Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. An expert on forging for seafood and plants in the wild, Cook is incredibly passionate about his chosen field. In the following interview, he talks about his great love for the “mushroom people,” the deliciousness of dandelions, and his childhood love for TV dinners and Spaghetti-O’s.
Did you grow up foraging?
Not at all. I come much more from traditional, New England, Anglo-Saxon roots where you would never consider eating anything in the wild. The mushrooms are toadstools and all the greens are potentially poisonous and you do not touch. That’s not to say that my parents didn’t give me room to roam around in the woods, but food was something you bought at the grocery store. I came of age in post-World War II, you know, my parents are boomers. I came-of -age eating TV dinners, and processed food, and things in colorful packaging from the supermarket, which we’ve since learned is a horrible mistake.. I loved TV dinners as a kid. The little compartmentalized deal, and Mom would throw it in the microwave. We ate Spaghetti-O’s out of a can. Now, it’s pretty common to turn your nose up at that sort of food, but when I was a kid that was pretty common. You didn’t think about getting food from the wild, at least where I was at (in Connecticut).
How did foraging influence the way you approach food?
By the time I graduated from college, I really didn’t know how to cook. I’d either been eating the food that my parents prepared, or that I got from the cafeteria. I think there were a lot of people like me who didn’t know how to cook. Here we were, suddenly, y outh in the world, with no idea how to chop an onion, or when to use garlic. But I loved to eat, and I’d always been a big eater. And I think I always enjoyed good food. It was sort of a joke in my family that I always wanted to order the most expensive item on the menu when we went out for dinner.
I always liked good foods, but it wasn’t until I started foraging that I really started trying to transform myself in the kitchen as well. You come home, with a few pounds of morels that might be selling at the Farmer’s Market for 30 bucks a pound, and you suddenly realize that you have this booty-like pirate’s booty-and you want to do something that honors the food and really makes the best meal possible. I’m pretty much self-taught in the kitchen. I’m not a great cook, by any stretch, I’m pretty much a typical home cook who’s learned different techniques along the way.
My wife comes from a Polish-Italian background in which the food ways were really important bec ause they brought them over from the “Old World.” They were handed down. So she had recipes from both sides of her family. I watched her in the kitchen, and then started picking some of it up for myself. I’ve been on this parallel track with the cooking and the foraging. And each step along the way has informed the other. As I ratchet up the foraging, I also ratchet up the cooking.How did you first get into foraging?
I landed in Seattle in 1991. I moved from the Bay Area, where I’d lived for a couple of years and that’s where I cut my teeth as a reporter and writer at the Bay Guardian and then at the Berkeley Voice., my first two newspaper jobs out of college. I moved up to Seattle for grad school and got my MFA in writing at the University of Washington. Seattle happens to have a very outdoorsy population and I was immediately doing a lot of hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and back country skiing. We would find these wild foods during our outdoor excursions, and it would be great. Find some chantrelles or fiddleheads, and it’s a great way to eat fresh foods when you in the outback. But over time, foraging, instead of a side trip, became a focus of the outdoor pursuits. The next thing I knew I was planning to go morel hunting, or free diving for crabs, and spear fishing Lingcod and things like that.Can you talk about the morel-hunting chapter? Specifically the outlaw commercial mushroom hunters featured in one of the chapters in Fat of the Land.
I’m fascinated by the mushroom people. Santa Rosa is at the southern terminus of the commercial mushroom trade. Goes all the way up to the Yukon and Alaska. They call it the mushroom trail and these folks can be on it for years. You can harvest wild mushrooms in that area essential year-round on that circuit. They’re also known as circuit pickers. They’ll work there way up the Cascades in the spring for morel picking.
These people drive their mushroom mobiles up and down, mostly on back roads and forest service roads, camping out in little guerilla camps in the woods along the way. And they’re making a living in this underground economy, which in many ways is the last gasp of the wild west. It’s like the gold rush.
The thing is that these people have incredible knowledge of the woods. I’ve spent some time with commercial pickers and I’m just amazed by their wood savvy. Most of them don’t even bother with a map and compass. They know about patches up and down the West Coast, that they just sort of know.
