Extended Play: Author and 21st century forager Langdon Cook on food, foraging and fungi renegades

Posted by Leilani Clark on Thu, Apr 21, 2011 at 9:46 AM

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Our Dining Feature this week digs into the food history of Langdon Cook, the Seattle-based author of

Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. An expert on forging for seafood and plants in the wild, Cook is incredibly passionate about his chosen field. In the following interview, he talks about his great love for the “mushroom people,” the deliciousness of dandelions, and his childhood love for TV dinners and Spaghetti-O’s.

Did you grow up foraging?

Not at all. I come much more from traditional,  New England, Anglo-Saxon roots where you would never consider eating anything in the wild. The mushrooms are toadstools and all the greens are potentially poisonous and you  do not touch. That’s not to say that my parents didn’t give me room to roam around in the woods, but food was something you bought at the grocery store. I came of age in post-World War II, you know, my parents are boomers. I came-of -age eating TV dinners, and processed food, and things in colorful packaging from the supermarket, which we’ve since learned is a horrible mistake.. I loved TV dinners as a kid. The  little compartmentalized deal, and Mom would throw it in the microwave. We ate Spaghetti-O’s out  of a can. Now, it’s pretty common to turn your nose up at that sort of food, but when I was a kid that was pretty common. You didn’t think about getting food from the wild, at least where I was at (in Connecticut).

How did foraging influence the way you approach food?

By the time I graduated from college, I really didn’t know how to cook. I’d either been eating the food that my parents prepared, or that I got from the cafeteria. I think there were a lot of people like me who didn’t know how to cook. Here we were, suddenly, y outh in the world,  with no idea how to chop an onion, or when to use garlic. But I loved to eat, and I’d always been a big eater. And I think I always enjoyed good food. It was sort of a joke in my family that I always wanted to order the most expensive item on the menu when we went out for dinner.

I always liked good foods, but it wasn’t until I started foraging that I really started trying to transform myself in the kitchen as well. You come home, with a few pounds of morels that might be selling at the Farmer’s Market for 30 bucks a pound, and you suddenly realize that you have this booty-like pirate’s booty-and you want to do something that honors the food and really makes the best meal possible. I’m pretty much self-taught in the kitchen. I’m not a great cook, by any stretch, I’m pretty much a typical home cook who’s learned different techniques along the way.

My wife comes from a Polish-Italian background in which the food ways were really important  bec ause they brought them over from the “Old World.” They were handed down. So she had recipes from both sides of her family. I watched her in the kitchen, and then started picking some of it up for myself. I’ve been on  this parallel track with the cooking and the foraging. And each step along the way has informed the other. As I ratchet up the foraging, I also ratchet up the cooking.How did you first get into foraging?

I landed in Seattle in 1991. I moved from the Bay Area, where I’d lived for a couple of years and that’s where I cut my teeth as a reporter and writer at the Bay Guardian and then at the Berkeley Voice., my first two newspaper jobs out of college. I moved up to Seattle for grad school and  got my MFA in writing at the University of Washington. Seattle happens to have a very outdoorsy population and I was immediately doing a lot of hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and back country skiing. We would find these wild foods during our outdoor excursions, and it would be great. Find some chantrelles or fiddleheads, and it’s a great way to eat fresh foods when you in the outback. But over time, foraging, instead of a side trip, became a focus of the outdoor pursuits. The next thing I knew I was planning to go morel hunting, or free diving for crabs, and spear fishing Lingcod and things like that.Can you talk about the morel-hunting chapter? Specifically the outlaw commercial mushroom hunters featured in one of the chapters in Fat of the Land.

I’m fascinated by the mushroom people. Santa Rosa is at the southern terminus of the commercial mushroom trade. Goes  all the way up to the Yukon and Alaska. They  call it the mushroom trail and these folks can be on it for years. You can harvest wild mushrooms in that area essential year-round on that circuit. They’re also known as circuit pickers. They’ll work there way up the Cascades in the spring for morel picking.

These people drive their mushroom mobiles up and down, mostly on back roads and forest service roads, camping out in little guerilla camps in the woods along the way. And they’re making a living in this underground economy, which in many ways is the last gasp of the wild west. It’s like the gold rush.

The thing is that these people have incredible knowledge of the woods. I’ve spent some time with commercial pickers and I’m just amazed by their wood savvy. Most of them don’t even bother with a map and compass. They know about patches up and down the West Coast, that they just sort of know.

It seems to me that some of these people are coming from places where there is a lot of traditional foraging. Cambodia. Laos. So when they get here, foraging in the woods just comes naturally. They’re comfortable out there. A lot of people frankly would be nervous, to be off trail, bushwhacking, deep into the wilderness, picking mushrooms, and then trying to find their way out at the end of the day as it’s getting dark. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, being on some lonely logging road way out in the middle of nowhere. But they have these skills.

