It's been three decades since Alice Waters made microgreens a culinary cliché, and by now most diners take the lingo of local food for granted: chefs who raise their own heritage chickens, restaurants with hand-lettered blackboards that outline the lineage of every lamb chop, and salads that sport farmers' Christian names. But what if the next menu you picked up offered nettle pesto picked from the ditch next to Route 6? Or garlic-sautéed dandelion greens gathered from the overgrown lot behind the grocery store? As the meanings of "organic" and "local" grow ever more slippery -- and in lean times, when fewer folks than ever can afford to pay a premium for dinner -- are wild edibles poised to emerge as the next gastronomic zeitgeist?
Langdon Cook, the author of the new memoir-cum-cookbook "Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager," and a popular blog by the same name, might put money on it -- but he isn't waiting around for the masses to catch up. Cook, an outdoorsman, amateur naturalist and former editor at Amazon.com, first began foraging as a trailside diversion but has spent the better part of the last decade getting in touch with his inner hunter-gatherer, schooling himself in the art of "shooting" razor clams, mapping out burn sites for signs of morels, and cataloging a veritable crisper-full of delectable weeds. That education -- combined with a year spent living off the grid in southern Oregon with his wife and young child, growing and canning most of their food and foraging the surplus -- proved a transformative experience for Cook, and inspired him to bring the gospel of wild food (in all of its muddy, wet, prickly and, yes, tasty glory) to the wider world. His message: Foraging food will make you a healthier, happier eater, a more thoughtful consumer and a more adventurous cook. And his best evidence? Himself. This is, after all, the same guy who once, in order to woo a lady, bragged about making a killer Egg McMuffin.
Now settled in Seattle, Cook does most of his foraging in the mountains and waterways near Puget Sound, but sometimes even a stroll around his urban neighborhood leads to an unexpected edible encounter. (Case in point: The dried buds of the lowly pineapple weed, a common sidewalk crack-filler and relative of chamomile, makes excellent iced tea.) Salon spoke with him recently about recession-proof dining, the large-scale sustainability of foraging, the hidden charms of the stinging nettle, and why it's time we all got out there and started searching for our suppers.
How did you begin foraging? Was it something you did with your family growing up?
Not at all. I grew up in Connecticut, where I had a typical suburban upbringing and heard all the traditional warnings about not eating anything growing wild, especially mushrooms. Cooking was not a big part of my early life. We did, however, have a few acres of land, and I spent a lot of time playing in the woods.
My wife, though, who is of Polish and Italian extraction, came from a very different tradition. Mediterranean and Eastern European cultures have had a long and affectionate relationship with wild edibles. So it really wasn't until I met her, and we started foraging, that I got serious about becoming a better cook. In part that was because when you bring home ingredients from the wild -- especially animals, like fish and shellfish -- you really want to honor them by making a good meal. And of course, when you discover just how much some premium ingredients -- like morels and porcinis and truffles and things like that -- are going for in the market, you also want to make sure that when you do find them, you use them well.
In the book you explain that foraging really became cemented as part of your life during a year in which you and your family lived off the grid in southern Oregon. Was that move -- and your concentration on foraging -- part of a deliberate attempt to change your own consumption?
There definitely was a philosophical element to it. I'd been working for corporate America for years, and in that environment a typical lunch was nasty reheated Chinese food from the food court that you'd wolf down in 20 minutes at your desk. So, yes, I used the opportunity of living off the grid to eat healthier and more thoughtfully. When you are two hours from the nearest town, foraging becomes a great way to supplement what you have, so that you're not always driving back and forth from the market. We had a huge vegetable garden and an orchard with several varieties of apples, pears, plums and cherries, and we pretty much canned everything that we didn't eat the day that we picked it. We fished for salmon and steelhead from the Rogue River, and we would go to town every 10 days to get basic necessities. But mushrooms and wild greens like fiddleheads and stinging nettles -- those we could gather right outside the back door. It was definitely a concerted effort to live a little more close to the bone and closer to the land.
But you're living in Seattle again now, right? How have you integrated foraging into your urban life?
When we got back from the boonies, I immediately went into a deep funk. I love Seattle, but civilization was a bit of a culture shock. So, I pulled myself out of it by continuing my foraging excursions -- though now they are usually around the mountains or the Puget Sound region. But sometimes I even take urban foraging trips around my neighborhood.
During my year in the woods, I really thought about the problem of sustainability, and I think living off the grid really helped me clarify some of my ideas. Because the truth is that if at this moment everyone started foraging on a large scale, it would wreak havoc on the ecosystem. But there are certain things that we can all forage almost anywhere -- for example, weeds -- that wouldn't have the same kind of environmental impact. Weeds are incredibly nutritious, a lot of them are very tasty, and they're everywhere. I can name several -- dandelions, lamb's-quarters, chickweed, purslane, cat's-ear -- that all grow around people. What's more, certain weeds, like stinging nettles and lamb's-quarters, have many more nutrients than any domestic vegetable we grow. They really do make spinach look like junk food. You can just sauté lamb's-quarters like you would kale from your garden, and it's delicious.
You live in the Pacific Northwest, though, which is basically an agricultural Eden. What about folks who live in New York or Nevada? Do you really think foraging is something people can do anywhere?
I think that certainly up and down the West Coast it's possible. I've foraged in Oregon and California and in Colorado and the Rockies, though that's a little tough because you're at a high elevation. If you're asking, can I do this in Brooklyn, or even just, can I do this in the Northeast, you can. It may be on a smaller scale, and your catch may be different, but you can.
I've always thought of foraging as gathering, but in your book you include fishing and catching and squid and mollusks. How do you define foraging?
