Saturday, November 26, 2011

Browsing and foraging

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I read Jane Kramer’s New Yorker piece on foraging. It’s much in vogue at present; she quotes a blogger as naming this the era of the “I foraged with RenĂ© Redzepi” piece.  Free, wild foods, the kind of eating that could keep you alive through a starvation winter, are used these days to create some of the trendiest, priciest meals going. People wait months for a reservation at Redzepi’s restaurant Noma to sample dishes made from ingredients their grandparents might have felt shamed to bring to the table. 

Just compare the photos and recipes in my friend Jenny Hahn’s recent Pacific Feast, a beautiful paean to the wild tastes of our coastal woods, beaches and waters with the looks and style of the Stalking the Wild Asparagus and other Euell Gibbons titles from the 1970s to see how foraging has moved from quirky and funky to quirky and chic. It’s an interesting evolution, and I’m curious what will happen next. 

Now, at least in the developed world, it’s the poor who eat the purchased, processed foods that used to be a sign of wealth, while the affluent head out in search of seaweed, barnacles, and tubers, and treasure each laborious step of their cleaning and cooking. 

In poorer societies, as traditional foods expert Elizabeth Luard points out to Kramer, adults may be reluctant to talk to visitors about the shoots and roots they use to vary a diet of limited staples. It’s a sign they can’t afford to eat whatever they might want. Children often make better information sources; they have the time to range through the countryside in search of edibles, and they do it for fun as well as from hunger. 

As a country kid, and also a bookish one, I roamed the woods behind our house with a copy of Erna Gunther’s Ethnobotany of Western Washington, where I learned that Makah women drank nettle tea during labor “to scare the baby out.” That didn’t seem applicable to a nine-year-old, but I tried the salmonberry shoots and fern fronds she listed before going back to the berries and mushrooms that provided the most taste and the most colorful adventures. 

In college, I hoped to impress a guy I liked by serving up a plate of wild berries—salmonberries, thimbleberries, salal, red huckleberries—with some woodruff-flavored wine. I think I was trying to recreate a scene from “Elvira Madison” (the romantic picnic part, not the murder/suicide that followed). It didn’t work, but since I later learned he was gay, I can’t really blame the meal. 

Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa
My next reading after the New Yorker was a folder of manuscript fragments from a novel my parents started in 1958 and never completed. It was based on the life of Dave Beck, the Teamster Union leader who came to grief and a term at the McNeil Island Penitentiary after famously pleading the Fifth Amendment 117 times in front of a Senate committee. Beck had moved to Seattle at the turn of the last century as a young boy and grew up poor. In the novel, he and the narrator spend the kind of childhood morning that Luard was talking about.

One morning in the late summer we got up early and went over the hill to Shilshole Bay, where thickets of evergreen blackberries grew near the shore. It was a bright, dewy morning. The scent of cedar was sharp and bitter in the morning air.  The distant splat of jumping fish came like music across the water. 

There was an Indian campground not far down the beach and the bushes and been well picked over down low. By leaning driftwood against the tangle of vines, however, we could walk up high enough to reach the dusty, popping ripe berries on the uppermost shoots, big as walnuts, sweet as honey. 

I was looking for more planks to pile against a promising climb in the eel grass of a low draw leading back from the bay I found the canoe. It was a dugout, the kind the river Indians used, seldom seen on salt water. It was short and flat-bottomed, with a narrow shovel nose and a wide, flat stern. There was a crack a third of the way down the right side but cedarbark fibers had been pounded into the breach. It had been lying in the draw a long time. Ferns grew from the dirt accumulated in the bottom. 

Drawn by my posture or my expression, Marc appeared at my side before I could call him. I looked from the boat to him and he nodded.

We fell on our knees and clawed out the accumulated dirt with our bare hands. We dragged her down to the beach and turned her over the scraped the soft wood of the bottom with a sharp rock to get rid of the muck that clung to her. We rubbed her down inside and out with fern and horsetails. Then we respectfully lifted her and carried her over the round, barnacled rocks and set her on the flat, cold water. 

