STORY AND PHOTOS BY BECKY SELENGUT
“Hello, I’m on a kayak in the San Juan Islands, harvesting bull kelp. Service is spotty. Please leave a message at the beep.”
If a voicemail greeting could slap a Pacific Northwesterner Kick Me sticker on my back, I’ll have some adhesive to contend with when I get home. For now, I’m busy hauling an 11-foot seaweed snake over the bow of my kayak and slicing off the blade with a pocket knife. Harvesting kelp blades in this fashion allows the seaweed to keep growing, making it truly 100% sustainable. “We’re giving it a haircut,” says Jennifer Adler, nutritionist, owner of Passionate Nutrition and founder and co-leader of our three-day Seaweed 101 adventure on Lopez Island.
I reach over the bow and slice off another length and muscle it into a black bag tucked between my legs. The blades attach to a methane-filled bobble-head that tops the kelp (also known as the gas bladder – I’ll say!) which connects to the stipe (the long noodle-like part you see on beaches) that plunges into the waters off the west coast of the island. Bull kelp can grow to lengths of 60 feet and are secured to rocks at the bottom of the ocean by way of a holdfast, a round, root-like structure. We’re taught to never disturb or remove the holdfast, because that will surely kill it. We’re instructed to take as many blades as we think we can eat in a year, but only to cut one stipe to make kelp pickles. Bull kelp, unlike the other varieties of seaweed we’ll collect at low-tide the following day, can’t regenerate if you cut below the gas bladder.
I’m transferring more slippery emerald green kelp ribbons into my bag, all the while trying to maintain my balance. It’s hard to prepare for this moment; there’s no yoga stretch for this kind of thing, no gas bladder downward dog – you just bend and twist, lift, pull and slice and try to stay in your boat. Jennifer reassures the group that the only person to ever flip a boat on her many years of leading these adventures was her, when she, Washingtonian-Dukes-of-Hazard-style, pushed out her kayak and ran to jump into it.
We arrived on Lopez Island on Friday afternoon and will spend the next two days immersed in seaweed lore: identification, harvesting techniques and gourmet seaweed-infused meals prepared by natural foods chef and co-leader Zephyr Dunnicliffe. My fellow students are an adventurous group of folks who recognize that seaweed is a nutrient-dense powerhouse of a food. None of us are expert kayakers, and happily a high skill level just isn’t necessary. Some of us have extensive gardens; some of us can food for fun. There are novice foragers, and some are using this weekend to dip their feet into the realm of wild food for the first time.
The first morning, Jennifer told us, “now don’t go crazy harvesting—most people take way more than they could ever possibly eat in a year.” Yes, yes, we nod, that makes perfect sense until, of course, we’re out there and surrounded by a superfood with no price tag on it; a sea green that grows up to 18” a day, a food so packed with nutrients, Jennifer says it “makes kale look like iceberg lettuce.” All this might explain why I’m tempted to act like Laverne and Shirley in that episode where they win a shopping spree at the local supermarket and they stuff so much food in their carts and down their pants and shirts that the buzzer goes off before they can cross their bloated bodies over the finish line. I mean, honestly, how much bull kelp do I really need? With a solid amount of foraging experience, I’m overly familiar with the long hours carrying a forlornly empty mushroom basket, as the sunlight stretches thin over the mountainside. This, by comparison? This is a pirate’s booty the likes of which I have never before experienced. Restraint takes discipline. I cut myself off at six long blades—enough, Jennifer tells me, to supplement my diet for a year.
