June 2011

Charlotte Freeman



Wild food punches people’s buttons. I once had an American guy in Ireland question the veracity of my blackberry identification as I held out a handful. “My mother said all fruits and mushrooms that don’t come from the store are poisonous,” he said while I stared at him, gape mouthed. As little kids, we sucked the “honey” from bluebells in the spring, foraged tiny wild strawberries in fields that eventually became a subdivision, picked raspberries, learned to fish, and were generally thought of the world as a big place full of interesting things you could eat. Apparently, this feral foraging was an oddity, and went against the American tendency to fear that all food that doesn’t come packaged is probably dangerous if not outright poisonous. The wild, in general, punches people’s buttons -- I get questions all the time about living out here on the edge of these mountains where there are bears and wolves and mountain lions. All I can say is that as terrifying as it can be to watch a teenaged grizzly boar foraging for bulbs 100 yards downhill from you (so terrifying that I refused to look through the binoculars that my Beloved kept handing me, sure all I’d see is bear rushing uphill), it keeps things in perspective, and it teaches you how to behave. If you scream and yell and cause a scene, you’ll probably get rushed. If you shut up, stay close to the ground, keep your distance and just watch, you might get to see something real and magnificent and wild, right there in front of you.

Foraging for and eating wild foods is just one more way to keep us connected to the physical world in which we live. Foraging forces you to pay attention, to really look a the plants and animals around you. And as Connie Green notes in The Wild Table “People who forage for wild foods, even rarely, have a deeper appreciation of nature and a profound interest in preserving the habitats that are too often destroyed by those with no knowledge of or intimacy with wild country.” Foraging, like gardening, or even learning to cook, is an intimate act, and one that connects us more closely with the world as it is. But you don’t have to live in a wilderness to forage some of your food, there are wild foods highlighted in each of these books that grow perfectly well in the urban-wild interface where most people live.

The most gorgeous of these books is The Wild Table, by Connie Green and Sarah Scott. Connie Green started foraging in the Bay Area in the 1970s, when no one even recognized the wild mushrooms she was trying to sell to the restaurant trade. She’s one of the pioneers who taught restauranteurs that they don’t have to deal exclusively with middlemen and wholesalers. By simply taking her baskets of mushrooms around from restaurant to restaurant and trying to sell them, she found herself growing not only a business in the sale of wild foods, but becoming an educator. Chefs asked to go out foraging with her, a practice she eventually formalized as a series of classes. Green states that the wild foods she chose for this book not only are not only delicious, but are available in widespread areas of the continent, and are not endangered. Scott is the forager, and expert on wild foods but she brought Sarah Scott in to develop and write the recipes with her, which results in a precision too often missing in some of my favorite wild foods cookbooks (Jane Grigson’s The Mushroom Feast is a classic, but also perhaps too approximate for those who are new to cooking with wild foods). She includes a lovely section on foraging ettiquette, which is pretty much like any other etiquette: don’t be greedy, work to preserve habitat, keep an extra set of dry socks and a cooler with some cold beers in the car.

The book is organized by season, starting with spring. Although we haven’t found morels in enough quantity yet this season, I’m dying to test her recipe for “Basket-grilled morels.” And although her fiddlehead recipes look interesting, I have to confess that I haven’t been able to shake an early aversion to them from when my stepmother foisted Maine canned fiddleheads on us in childhood, so I’ll be passing on those. We’re awash in tender young nettles right now (which does not in any way make up for the dearth of mushrooms -- thanks, cold weather) and although I usually just make nettle soup, I might get ambitious and try the Nettle Malfatti with Brown Butter, Lemon and Parmesan. (Just remember to wear gloves when harvesting nettles.) For summer, she provides foraging info and recipes for lobster mushrooms, nopales and for those lucky enough to be near an ocean, sea beans. Indian summer is chanterelles, puffballs, rose hips and huckleberries, while autumn proper brings info on my beloved porcini, on elderberries and on black walnuts. And because she’s from northern California, where winter is rainy but things still grow, her winter chapter contains recipes for dandelions and curly dock, for hedgehog mushrooms, and for persimmons. Each featured wild food is introduced with a short essay, and accompanied by a sidebar complete with cleaning and prep info, cooking methods, storage and description of ideal specimens. As she notes in the introduction, “People simply fall in love with wild foods. Lord knows these wild things swept me away. Folks want to be seduced by their mystery, their freedom from the bonds of agriculture. Our human civilization, based on agriculture, has struggled for millennia to no longer depend on foraging in the wild. But here at the start of the twenty-first century, the old hunter-gatherer lurking in all of us just won’t let go.”

Hank Shaw hasn’t been at this as long as Connie Green, but those of us who have been following his blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook know that his passion and knowledge run deep. Although Hank lives near Sacramento, he grew up on the east coast where his family regularly fished, dug for clams, and kept the field guides down on a low shelf, where a little kid could get at them. As an adult, he kept at it his pursuit of outdoor life and wild food, and his description of why one should bother is the best I’ve read yet: “The world is endlessly fascinating -- it’s better than the best nature show you’ve ever seen. You can smell it, taste it, feel it on your skin and in your hands. As your skills strengthen, you will also begin to notice something in yourself you only dimly knew existed: You will start feeling more like a complete human, capable of foraging for supper, fishing for breakfast, and hunting for the long winter ahead. You will know how to cure meats, make foods from scratch you thought only came in boxes, and make your own wine to wash it all down with. That feeling is you emerging from your secondhand existence, like a fawn taking its first steps.”

