Most people, author Gina Rae La Cerva writes in the introduction to Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, will never eat anything undomesticated or uncultivated. La Cerva is not most people. An anthropologist and geographer, she forages the world as part of a deep historical, philosophical and personal investigation into the world of wild foods.
Among other stops, that journey takes her to the so-called bush meat markets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Borneo for rare birds nest soup, to an upscale wild food restaurant in Copenhagen and to Sweden for a moose hunt. Highlighted as a top summer travel read by the New York Times, Feasting Wild interweaves deeply observed experiences, intensive research and a lyric personal narrative. The book champions indigenous knowledge and biodiversity, while shedding light on the current state of human consumption. And did we mention it's also a love story by a Santa Fe native?
This week, SFR presents an excerpt from La Cerva's book as well as an interview with the author. For those interested in more discussion, Collected Works Bookstore is hosting an online book club that will meet at 6 pm, June 22 and July 6. People can sign up for that, as well as view the author's discussion with food writer and chef Deborah Madison, on Collected Works' Facebook page and website, respectively.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
SFR: You talk in the book about wild food as an ‘intoxicating symbol.’ Can you elaborate on what it symbolizes in today’s society?
Gina Rae La Cerva: For me, this book in some ways is about environmental grieving because, whether we acknowledge it or not, we're all feeling the effects of living through, effectively, the sixth mass extinction. Everybody can look out their window and say, 'the environment doesn't look the way it did 20 years ago.' Wild food can present this feeling of going back to something that no longer exists, where maybe times were simpler, life was easier and nature felt more abundant. But I also really question that narrative in the book because in some ways it's false nostalgia. Part of what's happening in this moment is we're bringing to light long existing systemic issues in the country and the world. Wild food is also a way to reconnect to some of that lost knowledge that was destroyed by colonialism, or slavery or the patriarchy or whatever you want to call it.
You grew up on 20 acres in a solar passive house in New Mexico and describe yourself as a ‘feral child.’ How did that experience influence the book?
I used to joke that I didn't have friends as a kid because we lived on a half mile dirt road that was super winding and dropped off on this cliff on one side. No one wanted to drive that road to come visit me, so I spent a lot of time wandering around in the arroyos, just observing things. I spent a lot time just watching nature and that has definitely been a consistent theme in my life. And there was some wild food growing up: We would collect prickly pear cactus fruits; my dad would take us up to the mountains to get raspberries or various wild edibles up there. New Mexico is definitely influential in me wanting to do this research.
You write in the book: ‘Having consumed everything else civilization has to offer, we fetishize the wild because, in many ways, it no longer exists.’ We’re publishing an excerpt that begins at Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant, where the experience does sound fetishized. How do you reconcile that experience with the other types of wild food consumption?
I make this distinction between what I call a touristic appetite and more of a subsistence appetite. I have more sympathy for someone who's eating wild food out of need versus out of an exotic desire to try the next new thing. And I think while the meal at Noma…was one of the most incredible meals I have had in my life, I was very aware of how that meal exists because of the fact that wild food is no longer a common thing in our lives. And it's no longer a common thing in our lives partially because of colonial and capitalist systems that have destroyed so much of the natural world and destroyed people's connection to that knowledge of how to go out to the wild and gather. I definitely chase that thread throughout that book: How did we get to the point that something that was an everyday common thing [has become] something that's elevated and only accessible to someone who has a lot of money?
We’re in the middle of a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus believed to have originated from a bat via a wet market in China. What is your perspective given your experiences with so many other cultures’ food practices?
I [didn't] go to any Chinese wet markets, so I can't speak directly to that. But a fair number of the markets in the Congo likely end up in that international wildlife trade and end up in China, so it has been interesting to see. First of all, it's been really heartbreaking to see all the racist reactions to this whole thing in terms of people who eat wild foods being primitive or backwards. The other issue is that humans have been eating wild animals forever; we've been hunters forever. For me, it's less about the dangers of eating wild food and more about the current configuration of how those foods get to the table. In the wet markets, you have animals from southeast Asian forests, you have animals from African forests, and they are all in cages, stacked together. The animals are stressed, their immune systems are lowered, their ability to pass things back and forth to each other would never happen in nature, in the forest; these animals would not be coming into contact like this.
From a craft perspective, the book takes a hybrid approach to the creative nonfiction genre and blends memoir, travel writing and history. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process?
