Category Archives: book review

A Taste of Place

9780762453788I first met travel and food writer Joe Ray a few years ago when the two of us read together at Seattle Lit Crawl. At the time, the New Hampshire native had recently returned from a 10-year stint in Europe and was living on Lummi Island near Bellingham, Washington, absorbing the culinary metaphysics of The Willows Inn and its young chef, Blaine Wetzel, who had lately jumped up on the radar of globetrotting gourmands around the world.

Ray had already logged several months on the island and he was far from finished. We agreed to meet up again on Lummi in the spring, and when the time came, he graciously offered me the spare bedroom in the house he was renting not far from the ferry. “You don’t want to drive all the way back to Seattle after dinner,” he warned.

He was right. My wife Martha still talks about our meal at The Willows that night. Dishes included smoked mussels served in a little cedar box with wisps of fragrant smoke escaping from the lid, spot shrimp in nettle sauce with fresh-grated porcini steaming on top, spring lamb festooned with bright green miner’s lettuce, and many other inventive takes on regional favorites. Each of the seven courses arrived with the physical trappings of the Pacific Northwest: atop hot stones gathered from a nearby beach; lying across a splinter of Douglas fir from the rainforest; in a clamshell. The Willows is not an overly ornate or fussy place, but its attention to detail—in particular, the details of place—speaks to a deep affection for the region.

Ray’s collaboration with Chef Wetzel, Sea and Smoke: Flavors from the Untamed Pacific Northwest, is now out from Running Press. More than just a collection of recipes, the book explores what it means to live and work on an island in Puget Sound, and how the regional identity is expressed in local ingredients and foodways. Sockeye salmon, Dungeness crabs, hazelnuts, matsutake, and Pacific razor clams all make appearances, of course, as do other less expected ingredients: Nootka rose petals, madrona bark, the skin of halibut.

Joe Ray and I are neighbors now in southeast Seattle, so I caught up with him over a bahn mi and a game of pool at Billiard Hoang and asked what brought him cross-country to The Willows.

Joe Ray: By chance, I was invited to a wedding at The Willows in the summer of 2010. I met the Inn’s then-owner, Riley Starks, who’s a food lover’s food lover. He farmed, raised chickens, had run a pasta company, ran this great restaurant, and was part owner of a reefnetting operation called Lummi Island Wild—a total renaissance man. I even took pictures of his bookshelf, which featured titles on composting, seed starting, poultry raising, and Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full. I was so impressed with him that I got my Boston Globe editor on the phone and sold her a story about Riley and the unbelievable setup on Lummi and stayed a few extra days. At some point in there, he mentioned that the “chef from Noma” was coming to be the chef at the Inn. It turned out to be Noma’s chef de partie, a young chef named Blaine Wetzel.

LC: Do you remember your first taste of Wetzel’s food?

Ray: Of course! I was still living in Europe, but went back up to Lummi that December and was the first journalist to spend time with Chef Wetzel. In Europe, I’d been lucky enough to eat at several of the world’s best restaurants, including El Bulli, Sant Pau, El Celler de Can Roca, and Noma. Wetzel’s food wasn’t at that level yet, but then again, he was still in his early 20s and it was clear he was on his way. I wanted to tell the story of both the riches they’re blessed with up there and how it all comes together with Blaine in the kitchen to turn The Willows into one of the world’s great restaurants.

LC: You do that colorfully with a series of introductory chapters—vignettes, really—that capture life at the Inn and on Lummi Island. The second half of the book is the recipes. Translating restaurant magic into step-by-step instructions for the home cook is its own art form. Tell us your process…

Ray: The more detail-oriented you can be, the better. For a chef, recipes are often in their heads, with a few hastily scribbled lines in a notebook to jog their memories if need be. In my year at The Willows, I’d be paired with Blaine or one of the other cooks every Friday, all day long, and we’d turn one or two recipes they were cooking for that night’s meal for 30 into something that serves 4 for the book. It’s a lot to work through. Something that might require a huge stockpot at the restaurant might only need a saucepan for the book, but I’d be damned if I was going to spend a full year up there and not nail these.

LC: Seriously, though. Is this a book for the aspirational chef or can any home cook reasonably make a meal from it?

Ray: I think it’s a bit of both. This isn’t something full of weeknight meal ideas. At all. This kind of food doesn’t happen quickly, even if you’re a chef. But if you want to make incredible food, like The Willows’ famous smoked salmon, this is how they do it.

LC: I remember that smoked sockeye! At any other restaurant it would be a centerpiece. At The Willows it was a “snack” in between courses. Frankly, some of those snacks are as memorable as the mains. I see that one of my favorites, Caviar and Crepes, opens the recipe section…

Ray: Yes! Try it!

LC: Any final words of wisdom for home cooks who want to incorporate a sense of place into their cooking?

Ray: Cook the best of what you have access to. The Willows is a great model for this. Yes, they forage, but it’s just a part of it. They’ve also got a farm for fresh vegetables, salmon from Lummi Island Wild, and Jeremy Brown [a local troller], so it’s much more a combination of what’s growing and what’s perfect right now.

Author photo by Steve Raichlen; Dried Mirabelle Plum Skins by Charity Burggraaf


shroom coverA new mushroom cookbook has popped up with the chanterelles and boletes this fall. With its up to date, globe-trotting recipes and solid advice, Becky Selengut’s Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms is sure to delight foragers and fungally-inclined home cooks from coast to coast.

