As a little kid, Jay Marion would spend his summers with his grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia.
“We’d ride around the dirt roads and look at the old logging camps and the old apple orchards and pick berries and dig ramps, hunt for bottles, look for ginseng,” Marion explained.
But those summers weren’t just all fun and games. Marion walked away with valuable knowledge about what Mother Nature has to offer.
“Mother Nature’s pantry has just got all kinds of stuff.”Jay Marion
Now, he uses the foraging skills his grandparents passed down to him to provide wild edibles for elite chefs like Ashley Christensen, Sean Brock, Ian Boden and Cathal Armstrong, among others.
Marion, who lives in Verona, Virginia, and owns Digger Jays Wild Edibles, said chefs come to him for unique ingredients that aren’t available in local grocery stores.
“We’ve got access to a little broader pantry,” he said. “Mother Nature’s pantry has just got all kinds of stuff.”
Marion said no matter the season, he often spends his weekends foraging for wild edibles. For the most part, Marion said he forages on private property after asking for the landowner’s permission.
Depending on the season, he gathers things like morel mushrooms, chanterelle mushrooms, Kousa dogwood berries, ramps, black walnuts and spruce tips, just to name a few.
Marion’s wild edibles help chefs like John Matheny of Staunton, Virginia’s Nu-Beginning Farm: The Store provide more creative menu items for his customers.
“Whenever he brings something in it’s like an episode of ‘Chopped’ because these are my basket ingredients to work with,” Matheny said.
Matheny added that he’s very up-front with his customers about where he gets the wild edibles that are often incorporated into his daily specials. Most importantly, Matheny said Marion’s wild edibles help educate the public about what’s out there to eat.
“It shows people that there’s a food source out there — you know, nowadays the big catchword out there is sustainability — you’ve got everything you need to eat growing wild in nature,” he said.
Marion said he first started selling his wild edibles to chefs by going door-to-door and offering them to chefs. For him, there was a real learning curve in terms of turning his hobby into a business.
“I learned through, you know, just working with chefs and restaurants that some restaurants want them [wild edibles] clean, like if you went to the grocery store and bought them clean because they don’t have the time or the man power to clean them,” Marion explained.
Now that Marion has a list of chefs he forages for, he’s even passing down the knowledge to his grandchildren in hopes of keeping the tradition alive.
Marion said the best part of having his wild edibles on menus at restaurants in Virginia and surrounding states is presenting something new to the public so they can try it, enjoy it and learn more about it.
Read more stories from Alix Hines on Circa.