Chef Randy Rucker
Bootsie’s - Tomball, TX
112 Commerce Street
Tomball, TX 77375
Porridge of Steel-cut Oats and Maple with Lichen, Spring Creek Mushrooms, and Smoked Mascarpone Cheese
Chef Randy Rucker of Bootsie’s – Tomball, TX
Chef Randy Rucker
Bootsie’s - Tomball, TX
Foraging in San Francisco may have caught on like wildfire, but it’s yet to become a pervasive trend on the Third Coast—a term that refers to Texas and its Gulf Coast. No more than one or two restaurants in the Houston area have hopped on the foraging bandwagon in any significant way. But at Bootsie’s in Tomball, Texas, Chef Randy Rucker forages produce for the restaurant, gives foraging lessons, and even educates his diners with “Third Coast” dinners that highlight the regional bounty. And unlike the beginner-friendly sorrel of the West Coast, wild Texas edibles include some out-of-the-box choices. Lichen, for one. Yes, the stuff that grows on trees.
For Rucker, foraging is a way of experiencing terroir and then communicating it to the guest. “We always forage ourselves … it allows us to connect with our food sources before and after we present it to our guests.” Rain or shine, Rucker collects lichen year-round, leaving some of it raw and balancing the rest with a base to “equalize the acids.” Some lichen harvests are preserved in a 3:2:1 pickling liquid for use throughout the year.
Unlike Californian foragers, who enjoy liberal laws on foraging, Texan foragers have to skate around a historic law to gather the good stuff. In the late 19th century, the cattlemen and sheepmen of Texas—pretty hostile toward one another at the best of times—experienced an unprecedented number of violent clashes. To prevent further bloodshed, laws were passed that forbade grazing on public land, which forced both groups to keep cattle and sheep on their own land. A quirky holdover from this law is that people are not allowed to “graze” or gather food on public land. However, many Texas foragers gather their bounties on the land of friends or neighbors, with permission of course.
Not that a few hoops to jump would stop Rucker. “The Third Coast is full of natural bounties! We have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s out there.” He’s currently collecting coastal items like clams and scallops for the restaurant, as well as less mainstream fare like whelks, pin shells, sea grass, and algae. When it comes to planning his menu, the foraged produce and shellfish act as the inspiration, and the dishes follow. “We always find our ingredients first and then compose our menu … always!” And if they don’t star in a dish, they end up on top. “All our garnish is foraged,” says Rucker, whose main goal is to use foraged goods as much as possible. Even in winter, he serves dishes like porridge (essentially oatmeal) with preserved lichen, wood ear mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, and puffball mushrooms for a warming, earthy and complex take on terroir in winter.
To avoid collecting and serving toxic doppelgangers, safely foraged produce must be carefully researched before it can be considered for a restaurant menu. Rucker’s go-to resource when it comes to foraging in Texas is www.houstonwildedibles.blogspot.com, a blog run by Dr. Mark Vorderbruggen, a.k.a. Merriwether. A sort of Southern version of Wildman Steve Brill, Merriwether is a chemist by day, but in his spare time, he dons his Indiana Jones hat and brings groups into the wilderness to explore the world of wild edibles.
Merriwether’s parents grew up during the depression, and foraging was a way of getting food on the table. They taught him how to forage, and in time, it came in handy. “When I was in grad school there were some pretty lean years.” Word started to get around, and Merriwether now teaches foraging classes at the Houston Arboretum and to local gardening groups. Much moister and hotter than his native Minnesota, Houston’s humid, almost tropical, climate lends itself to year-round foraging. If Rucker’s lichen is too exotic for your diners—or too finicky for beginners—Merriwether recommends starting with easy-to-identify plants, such as:
For more information, Merriwether recommends Samuel Thayer’s Nature’s Garden for beginner foragers. Or you could come to Bootsie’s to eat your research, of course.