Becky happens to be a friend of mine, so I can personally vouch for the food herein (I also contributed the book’s foreword). When you eat at Becky’s place, you marvel at the speed, efficiency, and improvisation that goes so effortlessly into her cooking. Thankfully, she imparts some of those hard-earned kitchen chops here, with guidance on wine pairings, approachable, common sense language (“if you are filthy, take a bath; if your mushrooms are filthy, give them a bath”), and her usual good humor. The headings are a glimpse into Becky’s world: For one recipe, she reaches back to a complicated elementary school art project, when her father, who worked as an engineer, taught her the KISS principle—keep it simple stupid. Never was there better advice for grilling porcini!

The book is organized around the many varieties of edible mushrooms one is likely to encounter at a farmers market or in local woods. An introduction lays out the basics on cleaning, putting up for later, and recommended kitchen gear. Subsequent chapters are helpfully titled after the mushrooms themselves. There are chapters on increasingly popular cultivated varieties such as shiitake and king trumpet, but it is with the wild varieties where the book really shines and rightfully takes its place among favorite cookbooks on mushroom cuisine. Wild varieties include some of our most beloved: morels, chanterelles, hedgehogs, porcini, lobster, black trumpet, and matsutake. There is also a chapter on truffles.

Each chapter (and species) begins with a “fact sheet” with information on seasonality, buying tips, preservation, and cooking notes, followed by five recipes ordered from easy to intermediate to advanced. There are 75 recipes in all, of which two-thirds are vegetarian. “I’m a meat eater working on eating less meat,” Selengut says; this is smart because mushrooms really are a natural meat substitute, with meaty texture and comforting flavors. This book could be a go-to reference for Meatless Mondays.

The recipes, from soups and snacks to large, composed dishes, are keepers. Traditionalists will find a Beef Bourguignon here to put those grocery store cremini mushrooms to work, but it is the more contemporary, culturally diverse offerings that will inspire today’s new breed of urban foragers and kitchen experimenters. Wok-seared Lion’s Mane with Bok Choy, Squid, and Roasted Red Chili Paste? Yes, please! And bring me a side of Hedgehog and Cheddar Grits. Black Trumpet and Poblano Chilaquiles with Crema sound good, too. Oh, and wake me up for a midnight snack of Truffle Gougères and champagne.

Of her Acquacotta Soup with Chanterelles, Selengut writes: “While many of the ingredients in this recipe might seem—at first blush—to be gourmet and expensive, if you were a thrifty Italian who knew the woods where you lived, grew some humble vegetables in your garden, had some stale bread lying around, and kept chickens, this soup would cost you hardly anything.” So true. Other dog-earred recipes in my copy include a Porcini Salad with Pine Nuts and Lemon Salt; Thai Sweet and Sour Soup with Lobster Mushrooms, Lemongrass, and Shrimp; and a Maitake Tikka Masala.

With gorgeous photos by Clare Barboza, Shroom is a welcome addition to any cook’s library, and a necessary resource for fungi fanciers, who should definitely have this new cookbook on their holiday gift-giving lists.

Becky Selengut and I will be teaming up for patch-to-plate slide presentations at Phinney Books in Seattle on October 22 and Slow Food Seattle on November 3.

The Berry Hour

salal1It’s berry time. I took a group of would-be foragers out to a state forest the other day, and they were amazed by the diversity of berries available for harvest right now. In fact, I had to crack the whip a few times to keep the gang moving, so entranced were they by the sweet bounty available trailside.

Red huckleberries and trailing blackberries (the native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest, Rubus ursinus) are at their peak. Non-native Himalayan blackberries are ripening in sunny spots and will be abundant in a couple weeks. Thimbleberries are past their peak at lower elevations, but you can go higher and find them in good shape. We also found blackcap raspberries, which I don’t see as frequently as some of the other species. A number of others that get overlooked by the average berry picker were ripening in forest openings, such as Oregon grape and salal (pictured at top), and will continue to be available deep into summer; though a challenge to the palate right off the vine, with a little processing and some added sugar, they can make excellent preserves, sauces, and leathers.

If you live in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a new book that provides in-depth information on just about all the wild berry-producing plants and trees you’re likely to find in the region, native and otherwise. T. Abe Lloyd and Fiona Hamersley Chambers’ Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon collects into a single volume more than fifty groups of berry-bearing plants, including well known varieties such as blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, and serviceberries—and lesser-knowns: hawthorns, crowberries, hackberries, and many more.

I’ve often wondered about the tempting red berries of the mountain-ash, Sorbus spp. The authors begin their entry on the genus, “The bitter-tasting fruits of these trees are high in vitamin C and can be eaten raw, cooked or dried.” Apparently, a number of tribes in my area used them to “marinate meat such as marmot or to flavor salmon head soup,” and they’re also used in jellies, jams, pies, ale, and a bittersweet wine. The final verdict on edibility: Edible, but not great.

Many others, however, get two thumbs up. The text is sprinkled with recipes for making jams, jellies, syrups, cordials, dressings, leathers, pies, cobblers, and muffins, and the authors also offer updated culinary twists for old standbys such as the Native American energy food pemmican, retooled to use huckleberries or serviceberries mixed with beef jerky and nuts.

Flipping through Wild Berries of Washington and Oregon got me so revved up for summer’s bounty that I braved the I-90 floating bridge closure yesterday and visited some of my favorite berry patches. Stay tuned for a Wild Berry Scone recipe next week.

