By Samara Ferris
Amid the forest, beginning to fill with the mirthful chirps of birds and the hum of hurrying squirrels, I think of the curried acorns I had made in Missouri. This strange yet delicious dish was created from acorns leached until they were sweet and nutty, the bitter tannins washed away by pots and pots of clean water. I had then dried the soggy acorns in the sun on trays and had cooked them, their soft halves popping in a cast iron skillet with hot oil and curry, feasting on them like popcorn while a hitch-hiker and I played spades in the middle of the woods in the Ozarks. Those, I think, those were good.
And luckily, the acorns are good here too. Jars and jars of oozing black elderberry jelly fill my old neighbor’s pantry, a rough-hewn wooden cupboard, stockpiled from last year’s heavy forage. He lives near the reservoir, quite the character, somewhere around his early 80’s, a freshly-caught brook trout in the pocket of his fishing vest, wrapped in newspaper, and his beard as white as locust blossoms and trailing down his person like the last snow resting upon a ski slope. We walk into the cool, limestone mountainside, peering at the one of the best-known wild crops around, brought into the mainstream by many sources, including the well-known wild foods author, Euell Gibbons, who wrote the beloved and enchanting Stalking the Wild Asparagus, written anticipatorily in 1962, when the resurgence of foraging had yet begun to expand. We stare at the gentle green curls of ferns-fiddleheads as they’re known and begin to pluck off the beautifully wound heads in excitement of spring’s arrival and with it, one of the first crops of wild edibles. That night, he pickles his and I blanch mine to ready them to be cooked in a frittata. And as the pot of water boils on the stove, I realize how strange it is that this wild food, once assigned only to the peasant class, has become the zenith of wealth, health, and indulgence. What about it has changed that could inspire such a transition in thought?
Like most things, I discover, it all comes down to availability and difficulty of access. As the famed journalist Margaret Visser wrote in her book, Much Depends on Dinner, in a chapter on the passage of lettuce from lowly vegetable to revered food: “As being lean becomes more difficult and more desirable, salads (and by ‘salads’ we mean chiefly lettuce) become increasingly prestigious. [...] In other words, lettuce, once the standby of the rustic poor, has become an emblem of urban middle-class prestige and affluence. “Wild foods have followed suit. As cultural knowledge of the wild has dwindled, and people have begun spending unprecedented amounts of time indoors, the information surrounding the identification and gathering of wild foods has become practically obsolete, thus narrowing access. Like diamonds, rare breeds of dog, and the transition of lobster from peasant food into one of the rich, wild foods have gained prestige because, as Margaret Visser sharply notes, “...the difficulty of access is one of the hallmarks of status.”
Now, with the visage of foraging and wild woods upon us, transformed from sole necessity or esoteric knowledge into an elevated ideal, it has also fought to become a rebelliously pure and simple ethos against the backdrop of ubiquitous produce grown with factory-like precision. The New York Times has even published recipes with wild foods, including several fiddlehead ferns recipes garnered from famous chefs.
Chef Dan Barber, of the esteemed farm & restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill, in Manhattan, recipient of the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef in America, also-not surprisingly-has a predilection for wild foods. Curled tips of fiddlehead ferns, pungent wild garlic, yellow-petalled wild mustard, and foraged mush-rooms often grace the multi-course sus-tainably-sourced menus at his restaurants. The farm, located in Pocantico Hills, NY, also raises many of its ingredients from strawberries and purple carrots to goats and even gaggles of geese. In his book, The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future on Food, Barber writes: “In the rush to industrialize farming, we’ve lost the under-standing, implicit since the beginning of agriculture, that food is a process, a web of relationships, not an individual ingredient or commodity.”
And a web it is: complex, vast, and always variable, steeped in history and borne from necessity that has transmuted into cultural knowledge and a sort of chef-and-food-aficionado’s right-of-passage. As the locavore movement gains momentum with its craft brew-pubs and regional distilleries, so do the menus of humble eateries reflect the desire to experience the specificity of one’s own locale. Perhaps the market, transformed from a limited presentation of products from the area into a global arena of everything, all the time, has made us crave being able to identify and interact with the food and seasonality around us that can provide at least one sense of steady ground within this globalized network.
This wild foods movement-from wild chanterelle mushrooms being sold at Whole Foods for $18.99/lb to famous chefs traipsing through the wilderness in search of wild onions or acorns, wild foods have begun to command an audience for ethical reasons as a con-sequence of the natural laws of supply, demand, and access. Whatever the case may be, it does not affect my ability to enjoy the simple perfection of a fiddle-head frittata or a Panzanella salad with dandelion leaves and wild watercress, picked by my own hands in my own back yard, after a long day of sloshing through mud with my neighbor, brook trout in town, a smile upon both our faces.