Last Sunday BBC Radio 4 aired an edition of the Food Program entitled ‘Into the Wild.’ As its name implies this episode explored the rising popularity of foraged foods. The guiding question was this: Are foraged foods a passing fad, the fashion of the moment for high chefs and the culinary elite? Or does the revival of interest in dandelions and damsons indicate a societal shift in our approach to food? Naturally the BBC focussed on Britain, but the same phenomenon is occurring this side of the Atlantic and the same questions could fruitfully be asked (so sorry, I couldn’t resist) of American food and culture.
Over the past half century, the status of the literal free lunch has undergone a profound transformation. For most of history, in most cultures, foraging for food has been a last resort, the absolute base of the gastronomic hierarchy. After all, the rich commanded the best farmland and the fattest crops. Only the most impoverished peasants could not survive on their cultivated harvest and were compelled to scour the countryside for edible shoots and leaves. Scholars studying famine have noted that in certain societies foraged foods occupy such a low social position that people will undergo significant physical hardship before resorting to gathering these wild and freely available calories. In rural WWII Britain, foraged foods brightened a mundane and highly rationed diet. Yet still they were associated with the extreme requirements of hard times.
The initial transformation of foraging, at least in the context of the modern, industrialized west, occurred in the 1970’s as part of the wider movement to embrace natural food and reject homogenized, preservative laden, denatured food. I remember this, because even in the late-eighties when I was young, my mother remained highly enthusiastic about nut cutlet, wholewheat pasta, sucanat, and other determinedly wholesome fare. At this point, foraging was a preoccupation at the fringe of the whole food movement. Die-hard tree-hugging wheatgrass lovers, intent on revitalizing their connection to the natural world and eschewing industrial homogeneity, took to the forests and fields, picking mushrooms (of various types . . . huh, there’s another hypothesis on why foraging took off with the hippies . . .) and plucking leaves, and immersing themselves in the bosom of nature.
For several decades, foraging remained primarily a fringe activity. It is true that a broader portion of the population have long enjoyed collecting more easily identifiable and accessible foods such as nuts and berries, but for the most part wild foods remained a cranky curiosity.
Until today. The current food revolution we are undergoing differs from it’s older sibling. Like the 1970’s movement, fair trade, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet, today’s revolution is concerned with environmental and social justice. Yet it has a more ambitious goal. Today the issue is not only politics but pleasure, and foraging for foods is not only a political and social statement but a gustatory one as well.
It is virtually impossible to sit down in a smart restaurant today (and it doesn’t even have to be that posh or pricy) without confronting a smattering of wild items on the menu. Pork belly drizzled with wild huckleberry jus, lamb loin topped with sea asparagus, foraged mushroom risotto. These plates are not limited to the El Bullis and French Laundrys of this world; chances are you can find something similar down the street. Of course A-list restaurants have embraced wild food with equally wild abandon. The chef at world-famous NOMA, Rene Redzepi, is perhaps the culinary king of this approach. His menu includes such enigmatic items as ‘stone crab and beach mustard‘ as well as ‘gammel dansk and wood sorrel.’ Personally I wouldn’t know beach mustard if it poked me in the eye, but I have no doubt that, paired with that old favorite stone crab, it is nothing short of knee-wobblingly divine.
The recent rise in popularity of foraged food has taken place in tandem with the Slow Food movement, and the latter’s guiding philosophy neatly explains why untamed greens and far flung roots are proliferating in restaurant kitchens, farmers markets, and cook books alike. In the original Slow Food Manifesto, founder Carlo Petrini challenges readers to ‘rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of fast food.’ The organization aims to catalog and promote unusual foods cultivated in specific regions but the sentiment extends to the promotion of wild foods as well. It is part of a wider cultural rebellion against a food system that provides false diversity—a myriad processed products based on the cultivation fewer and fewer, increasingly industrialized species.
Personally, I hope that wild food is here to stay. Good chefs will always search for exciting ingredients and may perhaps be accused of fetishizing foraged foods, but they are also doing us a favor. By sparking curiosity in a greater breadth of ingredients they encourage us out into the woods for a reviving tussle with nettles and some much needed fresh air. And surely diversity in all forms is a good thing. The proof of the pudding, however, is in the eating. In my experience dandelion soup has an alarming, explosive effect on the digestive system while huckleberries are like a tiny, condensed and heavenly blueberry.