Category Archives: book review

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.

Eat Your Weedies

Is wild food the new pork belly? My Google alert for “foraging” dings nearly every day with a fresh article on the joys of finding and cooking wild edibles. The New Yorker jumped on the bandwagon recently in their annual food issue with a piece by Jane Kramer in which she forages her way across Europe. The last 18 months have seen the publication of foraging guide books by my pal Hank Shaw with Hunt, Gather, Cook (reviewed here) and Sam Thayer’s Nature’s Garden (reviewed here); a memoir, The Feast Nearby, by Robin Mather; and Connie Green’s cookbook The Wild Table.

Is any of this ink actually getting people into the outdoors to interact with their landscape and maybe find a bit of dinner? It’s hard to know. There’s a learning curve, after all, which is a hurdle in an era of instant gratification and short attention spans. Certainly there is no single resource that can put you on the trail to wild harvesting. Some of the books out there, such as Thayer’s, are broad field guides that will only be partly useful in any given region; others, such as Shaw’s, are part field guide and part inspiration to give you a kick in the pants;  the recipe books mostly work in the kitchen; and the memoirs are strictly food for thought.
Would-be foragers who I’ve met over the years seem most intimidated by issues of identification and processing. Enter John Kallas and his new “Wild Food Adventure Series.” His first volume in what  promises to be a collection of related titles is Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Newbies looking for a single resource to get started will be well served by this jam-packed book. It’s extremely detailed yet limited in scope. The book only covers a handful of plant species that are common throughout most of North America. More advanced foragers might be put off (only 20 species?) but beginners will be thankful for the depth that replaces breadth.
Kallas spotlights those ubiquitous globetrotting wild edibles common to backyard, field margin, abandoned lot, and even sidewalk crack: the weeds. And not even all the usual weeds. Stinging nettles, for instance, don’t make the cut. Kallas does cover other common weeds, from lambsquarters (called wild spinach here) to purslane, and wintercress to shepherd’s purse. These are truly omnipresent plants that should be on every forager’s menu. Many of these species will be familiar right away while others might trigger a memory of this or that unidentified weed that landed in your compost. Thumbing through these pages you might have the sudden realization that the giant spiny thing growing from your neighbor’s planting strip is a sow thistle—a highly nutritious plant that, when “managed appropriately,” can be used in any preparation calling for collard greens.
Edible Wild Plants is divided into four categories that set expectations for taste: mild foundation greens (e.g., chickweed, mallow), tart greens (docks and sorrels), pungent greens (mustards), and bitter greens (dandelions, nipplewort). Entries for each species are detailed, including notes on identification, nutrition, and lifecycle. There are sub-sections for the different anatomical parts of the plant at various stages of life cycle: roots, sprouts, leaves, stems, buds, flowers, and seeds. Each stage of growth is described. Photos accompany all these stages and parts. There are additional sections on harvesting, processing, and cooking, with recipes. The entry on field mustard, for example, is more than 20 pages and includes instructions on harvesting both the vegetable-like flower buds and the seeds used for making the condiment mustard. There are even range maps.
I’m often asked about the sustainability of foraging. Obviously, if everyone went clamming tomorrow, the shellfish beds would be quickly depleted. But weeds are another story. The planet would be no worse off today if every American harvested weeds for the table this past Thanksgiving. This makes Kallas’s introductory guide book a healthy addition to any forager’s library.

Fascinating Fungi

I spent the first 22 years of my life in and around New England, oblivious to the diversity of fungi in the neighborhood. The other day my brother was visiting our parents in Connecticut and noticed a parade of mushrooms on the lawn. Identifying fungi via smart phone is a notoriously dumb idea, so I’m sending them a copy of Lawrence Millman’s new field guide to the Fascinating Fungi of New England.