It seems to me that some of these people are coming from places where there is a lot of traditional foraging. Cambodia. Laos. So when they get here, foraging in the woods just comes naturally. They’re comfortable out there. A lot of people frankly would be nervous, to be off trail, bushwhacking, deep into the wilderness, picking mushrooms, and then trying to find their way out at the end of the day as it’s getting dark. It’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, being on some lonely logging road way out in the middle of nowhere. But they have these skills.
Maybe you don’t speak the language but it’s not important in this case. You’re working for yourself, you don’t have a boss. There’s a certain pride in figuring it out. It’s like a puzzle. There are so many factors that go into mushroom-hunting. You have to be aware of tree composition, and slope aspect, humidity, moisture, ground temperature, tree types., All different factors combined make it a puzzle that needs to be solved.Do you still live off-the-grid? How did that experience influence your foraging?
My family and I live in Seattle. We spent a year living of the grid in a canyon, in the Rogue River area of Oregon. And that was really the germ of the book. When we were down there, we were two hours from the nearest town of Grants Pass. We would go to Grants Pass to get food staples every couple of weeks, but otherwise it made sense to have a huge vegetable garden, to make best use of the orchard as we could. Cherries, apples, pears. All this incredible food. We canned and had a garden going gangbusters. We foraged in the spring for wild greens. During the summer we caught salmon and steelhead in the Rogue River and smoked them. In the fall, it was incredible mushroom hunting. We would walk right out the back door and forage. So it really focused my attention on the whole idea of foraging. It was something I took for granted.
I started writing these essays while we were living off the grid. In part to hold onto that experience bec ause it was so transformative. I also had a lot of content from the personal blog (kept while living off the grid) by the time we got back to Seattle. I started taking that raw content and putting it through the mixer, just trying to shape it. The reentry to civilization was difficult. I really loved our time off the grid. Writing about it was a way to hold onto it.
I started realizing that this theme of foraging was running through quite a few of the essay. I’ve got all these foraging stories from our year off the grid, but also stories that stretched back ten or fifteen years.
Can you talk about the connection between wild foods and conscious eating?
My wife is much bette r about this than I am. She was doing all this years ago. The more I got into foraging, the more I started thinking in terms of local food and sustainability. My wife was teaching an essay class on “Food Issues” We got a crash course on the literature. Books like Fast Food Nation. Some of Michael Pollan’s early stuff.
People are waking up to the fact that the food system is broken. You can see the trajectory of it. The technological advances. The advent of refrigeration and the post-war generation that suddenly have access to convenience food and processed foods. But at a certain point, it just went off the rails. Finally, we are coming back full-circle and people are getting back into what I like to refer to as the “home arts.” You hear about people who are sewing, knitting, tanning, making backyard gardens, victory gardens. You could say it’s the economy, but I think there are larger factors at hand
What advice do you have for people that are interested in getting into foraging? .
Step outside your backdoor and eat weeds. Look at your own backyard garden as a potential source of food. If you are going to start eating food, particularly weeds out of your yard, you might want to think about what you are putting down in that yard. Are you using pesticides or herbicides? You probably shouldn’t be because all of that stuff ends up in our water supply. Think about what you’re putting down on your lawn in terms of chemicals. From there, consider eating the weeds. They’re more nutritious than virtually anything we can grow ourselves.. Like a dandelion, for instance.. Adandelion is such a great source of food. In fact, it’s been known for centuries, if not millennia. You’ll see them all over the markets in Europe. Even as recently as the 19th century, New Jersey was known for its commercial dandelion crops.
We basically crave sweet food, so dandelion greens are a little more adventuresome. They’re at the bitter end of the spectrum. If you like kale or swiss chard, you’ll love dandelion greens sautéed.
Start with the weeds in your own backyard and then you can get more adventurous as your go. The golden rule is that you never eat anything that you can’t identify with 100% certitude. Take a class, or a botany workshop. Or maybe just find a mentor. Field guides, although useful, are not the end all. I wouldn’t just start trying to identify plants through pictures in a field guide and start grazing, because you can get yourself into trouble. It really helps to go out with someone and see these plants and fungi in the wild, what they look like, get a sense of them, hold them in their hand. With mushrooms, for instance. There are several varieties of choice mushrooms that are easy to identify. Most people, once they’ve looked at and held a chanterelle will be able to identify it again in the wild. With the plants, some of them we are already familiar with like dandelions and stinging nettles. And then, it doesn’t take much to learn how to identify say Chickweed, or Lamb’s Quarters, or Fiddleheads, or Miner’s Lettuce. Miner’s Lettuce is the food that the gold miner’s were eating so they wouldn’t get scurvy. It’s loaded with Vitamin C.
