Author Archives: Langdon Cook

About Langdon Cook

Langdon Cook is a writer and wild food forager.

Razor Lit

With a tentative fall schedule of razor clam digs released by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, it’s time once again to turn our attention to the golden-hued shellfish of Pacific Northwest dreams, the one that inspires thousands of otherwise sensible citizens to flock to the coastal tsunami zone during the most miserable beachgoing months of the year and get in touch with their inner hunter-gatherer. Indeed, on your average razor clam opening, you will see more people on a Northwest beach than on the sunniest summer day of the year. Lots more.

Razor clam culture is an especially big deal in the Evergreen State, big enough to warrant a new book solely on the subject from the University of Washington Press.

For the uninitiated, David Berger’s Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest, is just the ticket to understanding what all the fuss is about. Berger is a lively guide to Siliqua patula‘s ecology, culinary lore, and historical importance in the region. Smartly, he peppers the book with recipes throughout, for the razor clam is rightly considered a local seafood delicacy up there with salmon, spot shrimp, and Dungeness crab, if a bit more blue collar. (Razor clams rolled in Ritz crackers, anyone?) Berger’s recipes span the spectrum, from deep-fried fritters to poached clams with snap peas and champagne vinaigrette, and of course several different chowders.

Learning about the natural history of my quarry is one of the reasons I forage. In this case I learned some new things about an old favorite. To wit: Razor clams have copper-based blood, not iron-based, so they can accurately be called blue-bloods. Surprisingly, their preferred diet of microscopic phytoplankton has shifted in the past century, with various species of diatoms revolving at the top of the menu, possibly as a result of dam-building on the Columbia River. I picked up some new slang, too. Seagulling is the act of horning in on a successful clam digger’s spot. The author also gets into the finer points of naturally occurring toxins that have put the kibosh on entire seasons in past years, from domoic acid to the sinister sounding Nuclear Inclusion Unknown disease, or NIX.

For many clammers, the excitement is all about the capture—that moment when primitive hunter-gatherer impulses start flowing like teenage hormones. Berger supplies the necessary info to get started, with a detailed analysis of the two main digging tools, the shovel and the tube (and a discussion of which is worthy of the label “clam gun”), and strategies for locating the hidden jewels. 

But my personal favorite parts of the book concern the culture. The author introduces us to several characters whose working lives are deeply connected to a humble clam, such as a state biologist who develops a more accurate method of counting the overall population; the mayor of Long Beach, where an annual razor clam festival celebrates the mollusk’s role in coastal economies; and a tribal digger from the Quinault Indian Nation, who tells us that a few good tides might earn him up to a thousand dollars.

“That’s enough for me for a month,” the tribal digger says, reminding us of what constitutes true abundance.

Readers looking for such nourishment will find much to savor in this account of a beloved bivalve.

The Wall Street Journal Reviews UPSTREAM

wsjDear Readers, I’d like to share The Wall Street Journal‘s review of Upstream with you in full as it isn’t available online without a subscription. The review, by David Profumo, appeared in the weekend edition, June 24.

*  *  *

Chinook, sockeye, coho, chum, humpback, steelhead—they sound like a lineup of heavy metal bands, but these are all species of the Pacific salmon genus Oncorhynchus, a charismatic tribe of silvery migrants once so prolific that they were used for fertilizer and dog food but are now, in places, so embattled that some fragile populations face extinction. In the words of Langdon Cook, author of this invigorating book, “They’re dissolving into fable.”

At the heart of “Upstream” is a journey—the oldest shape in literature. It follows the precarious odyssey of these fish that are born in freshwater streams, swim down to feed and mature in the ocean, then run up again to spawn just once, and die. This is known as anadromy (eels, which do the reverse, are catadromous), and salmon’s dramatic life story has captivated the imagination of many peoples in the Northern Hemisphere, eliciting wonder at the salmon’s powers of endurance and giving rise to fluvial myths and seasonal ceremonies that persist even though the heyday of great abundance is largely gone.