Millman is a mycologist and adventure writer living in the Boston area. I first met him virtually when we exchanged copies of our books a year ago. His Last Places: A Journey to the North is a witty jaunt to the bleak yet beautiful ports of call at the top of the world. A field guide may seem like a different sort of embarkation for a writer of Millman’s abilities—and we should all be thankful for this detour.

Millman joins David Arora as a practitioner of an increasingly popular genre—the nature field guide—who refuses to sacrifice points of style and wordsmithing. Because of their work, mycology enjoys a clear advantage over other related disciplines (birding, botany, butterflies, and so on) in the reading department. You might just as likely read Millman’s description of Amanita muscaria before bed as leaf through the book looking for that strange Agaricus in your compost pile.

The “fascination” of the title is well earned. Through sidebars and species descriptions peppered with oddball details, Millman explores any number of fungal fronts, from the bioluminescence of mushrooms to the world’s largest organism, a species of honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) covering 3.5 square miles of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest.  On the bleeding tooth (Hydnellum peckii), he explains that the red droplets oozing from an otherwise white fruiting body are not the result of a “bad dental problem”; rather, the fungus is engaging in the little understood act of guttation—exuding reddish water—possibly to allow for better sporulation. The train wrecker (Lentinus lepideus), with a mycelium resistant to creosote, gets its common name from a tendency to fruit on milled timber such as railway ties or telephone poles.

Millman’s identifying tips are clear and detailed, and the color illustrations by Rick Kollath are quite good, with handy visual cues such as spore prints and gill types (e.g. adnate, free, etc.). But it is the rest of the text that will inspire closer outdoor observation and keep you thumbing through the pages—to see whether that cluster of morbid protrusions in the flower bed is the dead man’s fingers (Xylaria longipes) or whether the ruffed grouse look-alike on the maple out back is the tasty and salubrious hen of the woods, aka maitake (Grifola frondosa).

Honest Food

I’m sure I don’t have to introduce readers of this blog to Hank Shaw. Shaw is the proprietor of the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog, which has been nominated for numerous awards and garnered two IACP medals. He’s also—full disclosure—a friend of mine. Now Shaw has a new book out which is taking the foraging community by storm. It’s called Hunt, Gather, Cook, which is a pretty good description of how he lives his life. You might add Write in there too, since he’s been a reporter for two decades and understands how to bring the intricacies of the forager’s metier to the general public—no small feat.

On its face, Hunt, Gather, Cook is an introduction to wild foods with recipes, but it’s also a clarion call. Hank’s web address is, and that’s what his main aim is: to show you how to eat well in way that stimulates mind and body, in an age dominated by watching rather than participating. Shaw answers an essential question—why bother?—at the very beginning of Chapter One. “First off, it’s fun,” he writes. “There’s a certain ‘wow’ factor when you serve guests an elegant dish of, say, nettle pasta, or empanadas filled with cheese and lamb’s-quarters, or dolmades made with mallow leaves instead of grape leaves.” If you’re happy pushing a grocery cart through fluorescent-lit aisles and choosing between the most colorful boxes of pre-fab food, then this book isn’t for you (or maybe it’s especially for you); finding your own food is about more than nourishment—it’s about an activity that’s good for the soul. There is satisfaction in growing a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato; in digging a clam and eating it on the same beach; in stacking your freezer with venison from a deer that died so that you can live.

Growing, foraging, or hunting your own food is a reminder that, no matter what the cynics say, you are still a part of the natural world and the food chain. At one time, these pursuits constituted humanity’s main job. Now we have other work to occupy us (like trying to monetize web sites), but food finding is still a basic need that satisfies an ancient desire.

Enough proselytizing. So what’s in the book?