Mycological societies are really great learning environments. Most of them have people like me that come and lecture, and so they are great places to learn. And they’ll share their secrets with you. They’ll take you out on forays and there’s usually good seminars and identification classes.
With social networking, people are in touch. There’s just kind of an excitement in the air as people get to know each other in this emerging food culture. I’ve been meeting chefs and people that can cook up incredible meals, but know nothing about foraging, and so they want me to take them out and show them, and then I learn how to make some incredible sauce from them. It’s a give and take. It’s just been really fun.
They write jingly-jangly tunes that brim with infectious energy tempered by a certain dark edge.On Friday April 15, Sonoma County got it's own dose of fuzzed out, edgy garage rock when up-and-comers Sharky Coast played at the Arlene Francis Center. Still in their teens, the members of Sharky Coast draw on musical influences (The Troggs, 60's surf music) from way before their time. Just out of high school, Nick O' Rooney slings his guitar high, singing and strumming crunchy, wizened blues-based chords. Drummer Christine Ortmann holds a steady beat, punctuated by brash, ringing symbol crashes. She tends to grin when she hits the symbols particularly hard. It's always rad to see a band that's genuinely having fun; that enthusiasm tends to travel into the audience, and Friday night was no exception. The band has been playing house shows, coffeehouses, open mics for the last couple of months. In an post show conversation O' Rooney revealed that this was one of the band's first shows at an actual venue with a stage.Ortmann says that she and the intrepid guitarist met over MySpace and bonded over a love for garagey indie rock. O'Rooney, who wears a gray cardigan that looks like it might have once belonged to a math teacher in 1962, lights up at a comparison to Thee Oh Sees mastermind John Dwyer. "They're one of my favorites," he says with a big smile. O'Rooney says that he's been looking for more bands that played garage rock in the North Bay, without much luck thus far. He hadn't heard of Sonoma County's resident garage maestros Huge Large, but said he'd check them out. A show with another local garage rock band was arranged right there on the couch, the plans yelled over a banjo being played by the Hootenany band on stage and, well...hey...isn't that just how a scene gets going?Sharky Coast has a demo coming soon and Facebook Page. They play on Saturday, May 14 with Derailed Freight Train and The 50/50's at the Toad in the Hole Pub. 116 5th Street, Santa Rosa 707.544.8623
Tonight marks the debut of the new audio magazine, Arts I.D., that the Bohemian is producing in conjunction with NPR affilliate KRCB 91.1-FM and the Arts Council Sonoma County.
We've been working on this since October and I'm quite excited about its debut.
Arts I.D. is a new monthly audio magazine devoted to the North Bay arts in all genres. The idea is to smash 'This American Life' together with 'Radio Lab' in order to birth something new and unique to the North Bay; the segments are both about the arts and pieces of art in and of themselves (ideally). I co-host the program with Boho 'Media' columnist Daedalus Howell. Longtime Boho contributor and current stage reviewer David Templeton is also a major contributor and has quite a delicious slice-of-life piece drawn from his own tortured adolescence in tonight's show.
Each "issue" -- I don't know what to call the program editions in language outside of print -- has a theme. The debut issue reflects the program's name and is therefore about identity. July's issue is themed 'Lost & Found.'
I'd be honored if you could give a listen. The program airs at 7pm tonight on 91.1-FM or streams online live at www.krcb.org. Henceforward it will be aired on the last Wednesday of each month at 7pm. The majority of the individual segments—without Daedalus' and my oh-so-witty interstitial commentary—are available now on www.artsid.org.
We are avid for new contributors, ideas and voices for the program, so please don't hesitate to make suggestions or decide you want to a part of this exciting new project. Please tell your friends, colleagues and clients about it. We strongly feel that this is an excellent new way for the Bohemian to continue our quest to better serve the North Bay.
Peter Schneider, left, with Roy Disney. When did you start at Disney?