This book took me six years to write and, as a result, it went through many different iterations. It started as a much more academic book and then I realized that bringing in the personal narrative was important to get people to connect to the material, and for me to connect to the material as well, because I realized what I was writing about was not just abstract stuff but very basic things: eating, love, death, survival. It included a lot of notecards on the walls. At one point, half of my apartment was covered in notecards. I ended up drawing a lot of maps of the book, which was an interesting way to try to take something that was linear and chronological and then put it on a flat surface to visualize it as a larger whole. It was a fun, long twisted process.
Some travel memoirs—I’m thinking of Eat, Pray, Love—have faced backlash for having an unacknowledged colonialist subtext. Were you concerned about that when you set out with this book?
I was very aware, particularly in this moment when identity politics is really important and [because] anthropology has its own dark history. Part of what I wanted to do was have a bit of that narrative within a narrative and deconstruct how we even understand the environmental history that I'm talking about as also coming from people like me who went with their own biases and lenses. I questioned, 'am I even the person to tell those stories because they don't necessarily belong to me?' They belong to the people who lived them. I hope I did a decent job about being as neutral and nonjudgmental as I can while also pointing out my own cultural lens. It's a challenging moment. Part of what the book is looking at, too, is how tourism can be a colonial act if you go in with your preconceptions of what you're looking at or what you're looking for. Using that exoticism as a way to reflect on your own life can be problematic.
Jonathan Safran Foer argued in a recent New York Times’ op-ed that the end of meat is here—for a variety of reasons, including the COVID-19 outbreaks at slaughterhouses and the meat industry’s impact on climate change. How do you square those arguments in the context of thinking about wild food?
I think it's really hard because obviously humans have been omnivores for most of our evolution…I kind of fall back on the Michael Pollan trope [that] we all need to be at least 80% vegetarian. But working on this book made me realize our diets have become so restrictive. We used to eat or use for medicine 30,000 different plants as a species. Now, primarily, our diets come from 30 plants and 60% of the western diet is just three plants. So, I think if we can start expanding the range of edible things, then that desire to eat meat three times a day hopefully can be reduced.
You write that foraging ‘is an experience of the relativity of space and time.’ Can you say more and talk a bit about your own foraging?
Foraging is like going for a walk in the woods with slightly more purpose of finding something to eat. What I love about that is it's sort of how people talk about the flow state, where you're just getting into the zone of both being very observant and aware of what you're looking at, and also being really fully in the experience in the moment.
I do a fair amount of foraging; I would not call myself an expert. Since writing this book, I have felt a little bit more reluctant to go forage, particularly mushrooms in the mountains. The mushrooms are really integral to the health of the forest and, as more people get interested, there is that concern that over-harvesting is going to impact the larger ecology. [I've] become more interested in cultivating edible mushrooms and planting herbs and things in the garden that have these more medicinal or edible qualities rather than going out and wild harvesting. I really appreciate this conversation is happening more and more amongst people who are interested in wild foods of 'how do we protect that resource given the increasing interest in it?'
Is there anything you wouldn’t eat?
I decided pretty early on that I wouldn't eat monkeys or primates; that just felt a little too close to home. But other than that, I pretty much tried whatever somebody offered me. Part of the fun of doing this kind of research and also the risk is you want to be gracious to your host. It didn't make it into the book, but one of the people I was talking to served me a lunch of civet cat: It's a forest cat that lives in Borneo and that was not very enjoyable to eat. It's a cat that poops out coffee and it's a very expensive coffee you can buy. It's also the cat they think maybe SARS came from back in the day. But I pretty much would try anything other than monkey or primate…I don't know if I would eat tiger.
EXCERPT FROM FEASTING WILD
From Part 1, "On Memory and Forgetting"
When I enter the front doors of Noma, a crowd of waiters and chefs stand at attention and welcome me by name. The walls are whitewashed stone. The wooden chairs have been made to look like weathered bone, and sheepskin furs drape off the backs as cozy cloaks. Black earthenware is scattered across the tabletops like boulders thrown from a rockfall, with plain white candles in the center evoking frozen-over cascades of water.
Perhaps Chef Redzepi is attempting to emulate the trappings of the most famous hunter-gatherers in Denmark, the Erebølle, a culture that dates to the very late Mesolithic period (4500 BCE). They lived a semi-settled existence along the coast and traded with inland farmers for polished stone axes. The wooden hurdles they built to trap fish in the estuaries were so well-made that some have survived for six thousand years.
There is no written menu to follow at Noma, so each course comes as a sensory surprise, a nature walk with a cryptic message.
A tiny speckled quail egg—cooked, pickled, seasoned with smoked hay, and nestled in burlap. Is it meant to mimic the smell of a burning field? A memory device to invoke the feeling of harvest time?