It’s divided into three main sections: foraging plants, nuts, and berries; fishing and shellfish; and hunting. In the plant section Shaw covers stalwarts such as stinging nettles and dandelions but also more intensive aspects of foraging such as harvesting and processing acorns, not to mention fringe-like pursuits such as brewing madrone bark tea. In the fishing section Shaw shows his stripes as a former commercial clammer (“The sea is one of God’s great cathedrals, and it is the one that most stirs me within,” he writes in the chapter head). Entire books have been written just about fly-fishing with sub-surface flies, so a few chapters devoted to the sea can only be a starting point, but even so there is good advice here for beginners, for instance on deep sea fishing: “Ocean fishing is one of the few areas where being a do-it-yourselfer isn’t always the best idea.” Charter a boat, he recommends. There are chapters on crabs, panfish, and even “misfits” such as eels, blowfish, and oyster toads, whatever those are (Shaw fries them).

The last section, on hunting, perhaps best encapsulates Shaw’s notions of honest food. He came to hunting late in life, though he’s learned enough to stock his freezer mostly with game meats and he’s lost his taste for store-bought beef. This is also the section in which Shaw feels a need to explain himself, because, let’s face it, the world is full of people opposed to hunting. “I’ve learned more about how and why nature does what she does in a morning spent hunting in the marsh or forest than most could in a year,” he writes. This section is aimed squarely at that emerging demographic of urban weekend warrior thinking about purchasing his or her first hunting rifle. Shaw covers the basics on small mammals, large mammals, upland game-birds, and waterfowl. There is also a chapter on wild boar and charcuterie.

Hunt, Gather, Cook is not so much a field guide as it is a primer to whet the would-be forager’s appetite. Those looking for color photos and point-by-point identification are advised to look elsewhere (and it should be mentioned that there is no such thing as a single reference guide to foraging in North America; even regional guides cannot be entirely comprehensive, to the dismay of some book buyers who expect all this information between two covers). Instead, Shaw’s book provides the raison-d’être to go out and get your own food as well as a healthy dose of inspiration in the form of anecdotes and asides. The recipes are a diverse mixture of down home, far-flung, and cheffy. The overall effect is that of a friendly mentor taking you by the hand to reveal the hidden splendors of nature’s pantry.

Shaw will be in Seattle to promote Hunt, Gather, Cook for the next few days, with an action-packed itinerary of dinners, talks, and other events. You can read more about his book tour here.

Good Book

When it comes to stewardship of the seas, we’ve been greedy, irresponsible, and just plain stupid. We take too many fish, wreck habitats in the process, and feign ignorance when it suits us. Really, we could use a few old-fashioned whacks on the bottom from Sister Nature.

But being human, we don’t like being lectured to or ordered around. This is why Becky Selengut, the author of Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coastis the right messenger for our sadly diminished times. Becky (who happens to be a friend) is a chef and seafood lover. She’s also a compassionate writer with a wicked sense of humor. Becky’s not going to go all earnest on us, like so many otherwise well-meaning greenies.

Here she is on her conflicted feelings about shrimp, a poster fish for bad practices:

When I was just a wee lass, I had a thing bad for shrimp cocktail. I remember how cold and frosty that glass was; how the ice cupped a thimbleful of cocktail sauce in the middle; how five plump shrimp fanned out from the center like the orange-pink petals of a rare flower… I feel wistful about those cheap and easy shrimp cocktails, those family meals that seemed to be devoid of the modern conversations about food that are fairly commonplace today. Being an ethical eater sometimes gives me an adult-size headache.

Becky feels our pain—the pain that comes with knowledge, responsibility, and doing the right thing (not to mention the pain of being reprimanded). I fondly remember those shrimp cocktails, too. They were a treat. But no more. As Becky goes on to say, there is also pleasure in being informed and eating seasonally. Those shrimp cocktails were special, but a sustainably harvested spot shrimp pulled from the depths of Puget Sound and savored the very same day is even more special.

Becky is a knowledgeable guide in all things briny. She peddled crab-stuffed flounder rolls as a kid in New Jersey, went to culinary school, then put her degree to work in a number of Northwest eateries before becoming the “fish girl” at the famed Herbfarm Restaurant. Now she’s a chef for hire, freelance writer, and teaches cooking classes. Good Fish is her paean to what remains of the Pacific fishery. While it’s mostly a cook book, with mouth-watering dishes for sustainable species, it also shows off Becky’s wit and wisdom in the head notes and marginalia that accompany each chapter and recipe.