Crazy for Conifers

conifersWhen beginner mushroom hunters ask me how to find fungi, I have two answers. First, join a mycological society and go on a foray; there’s no substitute for spending time in the field with a seasoned pro. The second answer might be more surprising: learn your trees.

Experienced mushroom hunters in southwestern Oregon and northern California know the many culinary treats that hide among roots of Notholithocarpusboletivores of the Rockies are skilled at locating high meadows dotted with Picea; and don’t even get me started on the need—the absolute necessity—to know the habits of Abies grandis if you plan to look for edible fungi on the east slope of the Cascades in springtime.

Knowing your trees is a huge part of the mushroom puzzle. This is because many species of fungi have symbiotic relationships (aka mycorrhizal associations) with trees and shrubs. The fungi and trees exchange water and nutrients, and in some cases the bond is so strong that the fungus will form a protective and permanent sheath around the tree’s root tips, a sort of shotgun wedding.

For those of us hunting mushrooms in the western U.S.—in the Pacific Northwest in particular—the trees to know are overwhelmingly conifers. I have a whole library of books about the life histories and identification of trees in my region, and a new one has just found a prominent place among them. Michael Edward Kauffmann’s Conifers of the Pacific Slope: A Field Guide to the Conifers of California, Oregon, and Washington is an important addition, and a broader companion to his earlier work, Conifer Country, which focuses on the rich conifer biodiversity of the Klamath Mountain region.

Of the world’s 600 or so species of conifer, more than half populate the Pacific Rim, and 65 species can be found along the Pacific Slope of North America. Northwestern California is the epicenter of conifer diversity on the continent. A hike into the Russian Wilderness’s “miracle mile” in the Klamath Mountains will reward the conifer enthusiast with potentially 17 (maybe 18) species, one of the richest assemblages on the planet.

Kauffmann has been mentored by some of the best. He dedicates his new book to John O. Sawyer, one of the pioneering botanists of California, who died in 2012. Stephen Arno, whose Northwest Trees has been considered a must-have for tree fanciers since its publication more than 35 years ago, calls Kauffmann’s guide “comprehensive” yet “user-friendly.” The book is divided into sections for each of the three families represented: Cupressaceae (cypresses, junipers, cedars, and redwoods); Pinaceae (firs, Douglas-firs, spruces, pines, larches, and hemlocks); and Taxaceae (yews). Most species descriptions are accompanied by multiple photos depicting bark pattern, cones, and foliage, along with range maps. Text includes discussion of habitat and other observations and remarks.

Tree geeks will need this book because Kauffmann is generous with information about locating some of the more hard-to-find species. Never seen Picea breweriana, the Brewer spruce? Try driving the Bigfoot Highway near Happy Camp, California. Or the beautiful subalpine larch, Larix lyallii? Hike into Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness and check north-facing slopes above 6,000 feet.

It pays to be arbor-aware. Mushroom hunters and foragers in general benefit from recognizing a landscape’s tree composition, whether looking for fungi, wild greens, berries, nuts, or roots. Besides, trees are some of nature’s most beautiful creations, and recognizing their many forms and life histories makes us all the richer.

Wild in the City

Becky Lerner’s foraging education kicked off with a failed, week-long challenge to eat only what she could find around her Portland home. A few days into it, hungry and exhausted, having burned more calories than she’d taken in, Lerner accepted defeat and ordered a Thai dinner. Lucky for us, this was just the beginning and not the end of her foraging career. Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness is her account a wild odyssey amidst the bustle and clamor of the city, in which she would eventually become known as “the neighborhood herbalist,” her office looking “more like an apothecary.” In a series of vignettes that follows the arc of her learning curve, she details the many plant species she would learn to find and cook, along with her growing interest in medicinals and even the divine. “Everywhere we look, we see useful plants,” she writes. “The Earth is full of medicine for the people, and it’s available free of charge.” Lerner and I recently talked about foraging, her new book, and the good qualities of Oregon grape.

FOTL: There’s an element of Portlandia that runs through the book: we meet all kinds of eccentric characters—slackers, artists, seekers, people off the beaten path. Is this the new face of foraging, or is there a place at the table for the 9-to-5 office worker from Poughkeepsie?

Becky Lerner: I think foraging is for everybody. The reason my book has such colorful characters is because that’s my world—I myself am kind of a colorful character, and like attracts like. I’ve always been drawn to unusual people, even when I was living in the very 9-to-5 world of suburban New Jersey. But it’s true there is a higher density of eccentricity here in Portland, probably because this is a city that embraces uniqueness. That’s a lot of why I moved here. I felt like I could fully be myself.

FOTL: Does it seem weird that foraging has an “alternative” vibe?

Lerner: It may be that people who are into alternative ways of relating to the world are more likely to try something adventurous and unusual, but certainly people of a broad range of ages and interests forage, from conservative country folks in the South to punks in Philly.

FOTL: Of course, foraging used to be mainstream. You write about the extensive foraging skills of native tribes in the Pacific Northwest, reminding readers that 25 percent of the pre-contact population was enslaved, and that the slaves did a lot of the heavy lifting. Do modern-day foragers tend to idealize the past?