In tracing the history and life cycle of these iconic creatures, Mr. Cook embarks on a series of his own journeys—14 nicely episodic chapters that explore how and where such fish still survive in the modern world, despite the threats of logging, dams, the diversion of running water for domestic and commercial uses, overfishing, and climate change. It is a saga that has been told before but seldom with such immediacy and panache.

“Upstream” covers a lot of ground. We begin in a high-end Seattle restaurant, where the season’s first, greatly prized king salmon are being prepared for table. They hail from Alaska’s Copper River, where the annual catch is carefully monitored, but elsewhere the situation is becoming dire. Along the Columbia River in Washington, “harnessed for power” by the Grand Coulee Dam, 1,200 miles of spawning grounds were closed off and a 10,000-year-old tribal havesting spot obliterated back in 1957. Today the salmon runs on the Columbia are augmented by hatchery fish, pale imitations (“an illusion that everything is okay,” in Mr. Cook’s words), but if you want the real thing, you will have to buy it beneath the Bridge of the Gods, from Native American netsmen who are the only people licensed to catch wild chinook there—a source of continuing controversy.

As he visits other waterways that have similarly become part of engineered landscapes—the Golden State’s Sacramento River is “on life support,” the Snake River in Oregon and Idaho has been “handcuffed” by dams and is thronged with newly prolific predators—the author encounters a spirited cast of characters that includes foodies, eco-warriors, sport anglers, local bureaucrats and zealots of every stripe, all of them passionate and often at loggerheads with one another over the use of fresh water, the lifeblood of every region. From the remote gill-netting community of Cordova, Alaska, to British Columbia’s fabled Kispiox River, “Upstream” charts numerous conflicting attitudes toward the sharing of natural resources.

Even the existence of hatcheries is contentious. In a lively chapter titled “The Ballad of Lonesome Larry,” Mr. Cook describes the painstaking efforts of scientists at Idaho’s Eagle Fish Hatchery to sustain a sockeye run that has to migrate 900 freshwater miles and surmount eight hydroelectric dams. This certainly appears a heroic undertaking by all concerned, but some purists regard reared salmon as “zombies” and “clones” that merely dilute the gene pool when funds would be better applied to habitat preservation in the “strongholds” where wild populations are hanging on. There seems to be precious little agreement.

Throughout these sorties, Mr. Cook is a congenial and intrepid companion, happily hiking into hinterlands and snorkeling in headwaters. Along the way we learn about filleting techniques, native cooking methods and self-pollinating almond trees, and his continual curiosity ensures that the narrative unfurls gradually, like a long spey cast. One arresting example is his description of the reef-netters on Lummi Island, in the Puget Sound. Here entrepreneur Riley Starks has revived a traditional practice of luring sockeye salmon down an avenue of ropes and colored ribbons to the waiting net, where they are individually handled, thus avoiding any wasteful bycatch. The fish taste better, too, because they are “untainted by a stressful death,” whereas salmon caught with gill nets “might spend hours, or maybe even an entire night . . . hanging dead in the net.” There are now fewer than 100 reef-netters working anywhere, none of them Indian. “Upstream” may bristle with fins, but the human factor is a crucial aspect of each journey.

As well as being a gastronome and a naturalist, Mr. Cook is a passionate angler. Homo piscatorius tends to see the aquatic world with a sportsman’s peculiar intensity, and he is good on the beauty and “otherness” of his elusive quarry. On Washington State’s Drano Lake, he drags plug baits and cranks in a hatchery-bred 12-pounder; from a secret “honey-hole” in Oregon, he lands a fine 20-pound king salmon with guide extraordinaire Guido Rahr. In the penultimate chapter (“Herding the Pinks”), he joins a flotilla of die-hard aficionados on Labor Day fishing Seattle’s industrialized Duwamish River in pursuit of the often despised little “humpies,” or pink salmon, despite the trash compactors and barge traffic. (This type of urban angling is becoming a global cult: In April, I was fly-casting to catfish just upstream of the Ponte Vecchio in downtown Florence.) The chapter ends with a kid triumphantly yelling, “I’ve got one”—a phrase, as Mr. Cook says, “as old as language itself.”

