It was always something: glossy garnet plums, candy red romas trucked from Mexico in the dead of winter. I wanted to eat a local, seasonal diet, I really did. I liked the idea of buying all my produce at the farmers' market, or joining a CSA, or growing most of our food. But somehow I never got around to joining the CSA, and the weekend crowds at our local farmers' market kept me at bay. We did garden, but Seattle's seasons were not conducive to a high yield: Some years our tomatoes never ripened beyond dark green. In the end, I bought most of our produce at the local grocery store, where I tried to do my best.
Our local supermarket was an overpriced yuppie mart with a good selection of local, organic, seasonal produce. I had the opportunity to use my buying dollars to support small local farms, but it was rough to shell out $4 for a bunch of kale. I'd read Michael Pollan's argument: "We [Americans] spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any other industrialized society; surely if we decided that the quality of our food mattered, we could afford to spend a few more dollars on it in a week." As much as I admire Pollan, there is something cavalier in his dismissal of the problem of price. Does Pollan really remember what it was like to struggle financially? I came back to this thought to make myself feel better every time I chose Mexican zucchinis for 99 cents a pound over their more expensive locally grown, seasonally correct alternative. I told myself that if I were rich it would be easy to be good. I'd only eat organic, local, seasonal produce. Really. It never occurred to me that in fact the opposite was true, that poverty would enable me to finally evade the temptation of the cheap Chilean asparagus.
My husband and I were both laid off in October of 2008, and while we've worked on and off since then, we've keenly felt the economic crunch. For the past three years, our lives have been an exercise in reduction. First we stopped eating out, then we stopped buying specialty items, then we found ourselves unable to afford items that had once seemed basic: peanut butter, bacon, grapes in February. We moved to the country in order to cut our expenses, but our move coincided with the end of my husband's unemployment benefits, and our budget dwindled more quickly than our expenses. Produce was expensive and driving to town to buy groceries required precious gas, so I began looking closer to home for food. Why buy boring Mexican zucchini when edible wild plants grew in thickets around the house? The grocery store on a limited budget was stressful; foraging was fun.
In November I dressed up our simple dinners with chanterelles, in December and January most of our meals contained hedgehog mushrooms or yellow-footed chanterelles, in early spring we met our food pyramid vegetable requirements with miner's lettuce, dandelion greens, cat's-ear and nettles. I realized we were eating a mostly local, seasonal diet when the end of nettle season left me at a loss. I had become accustomed to supplementing almost every meal with the plants. When the nettles went to seed before our garden came in, I realized why native cultures built religions around plants: When a plant is your No. 1 source of nutrients it's easy to develop a certain reverence.
Eating seasonally has forced me to be creative, and I'm a better cook for it. Despite the monotony of available ingredients, we don't suffer from a monotonous diet. This year we've eaten the gamut of global cuisine: curries, stir fries, pastas, pot pies, quiches, frittatas, tacos, barbecue, bisques, stews and fritters. We have the luxury of purchasing some supplies from afar (such as flour, rice, cheese and dried fruit), so I can't make the pompous claim that our diet is 100 percent local or seasonal. That said, it's been interesting to experience a life where the meal's showpiece ingredients are generally dictated by the weather, the time of year or dumb luck. Sure, there've been some grim moments (what do you cook when all you have is rice noodles and whatever you can scrounge from the front lawn?), but this year has certainly taught me to treasure my ingredients. Growing and gathering food in season has provided me with hours of exercise and moments of extreme jubilation, not to mention a few close calls.
A few weeks ago, a tire pump and some chain oil significantly expand my scavenging range. The bike is ancient and heavy, without gears. Maybe it's a Schwinn, but it's hard to say; the factory paint job was long ago obscured by rust and then blue house paint. A wire basket bounces above the fat back tire. Riding this old monster is a bit like wrangling a wrought-iron carousel, but a set of wheels allows me to travel farther up the gravel roads that tangle the mountains beyond our home.
The long wet spring left the world ruffled in green -- thimbleberry bushes flutter as I ride past, and alders arch in green bowers above the creek below. Everything is green, except for the mushrooms. I jounce along, scanning the gulleys and creek banks for flashes of white or beige.
