All the while, he continues to talk (blackberries attract black bears and Rashid would rather scare them off than confront them). Rashid begins plucking the ripe berries, sampling them as he moves deeper into the woods. He laughs, his lips smeared with the purple fruit. For Justin Rashid, hunter of things that grow wild, these woods are full of all that is ripe and succulent and natural.

Rashid, 35, is the co-founder and part-owner of American Spoon Foods, which is on the verge of becoming a $1-million-a-year operation. The five-year-old company sells the berries, roots and mushrooms—and products made from them—that grow on state-and privately-owned land near Petoskey, Mich. Rashid's company is busily shipping orders to 400 high-price gourmet and specialty shops, more than 30,000 mail order customers and fine restaurants all over the country. As America's top chefs are discovering that fresh, natural ingredients make better dishes, Rashid is proving, almost single-handedly, that wild is the most natural state of all.

To Rashid, the woods are like a greengrocer's—and he knows exactly where to find every item. He can point out leafy lamb's-quarter and chick-weed, both edible greens, wild leeks, cattails, watercress in a stream, sumac berries that can be made into a drink that tastes like lemonade, and wild peppermint and wintergreen that are brewed into a tasty tea.

In the spring, Rashid's pickers (he employs about 250) harvest wild asparagus, fiddlehead ferns and morels. In summer, berries and greens need collecting. Fall is the time for popular cepe mushrooms and the lesser-known lobster mushroom, which, according to Rashid, "tastes somewhere between lobster and fowl."

Rashid's affinity for the outdoors goes back to his childhood. His father, a first-generation Lebanese-American, owned a grocery store in a Detroit neighborhood far removed from the idyllic life of the woods. "We'd keep $150 in the cash register for holdups," says Rashid, who remembers being forced to lie on the floor while a robber held a gun to his head. The family lived in the same neighborhood as the store, and Rashid's mother decided she wanted her children to be exposed to rural life. She persuaded her husband to buy a 60-acre farm in Wildwood, 280 miles north of Detroit. "My mother didn't drive, so my father would bring us to the farm at the beginning of the summer and go back to the store in the city," says Rashid. Without even a TV for entertainment, Rashid and his four brothers and sisters spent their summers learning about the lore of the woods, in the process finding out what was edible and what was not.

After his 1974 graduation from Wayne State University, Rashid spent a year in local theater, then, with his new wife, Kate, headed to New York to work off-Broadway. By 1978, the call of the woods lured him back to northern Michigan. That same year, he and Kate opened a store that sold the fresh berries and mushrooms that he and other foragers found. Word reached chef Lawrence Forgione of An American Place restaurant in New York City, who was already convinced that he could equal the best French cuisine if only he could get the proper fresh ingredients. He thought that Rashid might be the man to do it. In 1982 they formed American Spoon Foods. The company got its name from Rashid's first batch of preserves, which flowed freely in the manner of bygone times when a spoon, not a knife, was used to spread them.

Most of Rashid's products have that simplicity. "We sell things that people have a lot of nostalgia for," says Rashid. "These foods trigger memories. We get long letters from people sharing their recollections of foods from their childhood.

"There's an incredible abundance of food out there in the forests and fields," adds Rashid, "but now people are too busy to pick it. The average yuppie is not going to out and gather his own greens."

From Our Partners