With a pedigree that includes Mark Kurlansky, John McPhee and Roderick Haig-Brown, Mr. Cook’s style is suitably fluent, an occasional phrase flashing like a flank in the current. One stream is described as sauntering languidly, like “an elderly flâneur out for a morning constitutional”; a spawning king has “pectoral fins working like frayed Chinese fans.” For all its rehearsal of the perils and vicissitudes facing Pacific salmon, “Upstream” remains a celebration. Given half a chance, nature is resilient, like a thistle muscling up through tarmac. This is not a work of eco-worship, but early on in his book Mr. Cook observes, “Our planet, the only one known to have life on it, is nothing short of a miracle.” Could we please have that entered in the minutes?

—Mr. Profumo is the fishing correspondent for Country Life magazine in the U.K.

Upstream On Sale Today

upstreamMy new book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, goes on sale today. Pick up a copy at your local indie book store, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks. It’s also available as a free audiobook with an Audible trial.

The timing of the book’s release has been known for more than a year, but we couldn’t have predicted the socio-political atmosphere it would land in. Wild salmon have survived all manner of tectonic tumult through the ages, from fire to ice, in part because of their genetic diversity and legendary resilience. The human-caused upheaval of land use, economics, and politics is more recent. Even more recent is the acrimony and partisanship that gets in the way of people coming together to solve problems.

Wild salmon face myriad problems today—and so do we. Most of their problems are our problems. We are tied to these fish like no other, and taking a closer look at our relationship with salmon strikes me as a worthy pursuit, especially in light of current events.

A big thank-you to everyone who helped me see this book into print as well as my many readers and supporters. I sincerely hope you enjoy Upstream and find passages that stay with you.

Monday, June 5, I will talk about the book and show slides at Town Hall Seattle, 7:30 pm.

New Book on May 30!

upstreamI’m pleased to announce that my new book, Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, will be released on May 30. The official book launch will be at Town Hall Seattle on June 5. The night before, on June 4, I will host a four-course salmon dinner at La Medusa restaurant in Seattle with the Field Trip Society, featuring Copper River salmon freshly caught by my friends at Drifters Fish in Cordova, Alaska. Both events are open to the public.

Back to the book. For the past several years, I’ve been chasing salmon—and those who love them—across the greater Pacific Northwest, from the agricultural valleys of California to Alaska’s wild rivers to the inland mountains of Idaho. Along the way I picked nets with commercial and tribal fishermen; snorkeled spawning beds with fisheries biologists; visited the kitchens of salmon-obsessed chefs; and casted a line with hardcore anglers.

Our relationship with these magnificent fish goes back thousands of years in North America, to the arrival of the first humans on a formerly unpeopled continent. Now the question is whether this bond, so vital for so long, will continue.

Here are snippets from early reviews:

From Kirkus: A tale of a species on life support and the ramifications for people, nature, and place… Exposing striking human-salmon parallels, these stories tell of settlement and cultural clashes, of life cycles and migrations, of deforestation and industrial agriculture, of racism and gentrification, and Cook skillfully illustrates the interconnectedness of it all. Seeking the wild in a landscape fraught with man-made alteration and annihilation, the author interrogates the nature of wildness, posing urgent, provocative questions… Blurring boundaries and complicating the oversimplified, Cook provides a moving, artfully layered story of strength and vulnerability, offering glimpses of hope for growing humility and reverence and for shifting human-nature relationships.

