Let’s Study Our ‘Wild’ Food Obsession, Shall We?

The rarity of foraged food is a distinctly modern phenomenon and one that’s led to strange distortions in the way we eat. These days, foods like wild-caught salmon, fiddleheads, or truffles are considered luxuries. They are found in especially rugged outdoor environs, but most people consume them in highly cultivated indoor settings.

Those are the contradictions that Gina Rae La Cerva sets out to explore in Feasting Wild, a book that’s part travelogue and part natural history. It begins with a whirlwind of culinary trips, each excursion roughly centered around a wild food: ramps in a storied Copenhagen cemetery, glossy lobsters cooked in seaweed on the shores of the Gulf of Maine, bird’s nests from caves in the jungles of Borneo. 

The trips are just La Cerva’s launching point and, one suspects, a way to draw the reader in. What she’s really after is an understanding of the word wild, at least as it relates to food. Should we mourn the loss of wild food at the hands of industrialization? Why do we consider wildness to be sacred instead of profane? As she writes almost plaintively in the introduction: “What does it mean to eat wild food—or the closest thing to it in a world so thoroughly dominated by humans?” La Cerva supplies vague definitions of wild early on, describing the subjects of her fascination as “undomesticated” or “uncultivated” ingredients. As the book progresses, those words begin to feel shallow.

La Cerva (center) researching the wild-meat trade at the central market of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo
La Cerva (center) researching the wild-meat trade at the central market of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Photo: Courtesy Patrick Mukombozi)

Other food writers have plumbed these depths before: notably, back in 2006, Michael Pollan became entranced by a wild boar hunt in the final chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He described the resulting hunted, foraged, and homegrown feast as “the perfect meal,” despite some culinary flaws. The author’s sense of satisfaction came from the idea that he knew exactly how each chanterelle cap and boar loin had arrived on the table.

But did he really? The boar may have come from the Sierra, as Pollan noted, but one could question how boars came to be on that western range, and when and under what circumstances people are allowed to hunt them. Pollan left those questions unanswered, but Feasting Wild advances the conversation by placing wild bounties in their ecological and cultural history.

La Cerva notes that wild foods, once eaten exclusively for survival, are currently considered staples of fine dining and luxury cuisine—a “fetishization of need,” as she dubs it. In one example, she describes a celebrity chef studying a 1960s Swedish-army survival guide to find inspiration for recipes at Noma, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen considered among the best in the world. “Even if you have never experienced famine,” La Cerva writes, “Noma is happy to invent this memory for you.”

feasting wild
(Photo: Courtesy Greystone Books)

Historically, people have attached a special luster to wild food in moments of broad, social anxiety about disconnection from nature. During the industrial revolution, for instance, fine-dining establishments in New York City heaped wild birds on tables, gathered by an army of “market huntsmen” who picked the country’s wetlands clean. “At one particularly ambitious hotel, you could order heron, bald eagle, vulture, and owl,” La Cerva writes. Her argument is that the primitivism associated with wild birds was a “you are what you eat” attempt to transcend the drumbeat of urban life—and she implies that the fascination with foraging on display at Noma comes from a similar place. (One should note that today’s wild-food movement often aligns itself with sustainability goals, whereas market hunters in the 19th century blithely drove bird species like the passenger pigeon to extinction.)

The consumer obsession with preindustrial (or, in some instances, preagricultural) food gathering is complicated by the question at the heart of Feasting Wild: Were there ever wild foods to begin with? Sure, the bison that roam Poland’s protected forests aren’t raised by humans. But their existence and habitat is so completely shaped by human behavior and settlement that it’s hard to think of them as truly separate from our touch, even if we do not intentionally raise them. 