Maybe you don’t speak the language but it’s not important in this case. You’re working for yourself, you don’t have a boss. There’s a certain pride in figuring it out. It’s like a puzzle. There are so many factors that go into mushroom-hunting. You have to be aware of tree composition, and slope aspect, humidity, moisture, ground temperature, tree types., All different factors combined make it a puzzle that needs to be solved.Do you still live off-the-grid? How did that experience influence your foraging?

My family and I live in Seattle. We spent a year living of the grid in a canyon, in the Rogue River area of Oregon. And that was really the germ of the book. When we were down there, we were two hours from the nearest town of Grants Pass. We would go to Grants Pass to get food staples every couple of weeks, but otherwise it made sense to have a huge vegetable garden, to make best use of the orchard as we could. Cherries, apples, pears. All this incredible food. We canned and had a garden going gangbusters. We foraged in the spring for wild greens. During the summer we caught salmon and steelhead in the Rogue River and smoked them. In the fall, it was incredible mushroom hunting. We would walk right out the back door and forage. So it really focused my attention on the whole idea of foraging. It was something I took for granted.

I started writing these essays while we were living off the grid. In part to hold onto that experience bec ause it was so transformative. I also had a lot of content from the personal blog (kept while living off the grid) by the time we got back to Seattle. I started taking that raw content and putting it through the mixer, just trying to shape it.  The  reentry to civilization was difficult. I really loved our time off the grid. Writing about it was a way to hold onto it.

I started realizing that this theme of foraging was running through quite a few of the essay. I’ve got all these foraging stories from our year off the grid, but  also stories that stretched back ten or  fifteen years.

Can you talk about the connection between wild foods and conscious eating?

My wife is much bette r about this than I am. She was doing all this years ago. The more I got into foraging, the more I started thinking in terms of local food and sustainability. My wife was teaching  an essay class on “Food Issues” We got a crash course on the literature. Books like Fast Food Nation. Some of Michael Pollan’s early stuff.

People are waking up to the fact that the food system is broken. You can see the trajectory of it. The technological advances. The advent of refrigeration and the post-war generation that suddenly have access to convenience food and processed foods. But at a certain point, it just went off the rails. Finally, we are coming back full-circle and people are getting back into what I like to refer to as the “home arts.” You hear about people who are sewing, knitting, tanning, making backyard gardens,  victory gardens. You could say it’s the economy, but I think there are larger factors at hand

What advice do you have for people that are interested in getting into foraging?

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Step outside your backdoor and eat weeds. Look at your own backyard garden as a potential source of food. If you are going to start eating food, particularly weeds out of your yard, you might want to think about what you are putting down in that yard. Are you using pesticides or herbicides? You probably shouldn’t be because all of that stuff ends up in our water supply. Think about what you’re putting down on your lawn in terms of chemicals. From there, consider eating the weeds. They’re more nutritious than virtually anything we can grow ourselves.. Like a dandelion, for instance.. Adandelion is such a great source of food. In fact, it’s been known for centuries, if not millennia. You’ll see them all over the markets in Europe. Even as recently as the 19th century, New Jersey was known for its commercial dandelion crops.

We basically crave sweet food, so dandelion greens are a little more adventuresome. They’re at the bitter end of the spectrum. If you like kale or swiss chard, you’ll love dandelion greens sautéed.

Start with the weeds in your own backyard and then you can get more adventurous as your go. The golden rule is that you never eat anything that you can’t identify with  100% certitude. Take a class, or a botany workshop. Or maybe just find a mentor. Field guides, although useful, are not the end all. I wouldn’t just start trying to identify plants through pictures in a field guide and start grazing, because you can get yourself into trouble. It really helps to go out with someone and see these plants and fungi in the wild, what they look like, get a sense of them, hold them in their hand. With mushrooms, for instance. There are several varieties of choice mushrooms that are easy to identify. Most people, once they’ve looked at and held a chanterelle  will be able to identify it again in the wild. With the plants, some of them we are already familiar with like dandelions and stinging nettles. And then, it doesn’t take much to learn how to identify say Chickweed, or Lamb’s Quarters, or Fiddleheads, or Miner’s Lettuce. Miner’s Lettuce is  the food that the gold miner’s were eating so they wouldn’t get scurvy. It’s loaded with Vitamin C.

Mycological societies are really great learning environments. Most of them have people like me that come and lecture, and so they are great places to learn. And they’ll share their secrets with you. They’ll take you out on forays and there’s usually good seminars and identification classes.

With social networking, people are in touch. There’s just kind of an excitement in the air as people get to know each other in this emerging food culture. I’ve been meeting chefs and people that can cook up incredible meals, but know nothing about foraging, and so they want me to take them out and show them, and then I learn how to make some incredible sauce from them. It’s a give and take. It’s just been really fun.

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