Think Moss: A Conversation with a 21st Century Forager


langdonThe best way to connect with Langdon Cook is to wait ’til he’s up to his elbows in cold, wet sand, digging for a clam. Author of the locally famous forager’s blog, Lang’s new soon-to-be-nationally-famous book (Fat of the Land, $26.95, Skipstone Press) hit the shelves in late September. It’s a terrific read for both practical foraging information—perfect for our seasons and possibilities—and for the occasional incompetence in the face of (mild) danger.

ES: What foraged foods have you got on hand this week?

LC: Right now in my fridge: two dozen cockles; a salmon fillet curing on a bed of blackberry must left over from winemaking; half a geoduck (other half—the neck—made a superb ceviche); poundage of smoked salmon waiting for vacuum-packing; a smattering of red huckleberries and trailing blackberries for dessert; and a gallon of thimbleberries ready to be made into “Recessionary Christmas Presents,” aka jam.

ES: Wait a sec, cockles? I’ve assumed that was just something out of nursery rhymes.

LC: I know, lots of folks are surprised to find out the cockle is a real critter. It’s a bivalve that can be big (not geoduck size but much larger than manila clam) and the beautiful heart-shaped shell is distinguished by radiating ribs. They live on sandy beaches around the world—you’ve seen them before. Meat is somewhat tough but flavorful, and it’s perfect chopped up in chowders.

ES: It seems like you’ve foraged just about every wild food in Washington. Is there anything you haven’t gone in search of yet, that you’re looking forward to trying?

LC: A huge gap in my foraging resume was filled just recently: geoduck. By the end of the dig I was soaked, exhausted, and exhilarated. In reality, I’ve probably barely scratched the surface.

I tried the tender young buds of devil’s club for the first time this year (added woodsy depth to a chocolate sauce) but have yet to try that famous Native American staple, camas lily bulbs, or the rhizome of a buckler fern for that matter.

Gardeners may choke upon hearing this, but a few delicious weeds have mostly eluded me. I need a good in-city source for lambs-quarters. Sautéed, it’s very similar to kale, and it’s one of the most nutritious plants in the kingdom. The other weed that can take over a garden but hasn’t invaded mine—unfortunately—is purslane. Luckily I had some of Jon Rowley’s the other day tossed with sliced heirloom tomatoes in a light vinaigrette, a perfect flavor combo.

ES: You wrote about an incident where you weren’t positive that some fiddleheads you picked were OK to eat—and you ate them anyway. Has your experience with wild food made you more or less inclined to nibble at questionably safe ingredients?

LC: Never play loosey-goosey with wild plants and fungi you can’t identify. In the case of the fiddleheads, I relaxed my usual rules because there are no fiddleheads known to be deadly poisonous. At worst I was risking a tummy ache.

There are some families of plants that require extra caution. The carrot family, for instance, is taxonomic home to many fine edibles and aromatics, such as parsley, fennel, and celery; it’s also home to Socrates’s suicide cocktail, poison hemlock. And one should never, ever nibble an unknown mushroom. Most mushrooms are bland or otherwise unpalatable, a number are delicious, and a few can kill you.

ES: Is there a time of year around Puget Sound where there’s just no good foraging?

LC: By January even the hardiest of mushrooms, the hedgehogs, are mostly done. It’s too early for stinging nettles (try late February and March), and while there might be some watercress around in pristine low-elevation streams, I think of the dead of winter as razor clam time. Pack your clam gun and head for the coast.

ES: Slug escargot was served at the Herbfarm in August, upon special request. Ever eaten our native slugs?

LC: Even I have my limits, but I’ll probably try our local slimebags some day.

ES: How would you cook them?

LC: If I ate slug I’d probably first douse in a 50/50 vinegar/water solution to de-slime, then parboil for good measure, and finally sauté in butter and garlic like escargot. With some species you apparently need to remove the digestive tract as well.