To wit: It wasn’t until years later that I realized sablefish and black cod are the same thing. In fact, I do believe I’ve said at a cocktail party or two that my two favorite fish were sablefish and black cod. At least I’m consistent. Or this: Arctic char is the smart, well-dressed girl in the corner of the room who’s quiet and subtle and doesn’t hit you over the head with her confidence, yet everyone in the room (especially her) knows she’s got it all going on. So true. I can personally attest to Becky’s badinage (and occasional bawdiness); I took her clam-digging and spent the afternoon between fits of laughter and perma-blush.

Back to the message. If you want to be a responsible steward of the sea, it’s time to consider dog salmon and sardines for the table. Gone are the days of blue fin tuna, Chilean sea bass (aka Patagonia toothfish), and whatever variety of shrimp the supermarket happens to carry. We need to be conscious of the seafood choices we make.

I like to think I know a few things about Pacific fish, but I’m always learning from Becky, even on familiar subjects. For instance, in her salmon chapter, she gives some buying tips that includes this useful nugget: “Look carefully at the pin bones. If you see a divot around the pin bones, it’s a sign that the fillet is old.” The images depicting fish fillets (salmon and halibut) that are undercooked, just right, and overcooked will be cherished by inexperienced home cooks looking for just the right flake factor.

A few of the recipes in the book I’ve been lucky enough to be served by the author herself, such as Jet’s Oyster Succotash, while others I just had to try. The Geoduck Crudo is light and balanced, without stepping on the big clam’s…err…neck. Scallops with Carrot Cream and Marjoram—delicate, sweet, and briny—did indeed “blow this dish right out of the water.” Others are on my to-do list: Mussels with Guinness Cream; Halibut Coconut Curry with Charred Chiles and Lime; and Dungeness Crab Mac-and-Cheese.

This is a book I’ll be going back to again and again, for inspiration in the kitchen or just to savor a fishy turn of phrase. Every piscivore should own a copy.

Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook

Here at FOTL Headquarters we’re honored to announce our selection in the brand new Foodista Best of Food Blogs Cookbook!

Last year food bloggers from around the world submitted entries to Foodista‘s contest—the first ever of its kind—and now the winners have been collected in this handsome full-color cookbook, which includes the text, photos, and recipes from the original blog posts.

You might remember my winning posts: Salmon Head Soup and Geoduck Ceviche.

The book is divided into “Cocktails and Appetizers”; “Soups and Salads”; “Main Dishes”; “Side Dishes”; and “Desserts,” with 100 recipes in all. Included are other wild food recipes such as Chanterelle Mushrooms with Blue Cheese Pie; Scallop Sandwiches; Tagliatelle with Wild Boar Ragu; Prickly Pear Granita; and Blackberry Sorbet.

You can read more about it here.

Nature’s Garden

Following in the footsteps of Euell Gibbons, Sam Thayer has inspired a generation to get outside and find wild food delicacies waiting beyond the back door. His first book, The Forager’s Harvest, was a hands-on guide to the bounty around us, with an emphasis on those species found near his midwestern home. This April Thayer published his second volume, Nature’s Garden, a guide that is at once more wide-ranging and yet also focused in a way that the average how-to book is not.

In an introductory section called simply “The Purpose of This Book” Thayer lays out his vision: This is not a guide for the armchair enthusiast, he writes, it is “a guide to actually foraging.” (Italics his.) Rather than bombard the novice with countless species and terse descriptions, he compiles a sort of Forager’s Hall of Fame, with something to please everyone, from beginners to experts and home cooks to chefs. Thus, while there are only 41 plants discussed in Nature’s Garden, these are all winners, and each one receives detailed treatment, including multiple color photos of wild plants at various stages in their life cycles; lengthy descriptions of identification, habitat and range, harvest and preparation; and in some cases history, lore, and ecology.