From Publishers Weekly: In this insightful book, Cook clearly outlines scientific information, giving details on the salmon’s life cycle, distribution, preferred habitat, and physical appearance. But the focus here is less on facts and research and more on how “Pacific salmon culture in North America is a dance between fish and humanity.” Cook connects with chefs, fishermen, ecologists, fish wranglers, reef netters, Native Americans, and countless others to get their perspectives on the state of dwindling salmon stocks and the impact on them of fish hatcheries, commercial fishing, dam building/removal, and wildlife conservation. In the end, Cook acknowledges that salmon’s recovery, just like its demise, will come from people…this work is a great place to learn what needs to done—and an entertaining view on the positive and negative connections humans have with the natural environment.

From Library Journal: Cook deftly conveys his love of nature, the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and the delectable eating provided by fresh caught wild salmon…passionate and well-written.

From Booklist: Cook’s salmon travelogue easily appeals to anglers, salmon eaters, nature lovers and everyone in between. The Pacific salmon is a great American fish, and by writing about it with such care and curiosity, Cook establishes its ecological importance and tells a great American story.

Wild Ramp Aioli

ramp1Every year for Memorial Day weekend our family goes camping with several other families in a beautiful canyon in the rain shadow of the Cascades, where we have a decidedly better shot at some sun.

The food is always over the top. In past years we’ve barbecued a whole pig, grilled Copper River salmon over the fire, dug holes in the ground for Dutch ovens to make Chicken in the Dirt, and prepared all sorts of appetizers and dinners with our foraged morels and spring porcini.

But the dish that everyone seems to clamor for most is an elaborate concoction of smoked baby potatoes with black garlic vinaigrette and wild ramp aioli. (Ramps are a type of wild leek that grows east of the Rockies.) For years I thought my friend J had invented this carnival of flavors, but it turns out the Danish expat by way of San Francisco picked up the recipe during his Bay Area years, from a little joint you may have heard of called Bar Tartine.

I don’t normally have the patience to put all those pieces together into a single dish. Instead I wait for its fireside appearance each spring, knowing J can’t go without. The ramp aioli by itself, however, is right in my wheelhouse, so when I got a message from my mushroom hunting pal David saying that some fresh ramps were coming my way, compliments of his employer Earthy Delights, I knew just what to do.

ramp4This wasn’t my first brush with ramps. I’ve seen plenty while picking morels back east. Ramps are beloved in the Appalachians, especially in West Virginia where nearly every little mountain town has a ramp festival, and in the northern woods of Michigan. On my last visit to the Upper Peninsula I picked ramps with friends from Marquette. But that was a while ago, and if there’s one wild food I wished was native to the Pacific Northwest, the ramp would be near the top of the list.

To make this wild ramp aioli I used pickled ramps. The recipe is a conflation of Earthy Delight’s version and Tartine’s. You can use fresh ramps, too, and in a few weeks I plan to update this post after using ramps that are currently fermenting in my basement, which is the method that my friend J and Bar Tartine prefer.

ramp23 pickled or fermented ramps*, with tops**
1/2 tsp dried mustard
1/2 tsp peppercorns
1/2 tsp apple cider vinegar
2 tsp lemon juice
1 egg yolk
1/3 cup grapeseed or canola oil
2 tbsp olive oil
salt to taste

1. Place food processor bowl and blade in freezer for 15 minutes if possible.

2. Chop ramps. (I used previously pickled ramp bulbs and fresh tops—see notes below.)

3. Add chopped ramps, dried mustard, peppercorns, cider vinegar, lemon juice, and egg yolk to food processor and process until well mixed together, about 30 seconds.

4. Combine oils and slowly add to processor. Ingredients should thicken to a mayo-like consistency. Continue to add oil. Add salt to taste and more lemon juice or vinegar if necessary.

5. Refrigerate in a tightly sealed container.

Makes enough to fill a 6-oz jelly jar.

The ramp aioli will have the rich flavor and creamy consistency of a typical aioli or mayonnaise, but with the added garlicky bite of wild ramps. Using just the yolk and not the egg white will give it more body. For a chunkier aioli with flecks of bright green ramp tops, don’t over-process (unlike mine pictured above).

