I originally wrote this and submitted it to McSweeneys Internet Tendency's column contest. I didn't win, but I still thought it was worth sharing...
Foraging is in. Actually, as long as we have been eating, it’s always been in. We just never really called it that. Anytime we go to the store for a quart of soy milk or dial up for a pizza to go, we are foraging. Only now, in this world of the culinary hyper-aware, the word and all it implies has taken on a whole new meaning. Restaurants don’t just have procurement managers, they have FORAGERS. Some, like Noma in Denmark or Faviken in Sweden take it to the extreme by actually foraging in the wild for what goes on the plates in their restaurants. There is no olive oil in their kitchens. The subject takes on a whole new tone with the heightened interest people have in the food they eat. The other a day at work I had my head deep into a sink full of dishes when I overheard a customer ask if the figs in the tarts were local. I unleashed my best sarcastic comment about the fact that if figs could grow here in southcentral Alaska, this area would have a lot more people in it. I then I realized she was asking if they had been purchased locally, if so, she was going to go get some. She was, in a word, foraging. I sheepishly turned back to my dirty sheet pans, snarking to myself over how people have trained me to be defensive about the provenance of the food I serve. In a busy professional kitchen, foraging is an almost constant concern. What, where, when, how much...the decisions are never ending. In civilian life we make the same choices on a small scale every day without even really being conscious of it. Scientists say that the foraging behavior of animals changes according to the environment in which the animal lives. The more food available, the pickier they become. People around here tell stories of fishing on the rivers and seeing the bears pull a fish from the water and just bite out the belly, throw it aside and go catch another. Strewn all around them are fish with just the middles gone. Of course, that is when the fish are plentiful. If they were scarce, that bear would be dissecting the fish, leaving very little behind. So it goes with our current state of food affairs. Never before has food been so plentiful and so cheap, we can afford to buy the best and let the rest go to waste while the poor inner city communities struggle to provide the raw materials for nutritious food that is cheaper to buy than a bucket of commercially fried chicken.
I thought about all this as I struck out on my first foraging adventure of the season which found me in my yard harvesting the pesky and very hardy Stinging Nettle. My boots, moist with early summer rain, sink into the soggy, spongy ground. The smell of wet earth and ocean breathe hope in the air that winter is indeed over. Unlike the rest of the US, winter in Alaska did not want to let up its icy grip. The spring here was chilly and because of that, things are just starting to green up. My husband says that he always comes home from that first halibut fishing trip of the spring to find a whole new landscape in bloom. This year that did not happen until the second or third trip. Finally, though, the nettles came in and I headed down to the bottom of the yard where the patch grows best and I cut away, harvesting the top few sets of leaves. Every once in a while the stingers find a chink in my armor, leaving me with little itchy welts on the part of my wrist where my gloves and jacket fail to overlap. I persevere and pretty soon the laundry basket is full.Inside to the waiting pot of boiling water to blanch the sting out them so they can be ground into pesto and put into jars for the winter pantry. When I wrote a short piece to share about the pesto making process, my friend and editor Jenny suggested I leave out the part about foraging, her assumption being most people would just buy them at the farmers market. Oh, you are mistaken I told her...people want to know everything these days. Especially if it involves food and where it come from. Now, my nettle pesto has a noble intent, but it is in no way completely local. The parmesan comes from italy and the nuts are from california (seriously). The olive oil I used to think comes from italy could, in fact be from anywhere and probably isn’t even olive oil, according to an article I just read. Local foraging has its limitations in the land of the midnight sun. Which reminds me of a story that the native elders tell about a couple of warring eskimo tribes living long ago in our area. There is a small island off the coast called Grass Island. It is just what its name implies, an island of grass and rock. When one tribe was under siege from a neighboring power they set their women and children on the island to protect them. They had to survive by lowering themselves down to pick the mussels off the rocks at low tide and eating the wild plants that grew there. These days foraging here is a little less difficult, but with the pressures of locally driven dining we have had to dig deep to find those precious mussels on the rocks of the current supply chain in the form of locally grown tomatoes. This is not a problem unique to the wilds of Alaska. The wilds of NYC serve up just as much of a challenge to find a ripe tomato with pedigree, or a tomato at all that hasn’t been turned into ketchup for all those french fries. Like the eskimo women on the island, the people who live there are forced to eat what is available, their ‘rocks’ a rickety fire escape with a few vegetables in pots, their grass a meager rooftop garden. If only we thought as much about what they are eating as we do about what we are. Then the tides truly would turn.