A cloud of dust erupts as I grind my tires into the deep gravel: I see mushrooms. The log is a good 50 feet away; I'll have to get a closer look. I leave the old bike by the side of the road and descend into a tangled thicket of salmonberry bushes. The downed trees are strewn over a tiny stream, and the loamy bank is uneven with boomer holes. After a spell of struggling through the thorny brush, I hoist myself up onto a log. Clusters of oyster mushrooms stretch the length. The little oyster log I discovered a few weeks ago pales in comparison.
Unfortunately, I'm a little late. Many of the mushrooms are fuzzy with white mold or crawling with black flies, and a few have been chomped by slugs. I'm knocking a slug off the log with a stick when I'm startled by a giant mottled salamander, which seems more annoyed that alarmed by my presence. It stares at me with obsidian eyes, unmoving. In all my years in these woods, I've never seen this species before. And the salamander isn't the only one laying claim to this territory: A few feet down on the same log, cougar scat sits like a warning. I think twice about continuing on, but I can't quite tear myself away from the bounty of mushrooms.
Despite my bad timing, I find clusters of fresh new mushrooms here and there. The pell-mell arrangement of logs requires me to duck and stretch in order to get at the most promising patches. I am crawling across a particularly precarious log when I hear a heavy thump in the woods above me. I freeze. A cat wouldn't make any noise if it was stalking you, I comfort myself. It's probably just an elk ... or a bear. My heart is hammering. I hop down, dip under the salamander log, and scramble down the hill to my bike. I set my bag of mushrooms in the basket and hightail it for home.
Next stop is the garden, where I pull carrots from their bed in an old bathtub (a measure to thwart burrowing pests). One bathtub over, baby turnips and pinky red radishes are popping up. I head up the driveway with a colander of baby vegetables. My final step is the front yard, where parsley and onion chives glitter with recent rain.
Cooking with food you grew and gathered yourself yields a particular satisfaction: The baby carrots seem especially aromatic, and the white oyster mushrooms spill across the cutting board like manna. The end result is a savory oyster mushroom and summer vegetable pie. The radish greens add spice, and the oyster mushrooms offer buttery satisfaction. Survival at its finest.
Summer Pot Pie
- 3 cups of oyster mushrooms
- 2 sprigs of tarragon (minced)
- 1 tablespoon of onion chives (chopped)
- pat of butter
- 2 cloves of garlic
- ½ cup of leek (chopped)
- 1 handful of radish greens
- 1 handful of baby turnip greens
- 2 tablespoons of stock or water
- 2 cups of flour (sifted)
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1/3 cup of butter (frozen)
- 1/3 cup of chicken drippings (or butter)
- 1/3 cup of ice water
- 1 pat of butter
- 1 tablespoon of flour
- 1 cup of stock (the fattier the better)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2/3 cup of carrots (minced finely)
- 1 stick of new celery (minced)
- 4 new potatoes (chopped and simmered in stock until soft)
- 1 tablespoon of fresh parsley (chopped)
- 1 tablespoon of onion chives (chopped)
- Put 1/3 cup of butter in the freezer.
- Chop up 4 potatoes and simmer in stock until soft.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Heat a cast iron frying pan on high.
- When dry pan is hot, add oyster mushrooms and salt.
- When water forms, add tarragon and chives.
- When water disappears, decrease heat to low.
- Add butter and garlic and cook for 1-2 minutes.
- Add greens and stock and cook for an additional minute.
- Turn off.
- Add flour and salt to food processor.
- Turn on processor and add frozen butter in chunks.
- Add chicken drippings or more butter.
- Add water until dough forms in ball. Turn off food processor.
- Separate dough into two balls and roll each as thin as you can get it.
- Line greased 9-inch pie pan with half of the dough and reserve the other half for pie top.
- In a small pan, melt pat of butter over low heat.
- Add remaining ingredients. If gravy seems too thin, sprinkle more flour.
- Stir until gravy thickens. Turn off.
- Put Group I ingredients in pie pan.
- Add Group II.
- Add Group III.
- Add Group IV.
- Cover with top crust.
- Bake at 350 until crust is golden brown.