I passed over the entirety of the United States in a matter of hours. The land below emerged from the darkness of early morning into the squares and squiggles that define our artificial borders. One farm blended into the next as the fields of corn grew to great plains grazed by herds of cattle and sheep. Only the mountains seemed untouched as the plane passed effortlessly over their untrammeled wilderness. The last time I passed through these parts I was bound to look at each farm individually as I drove past the endless fields of corn and soy grown to feed to endless barns of chickens, pigs, and cows that speckled the landscape. It really is amazing how vast the US is and how much we have changed the land. Nearly every corner of the country has been tamed and utilized, planted and harvested, in one way or another. None of this is more evident as when one looks out of an airplane at the land cut into neat little sections.
My trip began with a gift of wild food, a two pound package of venison gifted to an old friend who lives in New York City and can't harvest his own meat. He and his wonderful girlfriend hosted me for the night and fed me wonderfully delicious home cooked food as I stressed about my upcoming trip to the west coast. Having not visited family and friends there in over two years I didn't know what to expect but the comfort of good food and great company gave me a wonderful boost to my journey, especially when that journey began at 3:30 the next morning.
After a beautiful Christmas in the Pacific Northwest full of food, movies, games, family and laughter, I met up with another friend to travel to California. As we drove the land again changed faster than any of my ancestors could have experienced. Rainforest turned to farmland, farmland turned to mountains, mountains turned to farmland, farmland turned to strip malls and city. The 13 hours it took to get from Seattle to Oakland must have been a world record both in terms of time, and in the lack of calories consumed over such a large distance. As we rolled into our final stop and our stomachs making as much noise as the 2006 Chevy Impala we were riding in, we crawled to to closest burrito place and shoved our faces full of chicken, rice, beans, wheat, corn, cilantro, and avocado. This was a day based purely on modernity. Wildness would have to come later.
Three years ago I moved to California to work at an outdoor school. I was straight out of college, bight eyed and bushy tailed from learning how to save the world one program at a time. I had graduated with honors and felt ready to tackle any big adventure that came my way so when the opportunity to live in an old-growth redwood forest came up, I took it looking forward to the change.
When they say distance makes the heart grow fonder, they mean it. Everything in California was different. In New York, I could go out into the woods and gather 20 kinds of wood to carve, each useful in its own way. Back home, I could bring a fishing pole almost anywhere and be guaranteed a fish dinner. In this new land, there were only a handful of trees and none of them behaved like I was used to. Out of 40 fishing trips, only one produced any fish. My diet changed as I had to learn the real value of meat on the table. Distance from the hardwood forests and freshwater ponds of my childhood caught up to me and I was miserable.
I was miserable, until I learned to read the land in a new way. While chicken mushroom grew on every other log, this easy-to-forage mushroom back home, made everyone sick here. I learned instead to gather oyster mushrooms, chanterelles, candy caps, and morels. I couldn't hunt deer, so I trapped rabbits out of the garden. There was no birch to carve so instead I used madrone. My community had shifted from one of college study to one of song, games, food, and laughter. By the time I left the West Coast, I had gained a new appreciation and value for California and for home all in the same.
Back in California after two and a half years brings everything full circle. As the morning sun peeked through the redwoods, I woke to the sound of chipping juncos and squawking flickers in the over-grown apple trees. The smells of breakfast creeped under the door and carried me to a loaded table. Our wonderful host Currant put out a spread that would rival the best farm-to-table chefs. Fresh eggs, arugula, onions, mushrooms and broccoli all scrambled with cheddar cheese and served over fresh toast filled the house with warmth and our bellies with goodness. After breakfast we went to the farm to take care of the animals and gather food for breakfast the next day.
Vida Verde is an environmental education program with a mission to provide free, overnight learning experiences to urban students who otherwise wouldn't have the chance. They have 6 sweet dairy goats, 25 chickens and a big garden where kids can milk a goat, gather eggs, and harvest vegetables for their meals. Currant is an instructor there and since all of the students are home on winter break and the goat still needed milking and the eggs needed gathering, we got a chance to get really close to our food. The goats rushed the fence begging to be milked. One by one they entered the stanchion and Currant taught us how to make an "O" with our thumb and first finger and use the other finger to squeeze the milk out of the udder. Warm goat milk fresh from the teat is something we've lost in Southern New York so it was such a gift to taste.
As we moved through the land we gathered kale and lettuce from the garden and began moving towards the hills for mushrooms. As we climbed up to a stand of oak trees the forest floor burst with splashes of color. The orange of chanterelles looks alien to the land but as we plucked them from their terrestrial perch, they showed their true early origins through the spreading mycelium that sprout the delicious fruiting bodies. While I learned a long time ago to check and double check your ID, especially in a new place, these mushrooms are old hat to my hosts. In no time at all we filled a gathering bag and headed home to taste our bounty.
Baked in the oven with onions, garlic and salt and served over fresh artichoke bread, it was a feast fit for kings.
Wild Chanterelles with Onions
1 basket wild chanterelles (approximately 4 lbs wet weight)
1 large onion, sliced thinly
4 cloves garlic, pressed and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Preheat oven to 350 F
2) Wash mushroom thoroughly with a toothbrush or speciality mushroom brush and cut into 1/2" slices
3) Lay cut mushrooms in 2 pyrex baking dishes with onions, garlic, and salt. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes
4) Mushrooms should reduce in size by 1/2. Uncover and consolidate into 1 baking dish. Cook for 15 more minutes at 350.
5) Serve over bread or starch of your choosing.
The farm-to-table culture in Northern California is so strong, you feel it at every meal. While we sat around the table enjoying our harvest, the discussion focused around food, including plans for the next meals. Every ingredient used in the meal was known. From the garlic harvested from the garden to the bread baked down the road, the food infused the meal with purpose. It was food you feel good about eating.
I hope that feeling comes back to New York in the way its found here. Living in California taught me that while New York is really an amazingly bountiful place with wines, veggies, fruits, dairy, and of course wild foods, it has lost much of the culture around food. Most meals are disconnected from the places they were grown and it really is a gift to share real food in the modern society. This trip has made me really appreciate the work local farmers are doing to infuse good foods back into our lives and has given a little taste of what hopefully will come from the year of wild foods.