Forager, feed thyself

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Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager
Langdon Cook
224 pages, hardcover, $26.95.
Skipstone Press, 2009.

When Langdon Cook met his future wife, his lack of culinary prowess nearly chased her away. "Cooking meant heating up a box of mac 'n' cheese or opening a can of chili," he confesses in the prologue to Fat of the Land, a collection of 15 essays and recipes, arranged by the seasons, that details Cook's metamorphosis from re-heater of store-bought cans to wild-food chef and gourmand.

Readers of Cook's blog, Fat of the Land, from which many of the essays are adapted, will be familiar with the story of his conversion. Cook's exuberance for the fruits of his adopted Pacific Northwest is contagious. For in foraging, Cook casts a wide net, gathering to his table not only the expected greens and mushrooms, but anything edible that can be caught without a firearm, including fish.

Those who fear that a foraged diet necessarily resembles the endless salad bar at a weight-loss clinic can relax. Whether Cook has a cow on retainer somewhere on the grounds, he doesn't say, but eight of the 15 recipes feature butter, and five have a starring role for heavy cream. Clearly, Cook believes the exertion required to forage obviates any need for calorie counting.

Living off the land is often held up as an ideal of self-sufficiency, the rejection of crowded supermarket aisles in favor of a solitary walk through the woods. But in these essays, Cook is rarely alone; he seems always to be learning some lesson from other foragers, whether immigrant squid jiggers on a Seattle pier or a prospective brother-in-law. And though Cook is hardly a proselytizing sort, the book carries a subtle indictment of the anti-social habits of some of his fellow foragers. In a society where greed has decimated fish stocks, other wild foods are equally vulnerable.

Eyeing the superior haul of a fellow clammer, Cook feels a "pinch of envy (that) reminded me of competitive morel hunting and salmon fishing. It was a debilitating emotion that could only lead to further moral dissipation and a general funk." Should he dig somewhere more private? Better to watch and learn, he decides.

When he leaves behind the corporate diet, Cook finds abundance in his own weed-infested backyard. And he gets the girl as well. For in Cook's eyes, foraging is not about providing only for oneself, but about building community. A good meal is meant to be shared, after all.

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