I started in 1985. I got there just after The Black Cauldron was released.And trounced at the box office by The Care Bears Movie.
Yeah, that’s correct!What was the atmosphere when you came on? Was it a depressed environment?
When Roy Disney engineered the takeover, and brought in Frank Wells and Michael Eisner, there was no real support for animation. And there was a feeling it was going to be closed down. Without Roy, it would have been—Michael Eisner disagrees with me every time we talk about it, but never mind that. There was a sense that it was not important. All the animators had been moved off the lot, out of the very fancy building it had been in for years, and into warehouses in Glendale. So everybody was both depressed, and free, and ready to prove themselves but didn’t know how. We have a great scene in the movie where they feel it’s the end of Disney animation, and they re-stage Apocalypse Now. We have it on film; somebody taped it. And it’s one of those great moments, where you realize these are nutty, wonderful, fabulous people. And I think they truly felt their job was over.So there’s a little bit of we’ve-got-nothing-left-to-lose, and a little bit of let’s-be-as-rabidly-creative-as-we-can.
I think that’s correct. And I think that’s why it all happened. For me, it all happened because this extraordinary group of people got together and said, ‘Let’s do it.’Historically, those who work on Disney movies don’t get credited. With this documentary, did you want to put a human face on the animators?
I wanted to put a human face not just on the animators, but on the crew of people that worked at Disney—people like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney, Michael Eisner. And the artists. It was an extraordinary period of time, as you well know. The Disney company is extraordinary as it is. But an extraordinary group of people came together, and did something quite wonderful. Our goal was to capture that in a way that’s never been captured before.You certainly got a lot of exclusive footage. No one else would have been able to make this film.
I think you’re right. I mean, we had a really good time doing it.Of the stable of animators from that era, one of them’s John Lasseter. What do we get from him in this film?
John, of course, was there at the beginning of the process. And then he left. And then he came back when we did Toy Story together. What’s extraordinary is there’s a home movie in this movie, of Randy Cartwright, shot walking around the studio with a Super 8 camera. And the cameraman happened to be John Lasseter. So we have John Lasseter throughout the whole thing, in some sense.Cameras were not allowed on the lot, I presume?
That’s right. It was all forbidden footage.After putting it in your film, was Disney angry with the footage?
No, no. Disney was extremely supportive of what we did. I mean, I would love to say that gosh, no they weren’t supportive. But they really, really were champions with us. They gave us a lot of resources and access. I would say that Jeffrey, Michael and Roy—the three principal players—were all extremely generous with their time. And I’m so glad Roy saw it before he died. We got the last interviews with Roy. That’s the exciting part for me; that we got the support, and that everybody felt we’d portrayed the situation honestly and forthrightly. I think they were all extremely pleased by it.It seems like this documentary could have been a lot nastier. What made you keep it civil?
Well, for me, being there, there were no good guys or bad guys. There were no villains in our piece. This really was an opportunity to find the joy—and the frustration, and human foibles in all of us—in the process of what we did. I would say there was no reason to be nasty. No one set out to be a villain. There are no villains. You know what I mean?From that era, some of the greatest songs are from The Little Mermaid. Tell me a little about Howard Ashman.
I think Howard was one of the central and key figures that transformed this period of time. He was… as Roy Disney says, ‘I don’t want to compare him to Walt Disney,’ but he certainly had that same feeling, When I examine Roy’s statement, what Walt was was an extraordinary storyteller. His ability to communicate an idea, to inspire people, to make their ideas better. Howard had all those characters of Walt’s. He wasn’t just a lyricist, he wasn’t just a song guy. He was a storyteller, fundamentally. Howard prematurely died from AIDS, as we were finishing Beauty and the Beast, and I think it’s a huge loss. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are some of the best works that he ever did in his life.With Howard Ashman gone, with other key people like John Lasseter and Tim Burton gone, do you think the Disney company can ever replicate the spirit or the success of this second golden era?
Certainly there are great movies coming out. But I think there was a specialness about animation back then that was unique, and caught the audience by surprise. Animated movies, as you said, were relegated to the Care Bears, way back then. Here we had a group of people coming together who changed the face of animation. And now animation’s just a darn good part of the movie business.It’s a huge part of the movie business.
