The fig tree in my neighbor’s yard–the one with lots of branches hanging temptingly over the sidewalk–is just starting to ripen its fall crop. According to California law, fruit growing in public space (hanging on a branch over a city sidewalk, for example) is public fruit, and free for the taking, as long as the picker leaves what’s on the other side of the fence (or property line) alone. Going out to get yogurt and a newspaper on a Saturday morning, I’d arrive home with a foraged breakfast centerpiece of ripe sweet figs.
But clearly, I’ve barely cracked the spine on Foraging for Dummies. At least compared to Seattlite Langdon Cook, author of Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager for whom a daily forage might involve digging for razor clams at dusk in December, or setting up a spotlight for late-night squid jigging in January. Spearfishing for lingcod within the city limits, hand-grabbing Dungeness crab out of the Sound, dodging homeless guys to harvest choice young dandelion greens near the I-5 on-ramp. . . if you sum it up like that, Cook sounds like a pretty wild and crazy guy.
Except that he’s almost always eclipsed in his own narrative by the buddies who show him the ropes. With nicknames like Trouthead and Warpo, these dudes are guy’s guys, passionate, risk-loving, obsessive hunter-gatherers who let Cook tag along as they head into their element: to the bank of the Columbia at dawn for shad, into a beat-up canoe on the Hood Canal for shrimp, tramping a burnt-out section of the Okanogan National Forest for morels.
Cook walks the walk, and dives the dive, but hard as he tries, he never quite transcends. Throughout, he remains a game but nerdy writer, less on the hunt for shrimp and sturgeon (the toothy, prehistoric-looking fish that Cook’s friend Beedle describes admiringly as “one tough hombre”) than for a certain manly authenticity that remains always a little out of his reach, no matter how many times he grabs for his pen to scribble down a colorful phrase.
“What can be said about this river that hasn’t already been said?” he notes from the banks of the surging Columbia River, looking up at the power lines swooping overhead. “I try to put myself in a dugout canoe circa 1805, but the wires keep getting in the way.”
The book is organized in a way familiar to readers of Mark Kurlansky or Michael Pollan: first an action narrative, then a loop through biology and ecology, a dash through the stinging nettles of climate change and ever-encroaching environmental destruction, a quick end run through socio-cultural history, then a wind-up of the narrative and a triumphant meal and recipe.
The reader tags along after Cook, skimming along through his magazine-ready adventures (it’s no surprise to find out that he writes frequently for publications like Outside and The Stranger), learning some nifty stuff about, say, the fruiting cycles of the morel mushroom, or why hunting for Dungeness crabs during their mating season is like shooting fish in a barrel. But, just like those lurking lingcod, the truly captivating stories stay in the shadows.
What does fishing mean for the Asian grandmothers who come down night after night to fish for squid off the municipal pier where Cook shows up one evening, nervous of his status as Anglo newbie amid the bantering regulars from Cambodia and Nicaragua? Or the morel-hunting locals on the edges of a remote mountain town who saw their forest go up in smoke around them during a recent wildfire? Cook can’t quite shake the knowledge that what’s fun (or at least fodder for a book contract) for him is necessity for others, and neither can the reader.
Still, it’s an intriguing read, and a way to take a fresh look at the edible abundance available for the (slightly stealthy) taking even in the heart of a sprawling American city.
And if you’re not quite ready to free-dive for abalone yet, you can join interdisciplinary artist Julie Kahn (currently working at the Headlands Center for the Arts) for a feast of wild game and foraged foods in Marin on November 15th. It’s a benefit for Swamp Cabbage, which Kahn and her fellow filmmaker Hayley Downs call a “dark and sweaty” documentary in progress tracing their personal connections to the fast-disappearing backwoods traditions of rural Florida. The multi-course menu includes chicharrones from Ryan Farr’s 4505 Meats, swamp cabbage pickles, gator bites, locally hunted wild boar from Mendocino, local abalone, acorn bread, truly wild mushroom pizza, persimmon gelato foraged and made by Liana and Michael Orlandi of Mill Valley’s Gelateria Ceci, and more.
I’ll be baking foraged fruit turnovers for the spread, too–which means I better get up early and start stalking those succulent figs around the corner.