Shaw organizes his book into three large sections by activity: Foraging, Fishing and Hunting. The foraging section, while it doesn’t have nearly enough info about mushrooms to satisfy my particular mania, is terrific on wild greens, fruits and berries, and even has a section on rendering the acorn edible (it’s certainly more detailed than the description so many of us remember from Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain). He also includes info on sea vegetables and a chapter on making wine from grapes, dandelions and elderberries. The Fishing section makes me miss the ocean, although his chapter on Bluegills and other panfish brought back happy memories of my Wisconsin childhood, including the time my father’s fishing guide, the legendary Ray Kennedy, cleaned and smoked the buckets and buckets of crappie and bluegills I’d caught in his boathouse while waiting for them to come back from musky fishing. I was little, four or five, and so proud of my catch. Three days later, we sat at Ray and Apryl’s kitchen table, eating smoked bluegill chips off of newspaper. One of my happiest childhood memories, and one of the things I loved about this book, is that Shaw brings that same sense of childlike enthusiasm not just to his fishing expeditions, but to all the activities he describes here.

The final section covers hunting, a topic that can really divide people. I grew up around hunters, my dad and brother hunted ducks, and sometimes Dad came out west to hunt elk, and for a couple of years when I first moved here, I dated a hunting and fishing guide. And yet, when I’d go back to the city for work, non-hunters were always sort of horrified by this. Shaw’s introductory discussion “Why Hunt?” is a thoughtful explication of what drives a person to hunt, and the rewards that result. “Hunting,” Shaw notes, “has given us a sense of self-sufficiency, a sense of honesty, and a clear-eyed understanding of exactly where our meat comes from. No factory farms, no hormones, antibiotics and, arguably, no cruelty. Every animal we kill had been living the life God intended until it met us that one fateful day.” Whether you’re interested in hunting or not, Shaw’s step-by-step descriptions of how to hunt, field dress, and break down game animals are concise and specific. Although most people who hunt learn how from another actual person, you can’t be too over-prepared, and having a clear idea in your head about how it might go is crucial.

Even if you don’t kill your own game, you’ll want to suck up to your best hunting friend in order to cook some of Shaw’s recipes. I don’t know who I’m going to have to sweet talk (or trade veggies/mushrooms with) in order to get a piece of game loin, but I’m on a mission, because Venison Medallions with Morel Sauce looks too good to pass up. Corned antelope is also really intriguing, although I might be tempted to do it with elk instead, since I often find elk a little tough. Anyone who has spent much time in game country knows that a lot of sausage gets made when you’re butchering a big animal, and frankly, I find most of the commercial sausage mixes the butchers use around here pretty pedestrian. The Herbed Wild Boar sausage looks fabulous, although wild boar is difficult to come by around here, so again, I’ll probably substitute. He’s got a section on game birds too, which is one of the things I miss most from dating my hunting guide. I think there are few things as perfect as quail or doves or mallard duck done on a hot grill and eaten with your fingers, and although pheasant isn’t my favorite, Shaw’s recipes for roasted and hunters-style pheasant might just change my mind.

The Pacific Northwest is a forager’s dream -- everything grows there: mushrooms, greens, berries, and there’s an ocean filled with shellfish and fish and sea vegetables. Fat of the Land is a memoir with recipes; a collection of essays about how a graduate student fell in love and learned to cook even as he learned to forage for the raw materials of those meals. This one is organized by seasons, starting with an expedition in winter to harvest razor clams, and ending a with a slightly psychedelic mushroom feast led by a ninety-two year old mycologist. In between Cook forages for mushrooms and nettles, bakes dandelion petals into bread, and encounters bears in the huckleberry patch.

But the most fascinating part of this book for me were the fishing and ocean foraging sections, in part, because I’m terrified of the ocean. Clamming I could handle, since I like a beach best when I’ve got something to do, but the description of diving for ling cod was fascinating and terrifying all at the same time. Ling cod are large carnivorous eel-shaped fish that lurk in dark holes, waiting to attack their prey, and Cook, along with his mad professor friend Dave, go spearfishing for them in the Seattle harbor. Perhaps it’s that Cook is nearly as skittish in the water as I am, but I loved this chapter -- he gets his fish, but only after nearly losing it, and due to the rapidly diminishing ling cod populations, it turns out it’s probably Dave’s last outing as well. It’s an exciting and elegaic essay. Cook is as good on the communities that emerge around fishing and foraging expeditions as he is on the naturalism and the cooking of his finds. There’s a terrific collection of characters here, from Dave the sea-addled professor to Marty, Cook’s wife, to Beedle the former high-school science teacher turned fisherman extraordinare. The book is a great read, and I particularly appreciated the attention Cook pays to the urban-wild interface, jigging for squid from a city pier, harvesting dandelions from a fecund and apparently un-sprayed derelict lot, and fishing for silver salmon through a stretch of unemployment in the company of a number of retired men on a public beach. Cook’s encounters with wildness, and wild food, and the chase to provide leads him back home to a series of dinner tables with his wife and friends, communities circling back to form new communities, until, at the book’s end, we discover that he and Marty are expecting a baby. It’s a story about a man finding a way to grow up, without losing his childlike wonder at the natural world.

While none of these books are a substitute for a good field guide or the guidance of an experienced hand in the woods, they do each offer multiple starting places for learning to look around the world and see what you can bring home and eat. Whether you’re making soup from the backyard nettles, or a salad from wild spring greens, or learning how to clean a fish or dig for clams, there are opportunities for most of us to find something delicious in our neighborhoods. And frankly, it’s just fun. So I hope as spring greens emerge where ever it is you live, you’ll hold off on the RoundUp, and maybe make a salad instead. We’ll all be better off for it.