The acorn chapter, for instance, gets no fewer than 50 pages devoted to this important though tricky food source, with acorns broken out by individual species and helpful notes about separating the good from the bad and the many ways of processing. The section also illustrates the author’s no-nonsense approach. Of the “sweet acorn” myth—that is, the El Dorado-like idea of an acorn that doesn’t require leaching to remove bitter tannins—Thayer writes: “Dream of these tannin-free acorns if you wish, hope if you like, but don’t waste your time looking for them. No acorn myth has bred more disillusionment.”

For those wondering whether such a focused and personal treatment will work for their own region, Thayer includes a relevance chart by U.S. state and Canadian province. My own state of Washington is on the low end of the spectrum, with 76 percent applicability; at the other end, with 95 percent or higher, are Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Clearly his expertise is concentrated in the Midwest and East Coast, but those of us from the western states won’t be disappointed. Even the desert state of Nevada is represented by half the entries.

Some well-known wild foods are here: hazelnut, prickly pear, huckleberry, wild strawberry, dandelion, and others. Of greater interest are those less publicized foods that beginning foragers want to know more about: amaranth, garlic mustard, Jerusalem-artichoke, sow-thistle, salsify, and many more.

Nature buffs, would-be foragers, and even experienced wild foods aficionados should all have a copy of Nature’s Garden in their libraries—or better yet—at the ready. Stock market investors might see it as a hedge too.

No Ordinary Fish

Rainbow trout first captured my imagination in sixth grade when I filled an aquarium at school with a few dozen fingerlings. Most of them went belly up, but the hardiest survived to become silver streaks of excitement for Middle School boys with their faces pushed up against the glass.

Here in Washington State on the dry, eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, we have a species of trout variously called redside or redband. In fact it is a subspecies of rainbow adapted to live in the desert canyon country of the Pacific Northwest, a harsh environment of fluctuating river flows and oscillating weather extremes. The common names derive from the intense rosy blush coloring the fish’s gill plate and flanks. These rainbows, I discovered soon after moving here, flash gorgeous colors and fight like hell.

Most of my fishing for redsides has been in the Yakima Canyon, a drainage severely compromised by dams and irrigation which some anglers refer to it as “the ditch.” But that ditch’s trout mesmerized me from the get-go. I had fished for rainbows all over the country, and though these particular fish rarely attained the size of rainbows I had caught up and down the fertile streams of the Rockies, they seemed to me more beautiful and pound-for-pound better fighters than their compatriots elsewhere.

My suspicions about the Yakima’s rainbows were confirmed several years ago after meeting a state fish commissioner around the campfire one night. He told me that contrary to public perception, the Yakima’s rainbows are hardly the mutts most people think they are. Years of stocking for a “put-and-take” fishery ended in the early 80’s with new selective gear rules that culminated with “catch and release” designation in 1990 (those wanting to keep a fish can do so below Roza Dam). Now the fish are strictly wild—that is, self-sustaining. More than that, DNA tests proved that years of stocking hadn’t fundamentally changed the river’s native trout. Apparently the natives didn’t find the stockers attractive or fit for breeding.

“You’re catching ‘bows descended from the same fish that Lewis and Clark caught,” the commissioner told me.

If only this were true for other watersheds.

As Anders Halverson explains in An Entirely Synthetic Fish, his book tracing the remarkable journey of the rainbow trout, from its origins in one of the nation’s first hatchery programs to its subsequent spread around the country and the world, the success of the rainbow has had a greater impact on fish and fishing than anyone could have predicted. Rainbow introductions created fisheries where none previously existed, helped to initiate countless young anglers, and altered ecosystems. With echoes of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire, Halverson shows that not only have we engineered a fish but that the fish has also engineered us.

