Food has a long and complex relationship to economies. As long as there has been trade, food products–spices, dried exotic fruits, teas, salt–have been valued commodities. And yet through most of human history, food commodities have been supplemental luxuries, and the idea that money or another means of exchange would be necessary to provide this essential element would have been inconceivable.
We think of “hunter-gatherer” societies as something ancient and distinct from the agricultural societies that we’re a part of now. But the reality is that hunting and gathering have never disappeared. Even today, in the most industrialized food systems, there are rituals that remain. Here on the coast, the invasive, rapacious Himalayan blackberry draws people to roadsides and railway tracks every September for its inky, juicy berries, and recreational fishing abounds. The urban deer population is exploding, yet apparently deer sausage and salami are surprising tasty :).
In a recent class, my students were discussing a book excerpt by Lars Eighner, “On Dumpster Diving”. It’s a well-written account of what being homeless and scavenging for food and all of life’s necessities in trash cans is like. A common question I ask as a follow-up is, “are there circumstances under which you could see yourself dumpster diving?” A mature student in this class had an interesting response: there is so much food around us that is easily accessible on the Island that he would gather food that way before looking in trash cans.
In that moment, I was struck again by the surreal nature of the current urban human condition. How many of us, if made homeless tomorrow, would think of the woods or local parks as the safe provider of food and shelter? (Ok, besides Timothy Taylor) Many of us wouldn’t even recognize the food in front of us in the berries, leaves, roots, mushrooms, animals, and insects abounding. (*) This disconnected relationship from the ecosystem that we’re a part of is bad enough, but the flip side seems even worse to me: that what we are capable of living off of–in reasonable comfort if Eighner and the Freegans are to be believed–is the “trash”, the waste of the industrialized consumer world. Freegans are clear that they are the new foragers; the return of the “gatherer” without the “hunter”.
While we know that our urban trash food might be dangerous in a few discernible ways, we feel at a complete loss to identify the potential dangers of wild foods–which are the poisonous berries and mushrooms, are those the icky bugs really edible, how to trap, kill, and cook a whole animal (#)–it’s enough to stop most of us.
Which brings me to the newest way that food and the economy are interacting, and perhaps the newest symptom of food dysfunction: wild food–free by definition–as exclusive and exotic commodity.
I would love to learn more about wild foods and food foraging. I am an 85% urbanite by training (I do remember picking wild asparagus by the roadsides in the Okanagan; as children we were dressed in winter clothes in the heat of September and sent without machetes into the blackberry forests of the lower mainland to gather berries; I still munch on huckleberries and salmonberries along hiking trails, but I’ve only recently confirmed that the ubiquitous salal berries are, in fact, edible). I am intrigued but vaguely frightened of the trial and error method of finding edibles in the local woods. There are myriad book and website instruction guides out there, but this is one area where I’m not sure it’s best to learn from books.
So that leaves me with 2 options locally. Option 1: Buy wild foods. Entrepreneurial locals are doing the foraging for us, and making a living (?) from their now-so-exclusive knowledge. Option 2: Pay a foraging guide. Gourmet chefs and foodies are willing to show you the ropes…for the price of a high-end restaurant meal (which, if truth be known, I have willingly shelled out for from time to time 🙂 ).
I don’t have a problem with either of these as a business model, and I know, in theory, that other options to learn exist; I’m sure if I networked enough I could find someone willing to help. But the exotification (is that a word?) of what should be the most freely accessible local food is making me cranky; perhaps precisely because I feel the disappearance of that local knowledge in a personal way. The conception of wild foods as elite foods is just wrong.
I should mention, too, that the “disappearance” of this knowledge is also a reflection of the colonial machine. The only reason non-indigenous Canadians like me had this knowledge at all is because it was shared by the people who had been living off this land for thousands of years. The fragility of local knowledge is also a symptom of global mobility, and the disruption of the relationship between culture and place. It’s entirely likely that my Scottish ancestors knew well how to live off their lands; it’s the fact that they left them that leads to my position here today for better and for worse.
Contemporary First Nations communities may not be losing their indigenous plant and food knowledge; I don’t know. But rather than learning more from them about the place we inhabit, we’ve chosen to import our knowledge from elsewhere and build up imposed industrial cycles. I’m highly aware that if those industrialized systems ever truly break down, we’re really in trouble. Not only do we not know how to live off the actual land and its plants around us, but the landscape is now so degraded and altered that there may come a point where the indigenous knowledge becomes of more limited value. What’s point of knowing how to smoke and naturally preserve a salmon if there are no more salmon?
Maybe we are better off in the dumpsters after all.
(*) First Nations people were apparently mystified when they discovered the early European explorers dying of scurvy while in the middle of conifer forests that were essentially one big vitamin C store!
(#) Which reminds me of an Ethiopian cookbook that I found in a used bookstore once. I was excited until I read through the first recipe, which began something like, “slit the throat of the goat, and hang upside down for 3 days until the blood has finished draining…”