Lerner: Foragers have a broad spectrum of beliefs, with maybe the only commonality being a respect for nature and an inclination toward adventure, so I wouldn’t want to generalize. That said, I can tell you certainly I started out romanticizing hunter-gatherers and idealizing the past, and I have encountered some of the Pacific Northwest’s radical ideologues, some of whom would identify themselves as anarcho-primitivists, who seem to do that, too. But then I started researching this book and learned that things are a lot more complicated than they might seem. Anthropologists have concluded that hunter-gatherers do tend to be healthier, happier, and less stressed than we agricultural people, and certainly it seems they have a more balanced and respectful and far less destructive relationship with nature, too. But food acquisition is only one aspect of a society. It doesn’t tell you how it treats women, distributes resources, or resolves conflicts. People are complex and wonderful and imperfect all at once, and our societies reflect that.

FOTL: You say “it’s easy to see why people evolved to be such social creatures.” I’ve had this same light bulb go on during bouts of labor-intensive foraging, yet I routinely field questions or comments from those who I would categorize in the “survivalist” camp. They’re more interested in going it alone and leaving society behind. What do you have to say to these folks?

Lerner: I notice that people tend to have different skills and talents, and that we tend to gravitate toward being in community and helping each other. I know a guy who loves making kayaks. I know someone else whose passion is sewing shoes. And I know another person who is an amazing chef. And I have met enthusiastic fisherwomen. And then there’s me, and I really like being a storyteller, teacher, and healer. And you know, together, we all make a pretty great team. Why not embrace our natural proclivities? It may be less glorifying for the ego, but it’s more fun, less stressful, and more efficient than trying to be a human Swiss army knife.

FOTL: We make preserves from Oregon grape, which my kids love on a classic PB&J, but after reading about your experiences using the root in a tincture, I’m ready to dig some up. Can you tell us a little more about the medicinal properties, the berberine in particular?

Lerner: Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, has many medicinal properties, from stimulating digestive secretions to supporting liver detoxification. It’s also a powerful herbal antibiotic that works against strep throat, staph infections, Giardia, E. Coli, pink eye, and many other common ailments, when taken internally or applied externally.

FOTL: What other medicinals do you recommend for the new initiate?

Lerner: Usnea lichen tincture works exceptionally well for respiratory ailments—I’ve seen it work wonders on people who had symptoms of pneumonia—and bearberry for urinary tract infections, which I have seen work miracles on people and dogs. Other medicinals to consider would be elder and yarrow flower for cold and flu and fever.

FOTL: What’s next for you, in terms of both foraging and writing?

Lerner: Thanks for this question. I really enjoy teaching and speaking, and I’d like to travel around the country to do that. And I definitely see myself writing more books, but I don’t yet have a subject in mind. As of the past year I’ve been on a Reiki journey and exploring more deeply the world of plant spirits, so it could go in that direction. Whatever it is will need to be an adventure! And an unusual one at that.

Lerner will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on May 8, 7 pm, to read from Dandelion Hunter and sign copies. To find out more about Lerner and book events near you, check out her blog, First Ways.

The Art of Wild Mushroom Cookery

Bill Jones, an award-winning cookbook author, chef, and consultant, calls the bountiful Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island home. There he’s restored an old farmhouse—Deerholme—to use as his base of operations. Lucky for Bill, prodigious mushroom fruitings occur in the nearby mountains, valleys, and coastal forests. I caught up with Bill recently to talk about his new cookbook, The Deerholme Mushroom Book, and his thoughts on wild mushroom foraging and cooking.

FOTL: Tell us a little bit about your neck of the woods in British Columbia. Are there specialties in your region or certain species you’re known for?

Bill Jones: The south Vancouver Island region is generally a maritime Mediterranean climate, and the Cowichan Valley is one of the sunnier places in Canada. This allows species like the white Oregon truffle to thrive. The tree type is dominantly Douglas fir with a mixture of western hemlock, grand fir, white pine, and cedar, which makes for a nice variety of terrain for many of the choice edible varieties. Fall is a pretty special place here for mushroom foraging.

One of our claims to fame is for giant versions of mushroom specimens. We have a nice combination of rainfall and heat that produces massive growth in some mushrooms. There are huge cauliflower fungi, giant Pacific golden chanterelles, and porcini that have weighed over three pounds. One of my most exciting finds was a white morel that weighed in at over two pounds.

What’s your favorite mushroom to forage?

That’s a hard question. They’re like children—hard to pick a favorite. I would say the pine mushroom [matsutake] would be at the top of the list. The aroma of a fresh pine is intoxicating. I like to stand there and breathe in the heady scent when I find one. It always makes me happy.

What sort of habitat and forest conditions do they prefer?

Locally we look on slopes with southern exposure and a mix of Douglas fir and hemlock. Nearer the coast we find them in thickets of wild huckleberry. The pine seems to like a lot of rain and the fruiting really kicks off in late October and early November.

How do you like to cook pines? 

I like to make a bowl of nice chicken stock, greens from the garden, udon noodles, and thiny sliced pine mushrooms. It is a satisfying and rewarding bowl of soup.

Why should home cooks be excited to cook with wild mushrooms?

Mushrooms are nature’s flavor booster; they make any dish a little more appealing to the taste buds. Some are dense and meaty, others are soft and supple. They all contain some degree of natural sugars which caramelize when cooked. This adds to their delicious taste and makes some mushrooms, like porcini, absolutely incredible. There are also significant medicinal benefits. Many have immune system boosting properties that can play a healthy and vibrant role in your diet. Shiitake mushrooms have been used as a medicine in China for the last thousand years.