The story begins with Livingston Stone, a New Hampshire pastor turned aquaculturist. In 1872, with orders from his boss Spencer Fullerton Baird, head of the newly hatched U.S. Fish Commission, Stone went west on the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco, then traveled north to the upper reaches of the Sacramento Basin in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. Here, within an arrow shot of the Wintu Indians, he set up shop on the McCloud River with hopes of propagating chinook salmon. The salmon hatchery didn’t pan out but further upstream he met success with another North Pacific species, the rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

By 1886 the U.S. Fish Commission had sent rainbow trout to 33 of the 38 states then in the Union as well as England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and Mexico. In time the fish would establish populations in South America, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Africa. Rainbow trout would become a “global species, both physically and culturally,” remarks Halverson. “The range expansion that corn, sheep, dogs, and humans only achieved over thousands of years, rainbow trout have accomplished in little more than a century.” The author goes on to examine the concurrent rise of recreational fishing, suggesting that such a rise might not have been possible without the adaptability of rainbow trout, for the sheer numbers of modern anglers require a hardy fish that can be produced—or reproduce on its own—in quantity. Hence the proliferation of hatcheries around the world, for good or ill, and the current debate over wild fish versus man-made fish.

The rainbow’s ascension occurred during a time when the control of nature seemed not only possible but preferable. Massive dam projects changed the face of the American West in particular, and where warm, muddy rivers once flowed there were now dam-controlled water courses with clear, cold water—prime trout habitat. Halverson details one of the more unseemly chain of events: the poisoning of the Green River (tributary to the Colorado) and its native “rough fish” to make way for sport fish like the rainbow. The poisoned fish now reside on the Endangered Species list.

As the Green River episode illustrates, the rainbow’s success has come at considerable cost. Rainbow trout now compete with native fish on nearly every continent. They’re also used as compensation for degraded habitats. Throughout the 20th century it was commonplace to erect a fish hatchery where the assault of pollution, resource extraction, and development made natural fish propagation an impossibility. On the other hand, one wonders how many of today’s river stewards were first lured to the joys of fish and fishing by the leaping rainbow.

Anglers and history buffs alike will tie into a good story with An Entirely Synthetic Fish, a story that is both peculiarly American and also global in its lessons. After all, China is the new frontier for trout fishermen.

Gifts for Foragers

It’s that time of year. FOTL doesn’t endorse Black Friday, hellish trips to malls, or other forms of conspicuous consumption (shopping gives him hives, truth be told), but it is traditionally a time of giving, so we’ll be offering a few suggestions over the next few weeks for the forager on your list.

First up is the book Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen, an informative, witty, and fast-paced appraisal of the ostreaphagist landscape. Eating a raw oyster is about the most carnivorous act of feeding most of us westerners (as in hemisphere) will engage in during our lives. The oyster is still alive, after all, or it should be. But what pleasure and sensuality too! As the French poet Leon-Paul Fargue said, eating oysters is “like kissing the sea on the lips.” This is a good time to be an ostreaphile. After centuries of decline during which the planet’s original oyster beds were pillaged and polluted into near extinction, the oyster is making a comeback with new aquaculture techniques and a dedicated confederacy of shellfish farmers, improving water quality in the process. Jacobsen introduces us to the major species of oyster on the culinary stage, their commercial history, and the current state of oyster eating in the world.

Admittedly, Geography is more for the oyster eater than the forager, but for those of us lucky enough to live in places where wild oysters can still be gathered off the beach—primarily Florida, Louisiana, Washington, and B.C.—there’s knowledge to be gained about what it is we’re eating. For the rest of the oyster-slurping public, Geography is a primer—not unlike a wine guide—on the tastes and textures of the most famous—to extend the wine metaphor—oyster appellations around the world, and how to pair these inimitable bivalves with other foods and drinks.

As Jacobsen writes, “When you eat oysters, you wake up.” Anyone who enjoys oysters will devour this book and then make tracks for the nearest fish market, raw bar, or oyster beach, senses alert in anticipation.