Fried reindeer moss foraged from northern Sweden—a tiny portion served in a terra-cotta dish, with a rock and a stick to imitate the landscape where it was gathered. It tastes like French fries but feels like chartreuse velvet on the tongue.
Ice cream of wild mushrooms and gathered seaweeds. "Superhealthy. Full of vitamins and antioxidants. You almost levitate after," the waiter beams.
Turbot with a sauce of nasturtium, wild wood sorrel, and horseradish-infused cream.
The group next to me is talking about losing weight, diet regimens, how to be healthier.
Sloe berries and aromatic herbs.
At another table, the conversation is about a restaurant with a mineral-water sommelier, forty kinds of bottled water.
Caramel made from sourdough bread yeast served with Icelandic yogurt and sea buckthorn flower marmalade.
"Try foraging in Philadelphia. Dirty. Needles," someone nearby says between bites.
Red currant and lavender.
"We used to be more experimental," my waiter says as he sets down a wooden spoon and a stoneware bowl of peas with chamomile potpourri. "To be number one is limiting."
White cabbage and samphire.
Some dishes, like the congealed block of caramelized milk and cod liver, elicit no emotion in me, no memory, no environment.
It just tastes overpowering, the flavor too distracting to place the dish within a familiar context.
Burned beets, scraped to the heart.
Others bring me to my childhood, in the New Mexico high-mountain desert where I grew up. The deliberately burnt petals of the flower tart remind me of the riotous blooms of my mother's garden. Perched on the edge of a dry arroyo, I constructed dirt and dust pies, topped with fuchsia pansies and deep-purple bottlebrush, a miniature chef dwarfed by the dry heat of the noonday. The sweet, earthy taste of edible Indian paintbrush, juniper berries, and red-ripe prickly pear fruits mingled in my mouth for years.
White asparagus, black currant leaves, and barley.
The waiter has something on his nose as he places the next dish before me, a grilled pike head, skewered and cooked over low flames. The charred taste reminds me of a day on an idyllic beach, when I was still too young to appreciate the preciousness of the experience. I ate fresh-caught dorado, cooked over an open fire, while the setting sun melted into impossible Caribbean waters, and I smiled shyly at a teenage boy across the way, raw lime juice running down my chin, and my newfound teenage sexuality blooming somewhere unseen.
Lovage and parsley.
A wooden saucer of glistening pink beef tartare dotted with flash-frozen wood ants is set before me. I take a bite. The little black creatures burst in my mouth like sour-green sprinkles of lemongrass and pine.
To eat ants outside of periods of extreme scarcity, without the motivation of an empty belly, holds within it the paradox at the center of Noma's dishes—the fetishization of need. It is no surprise that Redzepi consulted a 1960s Swedish army survival guide as one of his earliest sources for identifying edible wild ingredients. Even if you have never experienced famine, Noma is happy to invent this memory for you, so that you might experience the delight that can only come from killing extreme hunger.
Of course, eating insects is only a rarity in the Western world. There are some nineteen hundred insect species that are part of human diets for people all over Asia, Africa, and South America. The recent Western interest in making cricketmeal protein bars is merely us catching up with the rest of the world. Still, the fear of eating the unknown is deep, and for the Western palate, insects seem to be particularly taboo, despite attempts to introduce the practice. In 1885, Vincent M. Holt published his manifesto Why Not Eat Insects? He meticulously went through the benefits, which ranged widely, from the nutritional advantages to pest control on crops. He was baffled that people would eat lobster—"such a foul feeder"—but were averse to insects, which lived off healthy plants and flowers.
I take another taste of wood ants. I remember the first time I ate bugs. It was a glorious preteen summer of rollerblading around downtown, getting into mild trouble—giving tourists the wrong directions, stealing traffic cones, making pay phones ring and watching the confused looks of people passing by the ghostly calls—and I reveled in being a nineties grunge-kid plaza-rat in cutoff jeans and a scrunchy ponytail reeling against something I couldn't fully articulate.
One hot, lazy afternoon, after returning from mischief in the town square, a friend and I decided to forage for grasshoppers in her overgrown yard. We were not hungry, merely at the cusp of adolescence and inherently bored. We found it easy work.
The pellucid New Mexico sun made each insect vivid against the blades of dry grass. We fried them up in olive oil until they sizzled and crisped, then dared each other to eat the shriveled bugs. When I finally got up my courage and bit the head off the charred corpse, it tasted like some kind of discordant freedom.
From the book Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food by Gina Rae La Cerva and published by Greystone Books. Adapted with permission of the publisher.