What would you say to the beginning mushroom hunter?

It would probably be wise to say a few words about fear. The phobia of mushrooms stops a lot of people from enjoying the vast world of fungi. Much of this fear is misplaced, but some of it is warranted. I tell new foragers to educate themselves on a few easy targets like chanterelles and porcini and to have a healthy respect for all the rest. You should never consume a mushroom when you are not 100 percent sure of the identification. A good guidebook is very helpful, but nothing beats the experience of seeing the mushroom in the field. A guided forage is a good way to start, either with the local mycological society, naturalist tours, or through workshops like those we give here at Deerholme Farm.

What species and cooking techniques would you recommend for beginners?

I would recommend you start with chanterelles. Make sure they are relatively dry—spread them out on paper towel for several hours to wick away moisture. Clean off any dirt, debris, or browned edges. Heat a skillet very hot and add a mixture of butter and oil (I use grapeseed oil). Add the mushrooms and sauté until they release moisture and start to brown around the edges. Add a clove of chopped garlic and salt and pepper. This is the best way to eat chanterelles. Try on top of a grilled piece of bread, cooked pasta, or rice. Simple and delicious.

Have the mushrooms taught you anything over the years?

Mushroom hunting in our region forces you to become an environmentalist. You quickly realize that mushrooms require prime habitat to flourish. Trees are a precious resource that have deeply ingrained relationships with the local fungi population. We must protect our forests from over-harvesting and abuse if we want to see the mushrooms flourish for future generations. I try to pass this message on to all our students here on the farm. We all have a place in protecting our forests and a duty to stand up for those who cannot.

Lastly, tell us about a recipe in the book that every wild mushroom enthusiast and/or home cook should try. 

I love to play around with classic flavors and simple preparations. In the book there is a recipe for a warm bacon and potato salad that I use with many variations. You have to source good ingredients to make it really shine: local potatoes, thick-cut slab bacon, fresh herbs, and of course fresh mushrooms. Any mushroom will also work in this recipe; you could blend morels or even brown button mushrooms into the mix with excellent results.

Warm Bacon, Chanterelle, and Potato Salad

A variation on a classic German potato salad made with chanterelles. It is best to add the dressing to warm potatoes so they soak up all the dressing. Serve at room temperature.

2 lb (1 kg) potatoes, peeled
1/4 lb (115 g) thick-cut bacon, cut in thin strips
1 lb (450 g) chanterelles, cleaned and sliced salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp (30 ml) apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
2 tbsp (30 ml) grainy mustard
1 tsp (5 ml) chopped capers
3 tbsp (45 ml) chopped sweet onion, fresh chives, or green onions, minced, for garnish

1. Add potatoes to a large pot of salted cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender.

2.  Meanwhile, warm a skillet over medium-high heat, add the bacon, and heat until the bacon is browned and has rendered its fat. Add the chanterelles and sauté until the mushrooms give off moisture and it has completely evaporated. Season with salt and pepper. When the mushrooms just begin to brown on the edges, remove from heat and set aside.

3. In a large mixing bowl, combine vinegar, oil, mustard, capers, and onion. Stir until mixed.

4. Drain potatoes and add while still warm to the dressing. Add the bacon and toss to coat. Serve warm, garnished with fresh chives or green onions.

Serves 6-8

Beyond Backyard Chickens

Santa left me a couple new books under the tree this Christmas. Though not about foraging, per se, these should interest anyone who’s trying to take more charge of their place in the food chain.

We have a joke in Seattle about competitive neighbors trying to out-backyard chicken each other. It used to be a new car or elaborate lawn-care scheme was the path to keeping up with the Joneses. Now it’s goats. Not too long ago a herd of the hungry beasts was let loose in a vacant lot overgrown with blackberries near my home. Each day, while driving to school, we monitored the flock’s progress. In less than a week the quarter acre of unruly brambles was munched to the ground.

Goats have other uses, of course, from dairy to companionship. If you’re ready to out-backyard chicken  the weird guy across the fence, Jennie P. Grant—deemed the “Godmother of Goat Lovers” by Time magazine—with her book City Goats is for you. Me, I just got a kick out of reading about this escalation in the locavore arms race. Grant, besides being the founder and president of the Goat Justice League, is a funny and informative guide to the intricacies of urban goat-keeping. For instance, if you’re just looking for a lawnmower on four legs, think again. They will “eat your rosebushes clean” while nibbling the grass only here and there, “creating a look very similar to Rod Stewart’s hairstyle.”

Grant covers the basics of goat needs, from shelter to food to play. Yes, play. “Climbing is one way that goats have fun!” And whatever you do, don’t build a climbing structure in the back yard that will allow your goat to jump into the competitive chicken farmer’s yard next door. As for the dairy piece, there is an entire chapter on how to milk your goat (don’t forget to shave around the udder), along with discussions of pasteurization, cheesemaking (with recipes for mozzarella and chèvre), and even camping with your goat.

One thing Grant doesn’t touch on is goat meat. Urban carnivores less sentimental about their herd animals might turn to Leslie Miller’s book, Uncle Dave’s Cow, for their meat-eating needs. If you’ve ever gone in on a beef cow or a portion thereof, you know about this increasingly popular way to confront the realities of an omnivorous diet. It’s been a few years since I’ve done so, mostly because the freezer is so full of foraged foods. The last time, we purchased a quarter organic cow from Skagit Valley Ranch, which translated into about 150 pounds of meat in a variety of different cuts and hamburger, all of it shrink-wrapped and frozen.