* Pickled Ramps recipe:

1lb ramps
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 tsp mustard seed
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp fennel seed
2 tsp mixed peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp salt

1. Cut off root tips from ramps and trim leaves, leaving just a little green. Reserve tops for another use. Rinse ramps.

2. Blanche trimmed ramps in a pot of salted boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove and quickly shock under cold tap. Pat dry and place in a pint-sized canning jar.

3. Combine pickling ingredients in saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over ramps and set aside to cool. Seal tightly and refrigerate up to two months.

** If using fresh ramps for the aioli, cut off the tops (the green leaves) and then blanche the tops in boiling water for 30 seconds, shock under cold tap, and squeeze out excess water before adding to food processor.

Licorice Fern Liqueur

licorice_fern1As I wrote in a recent issue of Seattle Magazine, now is the time to seek out one of the Pacific Northwest’s most striking ferns for your summertime mixology needs—before it retires for the year. The licorice fern is a beauty that lives in colonies in mixed lower-elevation forests, often well up in the tree canopy.

I typically see it adorning mossy big-leaf maples, where its roots, known as rhizomes, form an interconnected latticework beneath the moss. It will also colonize suitably moss-covered alders, madrones, and even glacial erratics, those big boulders left over from the last Ice Age that sometimes squat unaccountably in the middle of the woods. The key is finding some within reach.

Licorice ferns in abundance will form green waves undulating through the forest until the heat of summer causes the waves to collapse and the individual ferns to whither away. With winter rains they come back to life: just add water.

The flavor of the root is licorice-like, yes, and also spicy like fresh ginger. Infused in water or vodka, it makes a slightly picante syrup or liqueur that will remind you of the mesmerizing glades of spring licorice fern as you sip a thirst-quenching summer cocktail.

1. Peel and chop a few finger-length pieces of licorice fern root.

2. Cover chopped roots in a half-pint canning jar with vodka (for a liqueur) or water (for a syrup).

3. Refrigerate for two to three weeks, shaking every few days.

4. Strain and measure liquid. Make a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar that is half the amount of reserved liquid. For example, with my 2/3 cup of fern-infused liquid I made a syrup with 1/3 cup water and 1/3 cup sugar. To make the syrup, boil the water and whisk in sugar until fully dissolved. Allow syrup to cool, then add to reserved liquid.

Licorice fern liqueur can jazz up a refreshing glass of soda water, improve a cheap prosecco, or comfortably join the other esoteric mixers at your cocktail bar.

This Must Be the Place

forest_lgI had the pleasure of sitting down recently with Eric Parkinson, of This Must Be the Place, a podcast that seeks to reveal “the unique physical, cultural, and emotional layers of places.”

We talked about foraging in the deep emerald forests of the Pacific Northwest, the tenets of slow food, and the myriad charms of nature in its many guises, among other topics.

Eric is a curious and penetrating interviewer determined to get at the heart of both our individual and collective sense of place. You can listen to our conversation here.

Spring Foraging Classes

classes6I’ve partnered once again with both Bainbridge Island Parks & Rec and The Field Trip Society in Seattle to offer a variety of spring foraging trips, from short wild edible ID walks in a Seattle park to all-day shellfish extravaganzas.

Below are the classes and dates (plus one special dinner). Check back for additional classes.

Spring Foraged Dinner, March 19, La Medusa, Seattle

Wild Edible Hike, March 24, Issaquah, WA

Shellfish Foraging & Cooking, March 30, Dosewallips State Park, WA

Wild Edible Hike, April 20, Issaquah, WA

Shellfish Foraging & Cooking, April 28, Dosewallips State Park, WA

After-Work Wild Edible Walk, May 2, Seattle, WA

Shellfish Foraging & Cooking, May 13, Dosewallips State Park, WA

Candy Cap Custard

candycap3This winter, mushroom hunters in California are crying Hallelujah! Unless they happen to live below Oroville Dam

The Golden State hasn’t seen rain like this in several years, and the fungi have responded in kind. But with so many storms rolling in off the Pacific, the mushroom patches have also taken a beating, so timing is still everything.