Back at camp, we hang the kelp blades over a jury-rigged drying rack consisting of a rope stretched between the rafters of the campground pavilion, before eating a dinner of artichoke croquettes (made with dulse flakes), sweet potato medallions (with kelp powder, see recipe next page) quinoa-kelp skillet bread, mixed greens, including kelp, and strawberry salad, and petite French lentils with kelp and lemon cashew cream sauce. Jennifer and Zephyr are passionate ambassadors for seaweed; they glow with health and vitality to a degree that might almost be annoying if they weren’t so nice. If that isn’t enough to convince you, it was nearly impossible to detect the presence of seaweed in nearly all of the incredible dishes Zephyr made for us over the weekend. Not that I dislike the taste of seaweed, mind you, but in order to get the health benefits, a little every day is a better strategy than a mermaid-style binge on seaweed salad once a month. Practically speaking, it’s easier to convince people to add seaweed to their food if they know it won’t alter the overall flavor
While each variety of seaweed has slightly different nutritional content, and the precise levels of nutrients vary according to season and sunlight, in general the plants are great sources for numerous minerals, particularly calcium and potassium. Iodine levels are also typically very high, to the point that people using medication for their hearts or thyroids should talk with their doctors before regularly supplementing their diets with seaweed. On the plus side, the minerals remain stable when cooking, and it’s absolutely stress-free harvesting: there are no poisonous seaweeds in the Pacific Northwest that will make you sick.
That being said, seaweed should only be harvested in areas of low industry, low population and good water flow to avoid contamination from other sources. So before you run over to the beach at Golden Gardens to harvest, consider that the diversity of seaweed species in an area is an indicator of a healthy ecosystem. Sea lettuce (shown on the next page) can grow in areas of high pollution but not a whole lot else. If you are seeing kelp, sea lettuce, nori, dulse, bladderwrack and other types of seaweed you can’t identify, you’re probably in a clean enough area to harvest. Agate Beach is where we go on Sunday, and it’s a pristine example of a healthy eco-system; the rocks are covered with numerous types of seaweed that we trim and place in our bags to later dry.
I ask Jennifer why, if seaweed is this risk-free and beneficial, so few people incorporate it into their diets. Her answer is threefold: people think it’s fishy and slimy, it’s prohibitively expensive to buy, and yet, ironically, it’s still seen as a poor person’s food, to harvest only when times are tough. This is the crux of why she started these trips, “Seaweed is a way we can bring health back to people,” she tells me, adding “after all, what good is health food if no one wants to eat it?”
As we are packing up to leave, some are talking about how meditative it was to kayak through the sea kelp bed — to feel the depths from which the kelp emerge, how it buoyed our boats and held them in their bobbing arms, like an underwater tree with colorful kayak ornaments.
It was a powerful feeling and surprising for me, as I’m not normally privy to woo-woo moments of enlightenment. I was momentarily surprised at my own ability to feel a bit of that mystical energy until I remembered how the kelp forest had sucked my kayak partner’s Canon Mark 5 camera into the watery depths.
“Dude,” I said to my new friend Vera, “the kelp bed giveth and the kelp bed taketh away.”
We nodded and paused for a moment of reflective silence. Respect.
Becky Selengut is a private chef, author, forager and humorist who is not ashamed to be caught with a little seaweed in her teeth.
Sidebar: Camp Dates
Seaweed 101 is running two sessions this summer, July 19-21 and August 16-18. This year they are renting a house on the water where you can stay in a room, or camp on the property. For camping the trip is $550, but if people want a king bed with attached bath, it gets more costly.
Wild Foods 101 New this year, Passionate Nutrition is adding a three day workshop focused on wild foods. They’ll teach students to transform local plants and herbs into herbal remedies, beauty products and meals. 2013 workshop dates: July 21-23 & August 18-20. passionatenutrition.com
Sidebar: Eat Your Seaweeds
Jennifer recommends either harvesting your own seaweed, buying wild or choosing commercially grown seaweed from Eden Foods or Maine seaweed brands. Finely grind seaweed (use a spice grinder) and keep on your counter, in a covered container, so you remember to use it regularly. Add a teaspoon to: smoothies, stir-fries, soups, breads, muffins, or egg dishes.
For more ideas and recipes, check out Prannie Rhatigan’s Irish Seaweed Kitchen, a fantastic cookbook for incorporating seaweed into your cooking.