ES: Some wild food (morels, razor clams) have enormous reputations for deliciousness. There must be a few things that have equally well-deserved reputations for being awful (my parents once cooked up some truly foul salal berry jam). Flavor-wise, what’s been your biggest foraging disappointment?

LC: Japanese Knotweed Pie. A vile dessert if there ever was one. You can eat these invasive weeds sautéed like asparagus when they’re the tiniest of just-emerged shoots. Once they’re larger, try scraping the insides of the bamboo-like stems for a pie filling that most definitely didn’t rock my world.

This spring I made a Yankee Fiddlehead Casserole that was a disaster—rich cream wedded to late-picked fiddleheads of supreme bitterness, with cheese on top. Just an awful taste experience.

ES: How ecologically informed does a person need to be if they’re just snipping a few edible weeds out of the yard? Will nettles ever become an endangered species thanks to human foraging?

LC: The question of sustainability is a good one. It’s true that if the world’s people all suddenly turned to wild foods in one fell swoop there would be ecological havoc. On the other hand, if more consumers learned a little bit about foraging foods out of their back doors, the raised level of food awareness would be a net gain.

Many of the weeds—dandelions, nettles, lambs-quarters, etc.—are very nutritious and ubiquitous, not to mention tasty. Other foraged foods are more susceptible to over-harvest, especially shellfish and gourmet items such as truffles. Mushroom hunters have worried for years about the effects of commercial harvest, but the data is inconclusive to date. Anecdotally speaking, regions in Europe are said to be depleted of edible fungi after centuries of regular picking. I haven’t seen any documented evidence of declines in the U.S., although many a recreational mushroom hunter has been irked to discover their favorite patch discovered by a new generation of foragers.

ES: What are your favorite wild foods to look for in November?

LC: November is still mushroom season west of the Cascades. Matsutakes, chanterelles and hedgehogs are available. Hunt in microclimates that haven’t had a succession of hard frosts. (Think moss.) Oysters are in good form again after the summer spawn. Clams, too. There’s always something to be foraged in the Northwest, although I spend more time in the kitchen during the cold months. It’s time to break out the preserves put up during the height of harvest.

ES: Ignore the realities of the foraging calendar for a moment, and share your perfect wild food menu.

LC: Anything porcini. In the fall I make rich porcini cream sauces for pasta or veal chops that demand plenty of red wine; in the spring I grill porcini with a marinade of olive oil and garlic and serve over baby greens—what Italians call “poor man’s steak.”

Some black squid ink risotto. Going down to the Seattle public pier on a cold winter night is like attending a United Nations symposium of foragers. Newly arrived immigrants crowd the railing, speaking in a multitude of foreign tongues, everyone whooping it up when a school of squid passes through and suddenly the tentacled mollusks are being hauled up left and right.

A stinging nettle soup. This is just the thing to jolt you into spring. Nettles have been used for centuries as a curative, and more recently their woodsy taste and high nutritional value have been rediscovered by a new generation of foragers.

And to finish off the meal, my desert island dessert would be a simple huckleberry cobbler with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. We’re lucky to have the best huckleberries in the world right out our back door ready to hit us with their one-two punch of pucker and sweet.

ES: What’s your most important safety rule when foraging? And conversely, what do you think is the most unnecessary bit of foraging safey advice?

LC: Hikers and backpackers refer to the “Ten Essentials.” While foraging down the block for edible weeds doesn’t require the same vigilance, if you plan to spend the day in far-flung foraging in our forests and mountains you should go prepared. A few of the essentials: map, compass, food and water, headlamp, extra clothing, a lighter or other firestarter. Getting lost in the woods is no fun. Like any outdoor activity, common sense will see you through.

For urban foragers, be mindful of the city’s toxic hotspots: keep clear of highways, train tracks, and telephone poles, to name a few. But mostly, just get outside and open your senses. A delicious meal is likely nearby.

For Langdon Cook’s recipe for Matsutake Sukiyaki, click here

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