My definition is pretty broad -- basically anything you can gather or catch that doesn't run away, like shellfish, like clams or oysters. I'm not orthodox about it. I really don't think of myself as a modern-day Euell Gibbons or the book as a modern-day "Stalking the Wild Asparagus." I really just want to introduce readers to the forager's milieu. In general, I think even if you just forage a little in your local area, it will raise your awareness about food in general, and the politics surrounding it.
Do you think foraging is the natural next step in the local and seasonal food movement?
Absolutely. Foraging keeps you acutely aware of the seasons, and to develop a forager's eye, you really do have to be cognizant of the natural history of your surroundings. If you're mushroom hunting, you need to know about the landscape -- the trees, the soil composition, the weather, the microclimates -- all the conditions that figure into finding mushrooms. In a way, it's kind of like a puzzle to work out.
How has focusing on foraging changed the way you cook?
What I think foraging does is help keep you in tune with the source of your food -- and that carries into other areas of eating. So, even if you're buying seafood or vegetables in a shop, you think a little bit more about where they came from, because you've become more intimately involved with food gathering yourself. Nutrition is part of it as well. A lot of foods that we grow have been selected over time for taste and hardiness, and have lost some of the nutrients they started off with, whereas a lot of wild foods are very nutritionally rich. For example, huckleberries are full of antioxidants and stinging nettles are high in protein -- in fact, they have more protein than just about any other plant in the plant kingdom.
And I think eventually my foraging will probably lead to hunting, which up until now I've never done. I've never used a rifle or a gun to take an animal. But I'm a carnivore, and I just feel like I can't spend my entire life buying meat at the store wrapped in plastic. I'm going to have to get my own at some point. It just seems a little more honest.
It's also a cost-conscious way of eating ethically.
Foraging really is the ultimate budgeter's solution. For instance, on my kitchen counter right now, because we've been doing a lot of canning lately, I can see jars of elderberry syrup and rose-hip syrup and thimbleberry jam, which in a few months will become recessionary Christmas presents. But the thing about thimbleberries is that they're tiny to pick -- it took me a full day to get enough for 12 very small jars! When you start processing foraged food you realize why hunter gatherers basically spent all their time doing that, not building towns or making art. Hunting, gathering and processing are a never-ending job.
What advice would you give to novice foragers?
There aren't a ton of deadly poisonous plants and mushrooms out there, but there are some. So, the golden rule of foraging is to never eat anything, especially plants and fungi, that you can't identify with 100 percent certainty. In order to do that I recommend that people join mycological societies -- they exist all over the country and are a great source for would-be mushroom pickers. Also, look for people in your area who are leading plant tours and check out nearby horticultural societies. Unfortunately, field guides -- even ones with pictures -- don't always tell the whole story, and a plant can look a lot different when you're holding it in your hands than it does in a book. That's why it's really best to learn from someone who is an expert in the field. That said, there are all kinds of delicious plants and fungi that are really easy to identify once you learn them the first time. Mushrooms like morels, chanterelles, porcini, lobster mushrooms and oyster mushrooms -- they're all really simple once you know what they look like. But for that first time, it's important to learn them from someone else.
That makes a lot of sense, since over history these skills have largely been learned experientially, from parents or grandparents or neighbors.
Right, that's how my wife learned -- from her family. Of course, when we were all in rural societies, we all had access to that knowledge. Now we have to trust so-called experts. As far as plants go, again, there are several species that are really easy to identify. Anyone can go out and collect dandelions -- I'm not going to say you need an expert for that!
What's the Holy Grail of foraging? Is there something you're always looking for but haven't found?
Well, for the first time other day, I dug a geoduck. It's basically a giant clam -- it's certainly the largest clam in the Pacific Northwest. Going after them involves digging a hole around three feet deep and just as wide, and trying to get at the neck of the geoduck, which is extended, because they can't pull their neck all the way into their shell. You can only get them during the low, low tide, and I went on what was one of the last days in the season that low tide would occur during daylight hours. I took my time and was chatting with some friends, and the next thing I knew, the tide was coming in. I was on my belly, up to my neck in water, reaching around in the hole, when I finally grabbed ahold of the neck and wrestled it out of there. The geoduck I got was about two pounds. I took it home and used the neck to make a ceviche with red onion and papaya and cucumber and a lot of lime juice. Then I used the rest of the body to make a really nontraditional kung pao that I called surf and turf, because I included a few chicken of the woods mushrooms in it, too. It was a long, wet day -- but it was so good.
Creamy Chanterelle Pasta
Adapted from "Fat of the Land"
You can use store-bought cremini mushrooms, but this dish is far superior with fresh chanterelles, which offer a fruity counterpoint to the bacon, and it's nearly as good with chanterelles that have been previously sautéed and frozen, so you can eat it in the depths of a cold, dark winter, when the chanterelles in the northern latitudes have long since returned to the earth. Green peas add a dash of color.
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
4 slices (1/4 pound) thick, quality bacon, diced (or the equivalent of pancetta)
1-2 shallots, finely chopped
1 pound shaped pasta (I prefer bow ties)
1 pound fresh chanterelles
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 pint heavy cream (or less)
4 ounces garden peas, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, with more for the table
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat and add the diced bacon. Do not drain fat. As bacon begins to crisp, add shallots and cook until tender, a few minutes. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to boil and add pasta. Add chanterelles to skillet and cook several minutes, stirring occasionally, until they have released their water. Season with salt and pepper. In a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl, add 2 remaining tablespoons of butter and half the cream. Place mixing bowl in warm oven. Slowly add remaining cream to skillet and simmer, continuing to stir occasionally while pasta cooks. When pasta is nearly done, add peas to chanterelle sauce. Remove pasta from heat, drain, and pour into warmed mixing bowl. Mix in sauce along with grated Parmesan and serve immediately. If you're worried about all that butter and cream, open another bottle of red wine. SERVES 4