Wild food educator John Kallas was born in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. When he was a child, he was so fascinated with the skills Native Americans had for living off the land that he began to learn them.
Kallas’s interest in wilderness survival and Native American skills became a more serious life study when he began college in 1970. As his studies progressed, he realized he was most interested in how our ancestors fed themselves with wild plants.
He focused on wild foods, using Bradford Angier’s How to Stay Alive in the Woods as one of his first references. He soon graduated to Alan Hall’s book, The Wild Food Trailguide, along with other serious sources of information.
By 1974, Kallas was taking college classes in wilderness survival and nutrition, along with pursuing an independent study in edible wild plants. He chose these academic pursuits because he wanted to be prepared for a six-month “vagabonding” trip through Europe. He took that trip; and, by the end of that adventure, he was getting all his food during the trip from wild plants, including field mustard, wild spinach and cleavers, among others.
Kallas then returned to college and took classes in botany and taxonomy. His professors and administrators at Michigan State University (MSU) recognized that Kallas was following an inner guidance on his path of study, and they encouraged him to teach senior-level university classes in edible wild plants. As a result, Kallas taught at MSU for seven years.
Along the way, he earned degrees in biology and zoology, a master’s degree in education and a doctorate in nutrition. Kallas stated that the reason he pursued a Ph.D. in nutrition was to learn about nutrients, human physiology and biochemistry, cultural foodways, anthropology, food preparation and nutritional toxicology—all to advance the field of wild foods.
He’s taught and trained thousands of people regarding wild foods all over North America since 1978; given hundreds of wild food presentations to a variety of groups; and amassed one of the largest personal wild food libraries in the country.
In 1989, Kallas moved to Oregon, where he continued his research and teaching. Since moving to Portland, he’s taught wild food classes at Portland State University and Clackamas Community College, as well as via his company, Wild Food Adventures. Since January 1994, Dr. Kallas has been operating Wild Food Adventures full-time.
From 1996 to 2006, he produced “The Wild Food Adventurer” newsletter, an informative publication in which he shared some of his knowledge about wild foods, including his ongoing research, and how to identify and use wild plants. Kallas is the author of Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. This is a thick book! It’s part of what will become a multivolume book series. Volume two is projected for publication in 2022.
According to Kallas, “This is a great book for anyone—from beginner to advanced—in foraging. It’s not a field guide; rather, it’s an easy-to-use manual that outlines what you need to know to begin a successful and lifelong interest in edible wild plants. It’s a pictorial guide that introduces you to the most common, most abundant, easy-to-find wild foods. The book explains each plant at all stages of growth, shows you the edible parts at their prime and provides simple, basic recipes that illustrate the potential these foods could have in your diet.”
Did He Ever Get Sick?
I had the good fortune to meet Kallas for the first time in 1999 in Portland, when I was traveling around the country for the Y2K shows. Because I’m a fellow forager, there were certain things I wanted to know from him … such as, had he ever gotten sick from a wild plant.
“That only happened once,” Kallas told me:
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