I was able to thread the needle earlier this winter, sneaking into Santa Cruz for a week of sunshine right after a major pummeling that washed out roads near where I was staying in the hills. The weather turned again just as I was leaving.

My destination was the Santa Cruz Fungus Fair, one of the great myco events on the West Coast, but I also managed to get into nearby woods to pick a year-plus supply of candy caps.

candycap4I’ve written about candy caps before. It’s a complex of species in the milk cap genus, Lactarius. Candy caps are noteworthy for smelling intensely of maple syrup once dried, effectively putting mushrooms on the dessert menu. The two species of candy cap I encountered on this trip were L. rubidus and L. rufulus. The latter grows with oaks and is quite mild, but the former—if dehydrated at a low temperature (I think we set our dryer to 95 degrees)—is wonderfully fragrant. We found hundreds of them growing among a stand of old Monterrey pines.

Though candy cap cookies are my usual go-to recipe, the first thing I made when I got home with my bounty was an egg custard, adapting a very simple recipe that I typically make with huckleberries. The candy caps gave this creamy and satisfying dessert a pungent aroma of maple syrup, which paired well with the huckleberries on top.

candycap11 small handful dried candy caps
1 cup evaporated milk
1 cup water
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup huckleberries
fresh nutmeg or cinnamon, grated to taste

1. Pulverize dried candy caps to dust in a spice grinder or food processor. Pass through wire mesh sieve to remove any large pieces. Cover mushroom dust with 1 cup warm water and set aside for 20 minutes.

2. Pre-heat over to 325 degrees. Combine milk and mushroom water in a small saucepan and bring to boil. Remove from heat.

3. Mix egg yolks, sugar, salt, and vanilla together in a bowl.

4. Slowly whisk in hot milk-water mixture until frothy. Pour into 4 ramekins.

5. Place ramekins in an oven-proof dish or tray filled with warm water. Bake for 40 minutes. Carefully place a small handful of huckleberries atop each custard and bake another 10 minutes. Test one for doneness with a knife tip; if it comes away clean, the custard is done. Sprinkle with fresh nutmeg or cinnamon. Serve hot or cold.

Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

pudding1I’ve been cooped up this fall, finishing a new book. (More on that later.) Meanwhile I get the usual texts and emails from friends in the patch, scoring hauls of chanterelles and porcini, sparassis and matsi. So it was a relief to finally get out the other day.

Hopeful forecasts for a good ski season seem to have some merit. Above 1,500 feet the thermometer was in the low 30’s, and above 4,000 feet there was a nice dusting of snow. I went up to some of my higher elevation patches anyway just for a look—and it didn’t take long to see that many of the high country mushrooms are done for the year in the North Cascades, although matsutake continue to plug along. But down around 2,000 feet I found kings, hedgehogs, chanterelles, more matsi, and lots of gypsies. So I have not gone without my annual infusion of Matsutake Sukiyaki.

As for the others, I chopped them up for a bread pudding served with a roast chicken. Normally I make a typical stuffing for the bird, but this totally un-fussy bread pudding is now my go-to. It really shines with wild mushrooms.

4 – 6 cups stale country bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 tbsp butter, divided (plus more if needed)
2 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 lb wild mushrooms (e.g., chanterelles, porcini, hedgehogs, etc.), rough cut
3 large eggs
2 cups half and half
1 heaping cup grated Gruyère cheese
handful parsley, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a large skillet, sauté onions in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until caramelized. Add more butter if necessary and reduce heat so that onions are nicely browned and not burned. Remove from pan.

2. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

3. In same pan, melt another 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat and sauté mushrooms. Cook off any liquid released by mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Remove from pan.

4. Beat eggs in a large bowl with half and half. Mix in grated cheese and parsley. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Add bread, onions, mushrooms, and stir together.

5. Grease an 8-inch baking dish and dollop in bread pudding. Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove lid and bake another 20 minutes, until pudding begins to brown on top and is cooked through.