As Miller explains it with entertaining honesty, the impetus behind sharing in the proceeds of her uncle’s cow was directly tied up in the complexities of modern life: “I’m busy, my husband’s busy, and my children have more active social lives than we do, and dinner isn’t so much something to be crafted as it is a daily time-suck.” Say it, sister! “Throw in a liberal urban commitment to eating ‘good’ meat and food in general, if possible—organic, sustainable, locally produced, all the buzzwords—and we seemed like good candidates for buying into that cow.”

In some cases, as famously explored by Michael Pollan, you can buy into that cow well in advance of the day of reckoning, watching it mature (if you want) prior to slaughter. Whether there is a demand yet to actually witness or participate in the killing and butchering of a cow, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this option was available in some cases.  Miller doesn’t go too far down this road because, let’s face it, if you’re reading the book then you’re likely already aware of how distanced we’ve become from the food on our plates. “I love cooking and raising food,” she writes, “but there are limits to what I can or am willing to do…I don’t want to kill and skin my own animals on a regular basis, the former being a big downer and the latter requiring skills I don’t possess.”

A good alternative is buying into a whole animal that has been raised in a way that’s compatible with your beliefs. Miller takes the reader by the hand for a friendly walk through the process, illuminating the lingo (grass-fed versus pastured, for instance), butchery, storage, and many other factors that make this a different path from simply driving down to Whole Foods to pick up an organic t-bone. One really helpful chapter focuses on the many cuts of meat that will be included in a standard order, some of them unusual to a first-timer, and how they might be used, plus recipes.

Oh, and for the urban goatherd (see above) who has grown weary of her tulip-devouring charges, there’s also a chapter on goat cookery. 😉

Hunter’s Ed

The hunting memoir is becoming a regular feature of the spring and fall publishing seasons—even as the number of  hunters in the U.S. continues to decline as a percentage of the population.

This counter-intuitive development might be explained by the trendiness in all-things-foodie. Or it might say something about the changing demographic of today’s hunters, who are looking for something more than just a how-to guide. Many of these new hunters haven’t had the benefit of a mentor—a father or uncle to initiate them into what was once, generations ago, a rite of passage for nearly all American boys—and a growing number of these hunters are urban or female. The hunting memoir helps to fill this void. It’s a vicarious ride with a knowledgeable hunting buddy, with waypoints of instruction along the route.

Two new books this season offer such rides, with much more than how-to information. Lily Raff McCaulou’s journey from New York professional to Oregon hunter in The Call of the Mild will resonate with many readers, female or male, who are trying to reconnect with the natural world, whether via hunting or other outdoor pursuits. Steven Rinella’s Meat Eater is a different sort of book, and while it dispenses all kinds of wisdom for would-be hunters, the pleasure is mostly in the telling, like listening to an old-timer spin yarns by the fire. (That Rinella is still in his thirties makes it all the more surprising.)

For McCaulou, a cross-country move to a new job as a reporter in Bend, Oregon, and a boyfriend (later husband) with a flyrod are the blood sport catalysts. He takes her fishing on Oregon’s famed Deschutes River. She then takes it a few steps farther, picking up a firearm and learning how to hunt game birds and, eventually, larger, hoofed quarry. Like Georgia Pellegrini in Girl Hunter, McCaulou faces challenges specific to her gender.

But mainly her decision to hunt is more personal, with an added dose of food politics. She quotes what are now familiar statistics to anyone paying attention: According to the United Nations, 30 percent of the earth’s land surface is used to raise meat (including the growing of grains for feed); 18 percent of greenhouse emissions are caused by the meat industry; the average American eats 241 pounds of meat per year. And yet, despite all that meat eating, we are more distanced than ever from the processes that make such a diet possible.

As a lifelong meat eater, I feel a responsibility to see for myself that uncomfortable thing that has always been at the heart of a human diet, since long before animals were domesticated and their upbringing industrialized: death.

It turns out that facing death in its many guises is at the core of McCaulou’s memoir, and this stubborn fact of life is explored in some unexpected ways. Not so unexpectedly, the book culminates with a big game hunt, though the patience and detail with which it’s recounted will be appreciated by neophyte hunters wondering what this moment of truth might be like.


Rinella’s childhood, as revealed in Meat Eater, will be envied by many readers. One of three brothers, all close in age, he grew up in rural Michigan and had the run of a landscape that included woods, lakes, and semi-abandoned summer camps. There is a theme of resourcefulness throughout the book that, sadly, will strike many as anachronistic. Much of the pleasure in reading these hunting stories is contained in the process: the detailed descriptions of building a tree sit or breaking down an animal.

Rinella is an amiable narrator, with an easy-going voice and an eye for the telling detail. One of the things I like about his writing is what I call the moment of stunning weirdness—the image, turn of phrase, or even entire scene that takes you utterly by surprise. These moments are part of the enjoyment of reading. They grab you by the scruff of your neck and make you take notice. I’m thinking of a scene in Meat Eater when Rinella recollects his fondness—or maybe fascination is a better word—for muskrats. He describes their denning habits and then mentions that a bunch of them denned in an old float anchored in his family’s pond. One of Rinella’s tricks, he remembers, was to swim stealthily out to the float and ambush the muskrats, scattering them out into the open water. Then he’d “dive in after them and see how far I could chase them underwater before I had to come up for air.”