One of La Cerva’s lunches in the Kelabit highlands of Borneo consisted of fish that live in the fallow rice paddies, wild mushrooms that grow “between hot and wet weather,” and the “best rice in the world
One of La Cerva’s lunches in the Kelabit highlands of Borneo consisted of fish that live in the fallow rice paddies, wild mushrooms that grow “between hot and wet weather,” and the “best rice in the world” in a roadless village. (Photo: Courtesy Gina La Cerva)

Feasting Wild draws heavily on the writing of environmental historian William Cronon as it searches for answers. As Cronon laid out in his seminal 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” both the word and the idea of wilderness underwent a dramatic shift during American colonization. Originally, it signified something akin to a wasteland, where spiritual aspirants would face God through deprivation. During the Romantic and environmental movements, the significance of wilderness was recast as a sacred place outside of civilized history, where God could speak to visitors through the landscape’s grandeur—a condition bound up in aesthetics. A key part of wilderness, according to that definition, was a lack of human cultivation.

While Cronon alludes to some non-human “wild,” he argues that wilderness is a fiction. La Cerva favors that interpretation as well, noting that the precolonial forests and plains of North America were also gently groomed by humans to encourage the growth of game. However, even if wilderness is a romantic illusion, La Cerva argues that something essential has changed in the way we eat during the modern era that’s important to consider. 

“In losing wild food from our diets, from the landscape, we have lost something unnamable,” she writes. “The silences are so loud, they have become their own sound. We face a spiritual crisis, an existential loneliness greater than any heartbreak.”

La Cerva in search of edible, wild bird’s nests in Borneo
La Cerva in search of edible, wild bird’s nests in Borneo (Photo: Courtesy Razis Nasri)

The English critic John Berger offered another definition of wilderness that’s helpful as we try to understand what La Cerva might mean. In a 1977 essay, Berger wrote that animals provide a kind of spiritual “companionship” unlike any between humans, “because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species.” Wild things, in his telling, are ones that live parallel lives to our own, that we recognize as fellow travelers in the world. Some farm animals can possess this kind of autonomy, meaning that wildness isn’t so much about the absence of humans or domestication but about how other species can cause us to reflect on our understanding of the natural world. 

Drawing a firm line between humans and nature ignores those who exist in the middle. Left out of the realm of luxury wild food, La Cerva writes, are the stories of people—mostly women—who learned how to harvest the food in the first place. In the Middle Ages, “herbal knowledge was kept alive as folk medicine, handed down from mother to daughter,” she writes. When disaster struck, they could turn to the surrounding countryside to forage “dock and nettles, woody roots of wild carrot, parsnips, leeks, skirret, and turnips; the leaves of wild strawberries, the leaves of violets and roses,” the same species that world-renowned restaurants like Noma turn to in modern times.

When La Cerva describes more fraught terrain in her travels, such as the bushmeat markets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she finds that gender still mediates the wild-food trade. Women sell the meat and manage networks that bring the product from interior forests to the cities. Game, in La Cerva’s descriptions, sounds mysterious and appetizing, chunks of flesh smoked over the course of weeks until they’re as tender as butter. In Kinshasa, the capital city, bushmeat (antelope, pangolin, even bonobo) takes on a more complicated moral valence when pushed up against contemporary marketplaces and buyer-seller dynamics. But when La Cerva encounters a game-meat cook, the ethics of wild food are articulated in a way that will sound all too familiar to modern readers: “It’s natural,” says the cook. “It’s important to know the origin of your food, to know the source. We ate more as children, when we lived in the countryside.”

Ice fishing on Eagle Nest Lake in northern New Mexico
Ice fishing on Eagle Nest Lake in northern New Mexico (Photo: Courtesy Allegra Love)

Reading Feasting Wild, it’s easy to find strange harmonies in the chaos of the last few months. Disease ecologists suspect that the novel coronavirus jumped from bats to humans using wild game as a stepping stone. As people around the globe were forced indoors during the pandemic, they developed a fascination with the wild things that appeared in urban public spaces in our absence. Being at peace with the ways that humans and wild animals now interact is a more difficult task—even La Cerva finds herself fantasizing about retreating into truly “primeval” wilderness, as though she still believes such a thing might exist.

Lead Photo: ClarkandCompany/Getty

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