Go Wild!
Author : By Eugenia Bone    -   Subject : Health

    Foraging for your meals does more than connect you with nature. It makes the food taste better.

    "You're going to eat them?"

    It was the third time I'd been asked that question. I was on the beach on eastern Long Island in the early fall, an hour after a storm had passed. The wind and water had upturned thousands of live steamer clams—2 to 3 inches long, dull white, their necks pawing around in search of still sand—and tossed them into the shallows. It was cold and wet and the smell of the air was violently oceanic, with a hint of winter.

    I was chucking the clams furiously into my basket, competing with a flock of savage gulls, when a very beautiful middle-aged woman in expensive clothes and her very beautiful, expensive-looking male companion approached me to ask what in the world I was doing. When I told her I was collecting soft-shells—the same kind you buy in the market—and was going to eat them, she looked as if she were going to throw up.

    But I took my bushel of clams home and let them sit in a bucket of water with a handful of cornmeal until they had purged their sand; then I steamed them and ate them with melted butter and salt. It was one of the best meals I've ever had.

    Most of the best meals I've eaten have come straight from the wild. Fresh food is the most basic element of fine cuisine, and the fresher the ingredient, the less artifice needs to go into its cooking. There is an even more intense experience to be found in what the great mushroomer Jack Czarnecki describes as the unbroken chain of sensual pleasures: from the hunting, fishing or gathering to the preparation to the dining. I've gathered all kinds of delightful foods outdoors, and it's always the dual pleasures of foraging and eating that make wild edibles so engaging. I'm not talking about the wild foods that the desperate folks on Survivor eat. I'm talking gourmet stuff, acquired with joy.

    I slosh through low tide in search of an oyster bed and, afterward, prepare the sweet bivalves on the half shell with sauce mignonette or throw them into a bowl of hot linguini fini, flavored with garlic, salt and their own liquor. I lie on my side in a sunny bog picking nodding red cranberries until I'm stiff, then make compotes and ketchups to eat with roast fowl and pork. I seine for whitebait—tiny shiners—with a 12-foot-long net, fry the haul until golden brown and eat them like potato chips, washing them down with big goblets of cold white wine. I pick dark, peppery watercress from icy springs and toss it with pumpkin-seed oil and lemon juice. I make a small prayer to Fortuna and hike through April's budding wet woods in search of morels. If I am lucky, I bring home a basketful to cook with butter and dump on top of soft scrambled eggs.

    I also hunt ducks: tender little teal to stew in sauerkraut, livery mallards that we breast and grill with bacon or cook in a savory muck of turnips. Some people object to duck hunting (or any kind of hunting), but from my perspective it's not controversial at all. I grew up on a small farm where my father, a second-generation Italian-American artist and cookbook author, raised rabbits, chickens and pigeons, all for the table. I was used to seeing these animals killed quickly and mercifully, and cleaned efficiently. Our family was European in its sensibilities—connected to, not dissociated from, the origins of the food. I hunt to eat, not for trophies, and hunting for ducks (in accordance with state and federal regulations) is simply an extension of how I was raised. Every chef I have encountered agrees that hunting what you eat is a natural act.

    "Killing animals for food is part of the cycle of life," the eminent chef Jacques P?pin told me. "A leek is living, too. The animal feeds on the leek, and we feed on the animal. That's the way God made the world." Despite these arguments, hunting still bothers a lot of people. That's a shame, because duck hunting is the most Zen of all the wild foraging I do.

    It is always exciting to bag a duck (especially for a lousy shot like me), but something else happens while we wait in the blinds, in the damp closeness of the pin oaks. We hunker down in a cathedral of tree trunks, slick and inky against the predawn sky. Ducks and geese soar overhead, their quacks lonely in the thick, cold air. One has to be very silent, so silent that every drip of moisture in the forest becomes perceptible—every snapping twig, every soft rustle in the canopy. It is a state of intense stillness, agitation without stir, sublime intuition. I can almost feel a duck entering my sphere of awareness before I hear the flapping of her wings. Only in the waiting do I perceive these invisible connections among living things, and it is thrilling.

    With culinary hunting and gathering comes a responsibility toward the natural world; I never gather an undersized oyster. Why would I deplete the very beds I count on? "Any serious delving into wild foods demands adherence to the concepts of sustainability and aesthetics," writes wild-food advocate John Kallas. He's right.

    Still, there are people who see it as a sort of plundering of nature. But real plundering is keeping animals in such close quarters they must be pumped with antibiotics to stave off rampant disease. Or feeding herbivores a mash made from animal parts, which can open the door to ghastly diseases such as mad cow. Or selling vegetables grown in another country, picked unripe and transported in vehicles spewing fossil fuels. Do animals raised in cages have less right to live than animals in the wild? And if someone else does the butchering, is it any less of a killing?

    We are used to seeing our food in packages: store-bought is synonymous with safe. Although health concerns probably were the main reason Americans lost touch with the origins of their food, health is one of the reasons we should get back to homegrown and wild foods. But there's another incentive: The effort it takes to gather feathery fiddlehead ferns for pickling, or to collect plump mussels to throw into a stew with chicken and tomatoes, leads to a greater appreciation and respect for the earth's bounty. Likewise, having killed an animal for food, I am confronted by the enormity of that creature's sacrifice. As a result, the idea of waste is unforgivable, and my sense of gratitude, profound. This is the true gift of eating from the wild.

    Some of my foraging trips have been exotic: I've hunted wild boar in Hungary and eaten the meat cooked in a magnificent mixed-game soup garnished with herby dumplings. Other trips are humble, requiring nothing more complicated than kicking open the back door. And there they are, all over the yard: handsome young Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion.

    I choose the ones growing in looser earth away from direct sunlight, which toughens the leaves. The best time to collect them is in spring, before the dandelions flower. I cut the plant below the point where the leaves grow out; they're hard to wash if picked individually. Once I've cleaned them, I select and parboil the baby leaves, then saut? them in a skillet with olive oil, garlic and hot pepper. I mash in a boiled potato or two and add a little green water from the boiling pot. The vitamin-rich greens, when cooked for about 30 minutes, are sassy and nutty and surprisingly elegant.

    For me, the act of hunting, gathering and preparing wild foods is a conduit to the good life. As the summer wears on, we fry the dandelion flowers in tempura batter. They taste the way they look: simple and sunny. We crunch away, standing outdoors, watching fireflies float by and the children tumble after them, gladdened when a breeze laced with wild mint passes our way.

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