Ruth Chen found herself cooking a lot of instant ramen and meal kits when the pandemic hit. It didn’t take long for that routine to get boring. The Silver Spring resident was a sporadic customer of Number 1 Sons, which sells a variety of pickled and fermented products at farmers markets and grocers. During the pandemic, the picklers started offering home delivery of their goods three days a week, along with fresh local produce and locally foraged wild foods.
In the spring, ramps, watercress, and stinging nettles were available. When summer arrived, so did three wild mushrooms—chanterelles, black trumpets, and chicken of the woods—along with truffles from Oregon. Number 1 Sons sources the products from several foragers and farmers, including Tom Mueller of Maryland-based Villa Fungi and Iulian Fortu of Arcadia Venture in Northern Virginia.
Chen saw these wild ingredients as “a break in monotony,” and ordered chanterelles and black trumpets to make sauces as a complement to whatever proteins she happened to be cooking. “It was fun to research recipes and experiment a little bit,” she says. And it was definitely a step up from instant ramen.
For Number 1 Sons, rare wild ingredients seemed like a natural extension to their other delivery offerings. “We’re selling local vegetables and fruits of a slightly higher quality than you get at the grocery store,” says co-owner Caitlin Roberts. “And you can’t even find some of the varieties often in the grocery store.”
She bet that customers, like Chen, would be willing to try working with new ingredients. “To be able to cook something that’s only around for one season is really special,” she says. “Also, chanterelles are freaking delicious.”
Roberts was right. The foraged goods have been a big hit with customers, selling out every week. Since starting, they’ve sold 200 pounds of ramps and 150 pounds of chanterelles. That’s more than $10,000 worth of wild products in total. (A quarter pound of chanterelles goes for $9.75.) When Roberts looks on Instagram, she sees what customers are making with their purchases, including grilled ramps and wild mushroom risottos.
This new customer base is a boon for foragers, many of whom typically sell exclusively to chefs. Most of that business has dried up. “Restaurants aren’t doing volume, but Mother Nature is still producing,” Roberts says. “This seemed like a great way for us to pivot and fill that niche.”
Cooking with such rare ingredients serves as an aspirational replacement for dining out or even traveling. These wild goods can offer a moment of transporting satisfaction, so the diner doesn’t feel like they’re eating at home or even in their hometown. During this time of extended quarantining and social distancing, that sensation, however fleeting, can be highly appealing.
Number 1 Sons plans to offer new foraged goods as the seasons change. Customers can soon look forward to pawpaws, a native fruit with a tropical taste somewhere in between banana and mango, which should be available starting later this month.
Delivery is currently available approximately 15 miles from Number 1 Sons’ 20002 zip code, including all of D.C. and parts of Northern Virginia and Maryland.