This is a detail that tells us exactly what sort of kid Rinella was. In a few sentences he captures the mood of a rural childhood, with both the nascent hunter emerging and also the innocent curiosity-bordering-on-cruelty of youth. It’s also the way he disarms the reader, so that past delinquencies that he owns up to (illegal trapping, fishing for spawning steelhead over their redds) can be written off as callow mistakes.

One of my favorite chapters is about fishing rather than hunting, and though I disagree with it’s inferred conclusion (that catch-and-release fishing is, in a word, stupid), the progression from steelheading in the  Great Lakes to fly-fishing for bonefish during a nomadic, dirtbag month down in the Yucatan is a tour de force of good angling writing (i.e., we’re treated to characters and their motivations rather than the mind-numbing repetition of “screaming reels”).

What both of these books show is that, no matter what the numbers say about the popularity of hunting in our increasingly indoors-oriented society, words still matter—and the hunting memoir remains a vital part of our literary bookshelf.

A Taste of Place

A place is revealed by its food. One thinks of the great continental culinary revelations of Waverly Root in The Food of Italy and The Food of France, books that introduced many a reader to those cornerstones of Western cuisine and culture. Or the luscious double-shot of photography and ethnography that fuels the modern tour through Southeast Asia that is Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet.

There is so much good food writing with a geographic bent these days, whether straight up cookbook, memoir, or travelogue, that—for those of us with neither the time nor funds to amass the whole library—it’s necessary to narrow the field. No surprise, then, that my shelf is weighted down by books with a wild edge. A little cottage industry of titles about foraging and wild foods seems to be emerging at the moment (or reemerging), and even titles with a more catholic sensibility see the sense of giving a nod toward nature’s garden, especially if that nod conveys a sense of place.

Two books that I’m reading and cooking from right now come to mind: Jess Thomson’s Pike Place Market Recipes, which examines a culture close to home, Seattle’s iconic marketplace known for its brass pig and flying fish, and a locale less familiar to me, the upper Midwest of Brett Laidlaw’s Trout Caviar: Recipes from a Northern Forager. (Full disclosure: Thomson recruited me as her mushroom sidekick for a walk through the market in her chapter “From the Slopes.”)

Pike Place Market abounds with wild foods, from the salmon and shellfish that a tourist expects to find, to the less expected black truffles and stinging nettles harvested from woods just beyond the urban clamor (and sometimes within the city limits itself). Thomson understandably devotes an entire chapter to seafood—the first chapter, in fact—with notable dishes from nearby eateries such as Etta’s famed Crab Cakes as well as a Cornmeal-crusted Pan-Fried Razor Clam dish gussied up by another local food company with a growing reputation, Mama Lil’s pickled peppers.

How is it that this admittedly touristy marketplace with its many vendors became a synecdoche for Seattle? It’s all about the local delicacies. Thomson explains how the theatrics of throwing fish, a Pike Place specialty, evolved into a more serious customer-seller interaction that culminated in 2011 with the market’s decision to only sell sustainably caught fish, a move that both necessitates a greater reliance on what’s available in the Pacific Northwest and consolidates the city’s forward reputation on issues of sustainability.

Thomson’s “From the Slopes” chapter begins with a section titled “I’d Tell You, But I’d Have To Kill You.” This is where I show up, to take a fall stroll with Thomson through the market, admiring the bounty of Northwest fungi. We find black trumpets, hedgehogs, chanterelles, truffles, and a host of other gourmet edibles from the forests of Washington. Afterward we savor a meal at one of my favorite lunch spots, Lecosho, which Thomson highlights for their Wild Mushroom Tagliatelle, a recipe any home cook worth their Kosher salt can replicate with ease thanks to the author’s user-friendly approach.

Thomson includes other categories such as “From the Butcher” and “From the Garden” as well as a chapter that namechecks local microbrews and wines, “From the Cellar.” The introduction paints a history of the market—how it was originally built “in response to a rapid rise in produce prices in the early 1900s” and quickly became central to Seattle’s sense of itself, how it was nearly lost in the years following Japanese internment during World War Two, and how it rebounded after a citywide vote that saved the market from redevelopment. Throughout is a reverence for ingredients identified with the Pacific Northwest and mouth-watering recipes to match.


In his introduction to Trout Caviar, Brett Laidlaw remembers entering local Minnesota woods “through a gap in the barbed-wire fence” of a neighbor to pick wild sumac, cattails, and gingerroot. As he got older and traveled farther afoot, Laidlaw picked blueberries and fished for walleye and northern pike. The titular trout would come later, when he picked up a flyrod. He learned new skills: smoking meat, fermenting vegetables, tapping trees for birch and maple syrup. Some might consider these old-school skills; to me, I’m reminded of the adage about the old becoming new again.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to Minnesota. Maybe once, in my younger years during a spate of cross-country drives, I might have passed through quickly. But no matter. I have a feeling for the place thanks to Laidlaw’s evocative portrait and the foods he incorporates into his life, foods that speak to the mixed forests and turtle ponds and lush meadows of the upper Midwest.