A huge part! It’s no longer special. It doesn’t mean it’s bad—in fact, it’s pretty damn good. But it no longer is that special, oh-my-God. Of course you go to animated movies. I can’t wait to see Shrek Forever After and Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon and Dumbo 7 or whatever else is coming out this summer.When you say it’s no longer special, is that at all due to the influence of computer technology?
No. Because what we want in moviemaking, whether it’s live action or animation, we want to be taken someplace we’ve never been to before. To worlds we never imagined. To stories that are beyond our emotional scope. No one thought animation could do that. And then along came Howard Ashman, John Lasseter, etc., and they took you to places you’d never been before, and you felt it was real. Now, with the advance of computers, and with people understanding the value of it—Avatar, Alice, etc.—the line between what’s animated and live action are blurred. And animation no longer is one company with one group of artists. It’s an industry-wide phenomenon, where people are doing darn good work, but which makes it less special.Do you ever finding yourself tracing the current animation explosion to The Black Caulron, and The Care Bears, and the animators getting kicked out of their building? If that hadn’t happened, maybe The Little Mermaid wouldn’t have been made, and maybe animation wouldn’t be as huge an industry as it is today?
I have to think you’re right. And I think that’s what the documentary tries to explore, which is all these factors that serendipitously came together—there was no design, or plan—it just was over a period of time, these things came together.When did you leave Disney?
I left in 2001. I’d been there for 18 years, it was time to do something different, and the company was changing. But I left on great terms. My goal was to leave and have lunch and dinner with Michael, and to continue to fly on Roy’s plane. And I’ve done all those things. So it’s been great.Peter Schneider appears for a Q&A after the 4:30 and 7pm screenings of Waking Sleeping Beauty on Thursday, May 20, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside. 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.
Never gonna close!
A great, solid album from the local hip-hop legend. Check it out.–David Sason
Just as our summer guide listings went to the printer, we received this sad news:
We are at an exciting and pivotal moment in our history. The Obama administration’s focus on renewable energy coupled with the need to create jobs for the legions of newly unemployed has created an unprecedented increase in demand for the educational services that the Solar Living Institute provides.
We have seen a surge in interest over the past several months in both our renewable energy courses and our green career workshops and conferences. The recently passed stimulus package includes potential funding for the type of green jobs training that SLI has been providing for almost two decades. With the huge amount of opportunity we have before us we feel it is of paramount importance to step up and focus our attention on continuing to provide as much quality education as possible.
For this reason, we have made the difficult decision to cancel this year’s SolFest so that our staff can focus entirely on our educational mission.
We have many exciting projects and events in the works this year. We are working with an internationally renowned e-learning company towards swiftly expanding our renewable energy course offerings to include on-line distance education. We are executing our grant from a private foundation, and partnering with Solar Richmond to offer solar installation training to low-income folks in the Bay Area. And we are very excited to be working with the City of Ukiah to develop a green jobs training center in Ukiah. These projects and more to come will be demanding our best and we are very excited to be putting our efforts toward them.
We are tremendously energized about the opportunities we have before us and we hope you will join in our excitement about this momentous time for our organization, our country and our future.
We hope to have a party and fundraiser around SolFest time to celebrate our victories and gather the SLI tribe. We will revisit having SolFest in 2010. Stay tuned…
For the Earth,
The Solar Living Institute Staff
The race hits downtown Santa Rosa between "2:23pm-2:58pm," according to estimates. I'd get there at 2:00. Really, go. It's the most thrilling thing to happen to downtown since the Fixx played there in 1998. (Okay, I jest. But the Fixx really did play there in 1998.)
Last year's finish is going to be hard to top: dozens of cyclists going down in a huge pile-up, Levi Leipheimer's buttcheeks hanging out of his ripped-up Spandex, and the controversial decision by race commissaries to award him retention of the yellow jersey made for mind-blowing, in-person drama.
Also, as pointed out in my Bohemian article this week, it's unlikely that the Tour of California will make a return to Santa Rosa next year, due to a combination of race organizers' demands and Santa Rosa's budget woes.
So get on down, be part of the exciting crowd, buy a hot dog from Ralph's, and watch the action. Plus, if you're on your bike, you can't beat the royal feeling of riding around town afterwards: it's the one day out of the year when every car in the city seems to be aware of your presence. ¡Vive la Peloton!