She floated high. The water was flat calm and so clear we could see the barnacles waving their pale feelers in search of food.

Marc, deferring either to my local knowledge or foolhardiness, held her while I gingerly mounted her. She was unstable, rocking, it seemed, with my very breath, but she did not go over. 

I climbed out and ran along the beach looking for a paddle. I found a length of one-by-four worn smooth by the water and brought it back. She was steadier when in motion. I brought her back to the beach and somehow Marc got in without spilling us. 

I paddled north, staying close to the shore. Flotillas of jellyfish drifted past, their delicate edges pulsating languidly. Across the rock floor of the bay an occasional small sole darted and disappeared, or a crab race murderously on tiptoe after some unseen victim.  Enormous purple starfish hugged the rocks. Once a hair seal thrust his head from the water and studied us with quizzical spaniel eyes, then leaned back and slid backwards out of sight, like an old colonel slipping out of a rocking chair. 

We passed the spot where the Mukilteos camped on the beach, and farther on a run-down shack where somebody yelled at us that the dugout wasn’t safe. We kept yelling “What?” until we were safely out of earshot. Nobody came out after us. 

All through the long, gentle morning we worked north along the shore. Marc tried paddling but almost tipped us and gave me back the board. “I don’t swim so good,” he said, sitting very straight and tense. We ate the berries from the pail and when it was empty landed and filled it with water that dripped from a clay cliff, in which we carved our initials.

Shortly before noon we landed again to look for more berries. The tide was well out and as we dragged the dugout up the mud beach clams sent up little geysers about our feet. We found broken branches in the tide wrack and came back to dig. It was a good bed. Within an hour we had a big pile of clams, maybe two dozen. I went down the beach to some rocks to look for mussels; there weren’t any but I did find a couple of rocks covered with tiny limpets, the kind called Chinese Hats or Chinese Slippers. I brought them back, rocks and all. 

Marc had matches, kitchen matches, which he carried in a small bottle and sold for a penny apiece to men along his paper route who needed a light for their cigars or pipes. We found a cedar board and broke it by leaning it against a boulder and dropping big rocks on it. We scraped a hole with our fingers in a stretch of clay beach and filled the bottom with round, flat rocks and built a fire in the hole. When the cedar had burned out, we put the clams on top of the rocks, and set the rocks with the limpets in the middle, and piled kelp streamers on top, the way the Indians did. Then while the clams steamed we went berrying again.

There weren’t any blackberries but we found a bank covered with huckleberries. The berries are small and hard and they grow close to the branches between brittle green leaves. I showed Marc another trick my brothers had learned from the Indians around the lumber camps. We stripped the branches, leaves and all, into the berry pail until it was almost full, then we went back to the beach and found another cedar plank in the driftwood. We wet down the plank in the Sound, leaned it against a log, and rolled the berries down the board. The leaves struck on the hairy surface of the wood but the berries rolled on down. 

By the time we had finished culling the berries, the clams had steamed open and the limpets loosened their grip on the rocks. We mashed some of the berries between rocks and spread the tart mush on the shellfish, and found a level spot in the shade of a madrona. As we ate we looked out across the water, past the islands, to the purple barricade of the Olympics, sudden against a cloudless sky. The snow was almost gone from the mountains and they looked very near.    -- Murray and Rosa Morgan

I don't know if Beck actually any mornings as idyllic as that, but as a kid I also cooked clams and limpets in the sand at Harstine Island, and later learned from Jenny Hahn that kelp is a superior thickener for stew as well as a good moisturizer for steamed shellfish.  

 The correct huckleberry picking technique—whether to pick each tiny ripe fruit individually as I do or to strip the branches as the boys did and then clean and cull—is still a debate among my island friends. One of the 11 pies served up at Thanksgiving was huckleberry; I don’t know which method Sonja used, but the result was sensational.