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Nothing Escapes Jeffrey Greene
Jeffrey Greene’s latest book, In Search of Wild Edibles: A Forager’s Tour, has been in the works for awhile. As he was writing this account of a life spent locating food in the unlikeliest spots, Greene sent us vignettes that we posted online—including the story of the elusive, and delicious, pied de cheval oyster as well as some helpful advice on how to introduce more seaweed into your Thanksgiving meal—and these were met with delight by readers who appreciated not only Greene’s recipes and stories but the fact that he had begun foraging long before foodie culture had popularized it.
Greene has prepared a video trailer for the book and was kind enough to answer some questions about his experience combing the land for wild edibles.
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Q: As someone who learned the ropes of foraging as a kid, it must be gratifying to see the foodies of today discovering this literally ancient practice in a big way.
Greene: As a kid, I could hardly sit still, and since I grew up in the woods and spent summers by the sea, foraging not only kept me busy but it also fed my wild childhood fantasies. I imagined being self-reliant in nature or heroically provisioning my imaginary tribe. Now after decades of living and working in cities, I’ve had the great privilege of enjoying a family place in Burgundy and again spending days outdoors followed by sharing the freshest meals from invented recipes.
What fascinates me the most in writing In Pursuit of Wild Edibles is exploring this original passion shared by so many, from extreme survivalists to old people in deserted mountain villages. They practice and pass on traditional knowledge for collecting and cooking with wild foods. But keep in mind, foragers are not necessarily a generous bunch, and there is even an outlaw aspect to this activity.
What is very gratifying to me is not so much that people are taking up field-to-plate cuisine or exploring Paleolithic diets, but that their interest in wild edibles coincides with a deep concern about farming practices, knowing where food comes from, and preserving local environment. This is not taking lightly the epicurean gratification of working with the most flavorful and freshest ingredients when cooking. After all, these flavors originate in the wild.
Q: Do you see the movement toward local foods encompassing foraging, or do you think they’re best understood as separate practices/mindsets?
Greene: Foraging is not a movement but a practice shared with almost every other animal. The instinct persists to search for edibles in nature even when we are over provisioned with fast or processed foods. The activity provides pure pleasure as an outdoor leisure activity, and families enjoy it.
“Foraging” has also become a hot word. We have homeless people in Paris who forage after markets, and we have foragers who make videos on how to survive under extreme conditions in the wilderness by eating pine bark as the Adirondacks did. We have urban foraging, which is beautiful because plants, some edible ones, insist on living in the cracks in the pavement, vacant lots, or backyards in cities. Slow-food and local-food advocates would ask us to salvage our broccoli stems and cabbage leaves to make soup or lovely dishes. These new food movements are not only devoted to wresting farming away from industrial agriculture but also wresting us away from our own worst eating habits.
Q: You are an American living in France. What are the differences in Americans’ and Europeans’ attitudes to foraged foods?
Greene: The one striking difference is that every pharmacist in France is trained in identifying mushrooms and other wild edibles. Whenever I’m in any doubt about a wild edible, I go to a pharmacy. A special mystique surrounding wild edibles persists in France and other European countries because of a long tradition of haute cuisine based on truffles, snails, mollusks, crustaceans, and wild greens and fruits. The French are very proud of this tradition of using foods from nature as symbols of regions. They depend on the mystique for touristic reasons as well.
A lot of foraging goes on in America, probably just as much as in France. First of all, there is wilderness that doesn’t exist in Europe. People come to America with traditional knowledge or forage out of instinct. When I lived in San Francisco, the Vietnamese would forage Golden Gate Park. Now abalone diving along the California coast is an extreme sport because of legal limitations on underwater equipment. Its value as a wild edible, particularly in Asian, invites illegal poaching. Europeans who come to the U.S. recognize the same edible species from their landscape. When I was growing up, they knew to eat mussels when few bothered with them. The rural South, Northwest, and Alaska are full of wild food gatherers. If there is a mystique, it comes strongly from Native American and rural traditional knowledge and from living in rhythm with nature.
Q: A big part of your job in this book is to get people over their fears of eating plants and animals that they have not thought of as “food.” What for you was the most difficult wild edible to eat? What was the biggest (pleasant) surprise?
Greene: Eating insects was the most difficult experience. Just for initiation, I tried to coerce all my friends, colleagues, and family to go to restaurants and tapas bars that serve insects. No one would go with me. Even my taste-of-place anthropologist friend called it “dare food” in Paris, but if we went together to China, Africa, or Mexico, she would eat insects with deep interest. My eating insects—a sustainable protein source advocated by the UN—led to one of my very favorite taco recipes that involves three Mexican peppers. Substitutes can be made for maguey or other kinds of worms.
I’m going to have to say that there were two surprises: goose-necked barnacles and sea figs. They both make insects look beautiful, the first like alien claws and the other like waste, but the barnacles taste like lobster and the sea fig is like an intense iodine kiss.
Q: What are your favorite two or three recipes in the book and why?
“Escargot with Nettles” is a rustic Burgundy recipe that three-star chef Bernard Loiseau re-imagined for his restaurant. My recipe is an improvised tribute to this dish steeped in the earthy flavors of the terroir. “Smoked Trout and Wild Berries on Cress, Dandelion, and Peppergrass Salad” provides a synergy of spicy plants, sweet berries, and delicate smoked fish. The raspberry and hazelnut oil dressing pulls the diverse flavors together. I made wonderful discoveries cooking with seaweed from Brittany or greens in Liguria. But I like a Mesoamerican-Spanish inspired dish “Navajas (Razor Clams) with Green Salsa.” It mixes delicious razor clams with two-types of peppers and herbs.
In Search of Wild Edibles: A Forager’s Tour is available now.