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Monday, August 1, 2011

Taking food from the wild - a reframing of everyday food values

By Weston Eaton

A version of the following post appeared in Recoil Magazine.

I come from a family of trout fishing enthusiasts, not uncommon in Michigan, a state blessed with small, cool streams and an abundance of trout. So for much of my life, packing a cold truck with fishing tackle and lunch coolers in the dark hours before dawn has been a right of Spring. The big day is the last Saturday of April, official season opener, and many of these Saturdays entailed me and my brother riding north with my father to meet his father and brother on a dark, forested two-track somewhere near Paris, MI. Invariably, the mornings were cold. With frozen fingers, we’d thread our hooks in the headlights and make our way over barbed-wire fence rows towards the sound of rushing water, eager to stalk a Brown or a Brookie. With frozen eyelets we’d fish until hunger brought us back to the truck to eat lunch--pickled bologna, cheese sandwiches and venison jerky--exchange fish stories and later look for Morel mushrooms in the afternoon heat. In the evenings we’d clean our catch and feast on the day’s successes. Without realizing it, our days spent out-of-doors, waist deep in streams were as much about enjoying food and finding food as they were about the sport of catching fish.

Over the years I’ve continued to hunt Morels and walk river banks in search of trout, but mostly on streams new to me as our old family haunts have slowly been purchased by new landowners and posted with no-trespassing signs. This Spring, however, after a long absence, my father and I decided to again make our dark voyage to the old stream, hide the truck and head back into the now overgrown brush. As I worked my way downstream to my favorite old spots, keeping my profile below the high clay bank as to not signal the dog at the new neighbor’s camp, I thought about the simple fact that I was out looking for food--wild food, foraged food, food from the woods. In my mind I saw a clear path from the fish in the dark, swirling water under the roots of the cedar tree on the far bank to my cast iron skillet and dinner plate. My stomach growled a little, reminding me of the task at hand, so I added a sinker to keep my crawler under the rapids and worked my line steadily across the gravel bottom towards my hoped for dinner.

Good thing there are other dinner options, because trout can be elusive. The relationship between hunting and eating may sound obvious, but the point of my story here is to show a deliberate, although fleeting connection between the two. Whether bent over, wandering across the forest floor in search of Morels or waist deep in a gushing stream, the purpose of the excursion is to find food--an essential human act. There are of course other reasons to take to the woods in search of game--the thrill of the hunt, the tug on the line, the glimpse of a shriveled, leaf shrouded cap--but ultimately these indicators lead to dinner. When they don’t, trophy hunting results, a sign the fetish of the hunt has eclipsed its greater purpose.

By putting hunting and gathering back together with eating, we can get a glimpse at how far the act of procuring food has become detached from our everyday identities. Fishing, hunting and foraging can lead to a deeper kind of eating experience, one wrought with memory, experience, a sense of place and a story. The food most of us eat on a daily basis also has a story, one shrouded in commerce, technology, and advertising. Most of the time we are not able to decipher where our food comes from and are left relying on the opinions of experts--a confusing prospect since food and nutrition expertise is biased with the values of food scientists but at the same time necessary for making decisions about what and how to eat. Such is the fate of a modern life, one that often leaves us with a nagging sense of uncertainty and inauthenticity. Eating and drinking at the beginning of a food or beverage’s life may prove to be a remedy against this culinary malaise. Like imbibing a glass of homemade wine or a pint of home-brewed ale, a meal taken from the woods, at the expense of your own time and handiwork, can cut through the alienating machinery of the industrial food production system. An old friend of mine used to say gathering wild food from the woods and fields was one of the few remaining ways to fulfill your basic needs outside of the capitalist system. Finding your own food can then be seen as a political act, not to mention spiritual quest. Not bad for a day spent having fun in the woods.

Foraging and eating game you yourself caught is not practical for everyone, doing so is at the extreme end of fulfilling the basic and not-so-basic needs of a living person. But move a little closer to center and you still find a whole range of options before you come to processed foods, options such as locally grown, seasonal and fresh fruits, meats, dairy products and vegetables with histories a little easier to trace. The other extreme is then exposed: the profitable and corporately controlled world of industrial food where the needs of the eater - spiritual, nutritional or otherwise - are conspicuously absent. Thinking in these terms helps us reframe industrial food from mainstream to outlier. When juxtaposed with industrial food, picking mushrooms and taking wild game is a small act of food revolt.

From this we can glean some philosophical insight into industrial food. For starters we might first recognize that it is not necessarily the only or best option for feeding ourselves. As more and more people express increased interests in food pathways, food sources, agriculture and eating in general, its useful to reconsider our hunter-gatherer roots; from there we can perhaps best learn to appreciate the extreme challenges and triumphs once associated with the now everyday task of grocery shopping, cooking and eating. Not that fishing and rooting for Spring fungus can supplement more than a few meals a year, but collecting food from the wild can help forge a connection between ourselves and our ancestral past--a time characterized by a dependency on nature as opposed to an attempt to master it. The idea or action of bringing food out of the wild may just be a way to strike a balance between these two extremes.

Former Siciliano's staffer Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dogs in Grand Rapids, MI, where the food, like most Buzz contributors, are as wild as it gets.


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