Trout Caviar is divided into several sections based on the components of a feast: Starters, Salads, Soups, a variety of Main Courses (meat, fish, poultry), Desserts, and even Condiments. What binds these groupings is a sense of place and an emphasis on the wild, whether that be Lake Trout Chowder, a Ramps and Fiddleheads Tart, or a comfort bonanza such as Chanterelle and Steak Stroganoff. Foraged foods that I can only dream about, such as hen-of-the-woods mushrooms (Grifola frondosa) and wild rice, make well-deserved appearances.

Of course there’s a recipe for Trout Caviar, too. Laidlaw does a lot of fishing in the Northern Woods. In his “Trout Caviar Manifesto” he boils down his thinking about local food this way: Our stuff is as good as anyone’s stuff, and part of the reason that it’s good is that it’s ours. Such thinking might strike some readers as provincial and under-doggish, but to me Laidlaw has grabbed hold of one of the tenets of the emerging wild food movement: there are weird and wonderful foods all over America—indeed, all over the world—that are tied inextricably to a specific region, large or small, and entire foodways and cultures have grown up around these ingredients, including indelible variations on language and custom—the things that make us all different and interesting. Think of crawfish on the bayou or ramps in Appalachia or huckleberry camps in Oregon.

“We serve our trout caviar with dark bread or blini, good butter, sour cream or creme fraiche, and all due ceremony,” Laidlaw writes. “Maybe some September I’ll have such success on the trout stream that this little miracle will become old hat. It hasn’t happened yet.” And here’s to hoping that old hat is never an ingredient in future meals. With a devotion to what’s available for the table right out the back door, Laidlaw and Thomson’s books give proof that a taste of place is a fulfilling way to live.

Hunting in the New Millennium

Taking up arms in order to take down dinner is no easy feat in our modern world of mixed messages and changing demographics, particularly for those of us who didn’t inherit the culture of hunting at birth. 

Tovar Cerulli and Georgia Pellegrini give us hunting rookies hope. Both came to the hunt later in life, not as a rite of passage but through an adult choice. One was a vegan starved for protein; the other, a former chef who wanted to live closer to the bones she made into stock. Their experiences, told in The Mindful Carnivore and Girl Hunter, are instructive for a new generation of would-be hunters.

Cerulli stopped eating meat after dispatching one too many brook trout as a young man. In a land of such plenty, it seemed somehow immoral to take a life. His vegetarianism led to veganism and finally, years later, to a trip to the doctor, who advised him to start reintroducing animal protein for health reasons. “I had more energy, felt more alive,” he writes of his change in diet. His philosophical qualms were not so easily assuaged, however, so he resolved to kill and butcher his own meat—humanely, and with deference to the environment. Fortunately for Cerulli, he had mentors to ease him on the path. Along the way he reminds us of the many ironies that attend contemporary discourse on hunting and meat-eating (for instance, deer are routinely killed to protect organic crops). Trying to live in harmony with our bodies and the natural world is harder than most people want to believe.

Pellegrini’s journey is one that will resonate with foodies determined to know where their sustenance is sourced—and how. Killing your own, after all, is the ultimate expression of this desire. She gives up a plum job in the wilds of Wall Street to go to cooking school, and one day finds herself faced with the sort of predatory act that is consistent with her new line of work: slaughtering turkeys. “The experience awakened a dormant, primal part of me,” she writes.

And so both Cerulli and Pellegrini embark on age-old transformations, learning what it means to be at the top of the food chain. Cerulli’s journey is mostly set in the Vermont woods of his home, where he patiently learns how to kill and eat the big game with the biggest payoff for a hunter trying to live in harmony with nature: white-tailed deer. Pellegrini’s journey is more episodic and includes far-flung hunting expeditions in pursuit of a variety of feathered and furred game and with a variety of mentors, a few of whom turn out to be less than savory. Both Cerulli and Pellegrini address head-on the popular image of the “redneck hunter,” but Pellegrini has personal run-ins with this species, and even in more upscale environs she confronts sexism and menace. Conscientious hunters will bridle at some of the situations she unwittingly falls into while trying to gain experience. She endures more than a couple canned hunts, and at one point gets bamboozled by a poacher. Implicit is the danger that faces a woman in an arena largely governed by men.

The ethics of hunting is a recurring motif in both books (and for those who want to delve deeply into this tricky realm, Cerulli recommends books by Ted Kerasote). What do we make of the fancy Texas “hunting” ranch, for instance, where the game is all exotic and hardly prepared for anything resembling the doctrine of “fair chase”? Or notions of the Great White Hunter in Africa (Pellegrini reminds us that trophy hunting pays for much needed conservation in poorer countries)? Or, closer to home for most hunters, the wounded animal that escapes only to suffer a long, drawn-out death? This latter conundrum is one of the events that weighed on my own mind after a hunt in Arkansas.

The point is, this hunting thing ain’t easy. About the moment of ultimate truth, Cerulli writes:

Holding the deer’s torn-in-two heart in my hand, I knew that oblivion had come swiftly. It was the shot I had hoped for: no more than a few seconds of shock, no time for pain to take hold. It was easier than most other ways a deer’s life was likely to end: in cold and starvation, across a car’s front end, at the teeth of four-footed predators. Yet that swiftness did nothing to alter the raw fact. I had killed this graceful creature.

Beginner and experienced hunters alike will find much to admire in these soul-searching accounts of learning how to kill for meat. Even though the authors are after somewhat different game—Cerulli wants to provide for his table while, as the title of her book implies, Pellegrini wants to take a seat at a table that was until recently not even available to her gender—the heart of the matter is how to live and eat honestly.