Should you stumble upon Langdon Cook's blog, Fat of the Land--which centers around his foraging of flora and mostly aquatic fauna in Washington-- or encounter any of his writing in Outside, Gray's Sporting Journal, or other publications where his work appears, you're in for a rare treat. Several months ago that was my luck and then when I discovered a book based on his blog was published by Skipstone, I contacted them to ask for a review copy and they kindly obliged and sent their catalog which is filled with impressive titles, most of which focus on Pacific Northwest topics and therefor aren't particularly useful to someone living in the loamy armpit of Appalachia as I sometimes identify my locale.
But enough about me.
Cook's prologue sets up how his foraging began-- ostensibly to impress a woman would did not eat at McDonald's. And then each section of the book progresses seasonally. Within each section he includes one flora to three or four fauna, as a general rule. Beginning in winter Cook covers razor clams, squid, and stinging nettles and provides a recipe for each. His coverage of each topic is thorough and he addresses each with context such as description, history, and in the case of the razor clam, how we can blame the Grandmas for their overharvest and depletion given the gentle clam's ubiquity at the dinner table. Nowadays the digging season is limited to less than a month with a limit of fifteen clams per day. Cook's description of the clam makes the mouth water. He describes them as six inches in length and as the "King of American comfort food."
Having spent a year by the sea, I know little of ocean creatures, and now I hold Cook responsible for much of my education on the subject of squid. In "Doin' That Squid Jig" I learned how to fish for them, how they move and communicate, the basics of their anatomy, a brief history of squid fishing, and Cook's recipe for Risotto Nero Con Calamari.
Each chapter was beautifully written as Cook interwove past with present and anecdote with fact. His facility with words tickled me and when he used chockablock on page 121 I was smitten. While he stars as main character in each foraging adventure he gives center stage to his friends and to fisherfolk and foragers alike from whom he takes advice, advises, or fails to communicate with altogether through no fault of his own.
Yet, as the tob-billed figure in the book, Cook never presents himself as the expert or as the person with all the answers. He references books and other people. As he embarks on each adventure he prepares to fail. Sometimes he does so brilliantly, or merely half-fails, captures a partial limit. But he tries again, perfects his technique, and refines his skills. He never quits. And so this is one of the strenghts of Cook's essays: there is no perfect foraging form; it's all free-style.
Endowed with Cook's rich penstrokes, or keystrokes as the case may be, Dave and the homeless men who questioned him about taking their "dandy lions," and Cora and Lori, and Steve in his XXX wetsuit, and Trouthole, Warpo, and everyone else leap off the page into your lap and leave their ashy (in the case of the morel-hunting Coras from the burn site) residue, or seawater in the middle of you living room.
Reading Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager reminded me of my childhood in some ways. My Papaw Don took me foraging for ramps and we spent long afternoons together in the woods with a quasi-feral Lsha Apso--don't ask. Don made cherry wine, cooked venison stew from deer he hunted, gutted, and dressed himself, and showed me how to nail a catfish to a tree and strip its skin away from its flesh with pliers. After bringing it inside to the kitchen he breaded it in cornmeal, tossed it into a cast iron skillet, and fried it. He was a cook in the Navy. He cooked from scratch while his wife, my mamaw used a lot of boxed and canned goods, which I find perplexing.
Cook's chapter "The Inhuman," describing how he dove for Ling Cod, stabbed, and caught one, took me back to my summer working in Alaska as a seafood processor. Fortunately I worked most of the season on the frozen side and saw quite a few Ling Cod come my way. We worked twelve hours shifts and god so slap happy at times the puns fell from our mouths uncontrollably when Ling Cod was on the line: "Oh my Cod!" There were more, but I've since forgotten. It was long, long ago.
Ultimately Cook's book inspired me as well. Dandelions. I have dandelions in my yard because I don't use chemicals to treat my lawn, and his description of dandelion encrusted bread tickled my fancy. I encourage Elsa to blow the seeds into our yard all the time because a proper yard interests me not. More foraging for me, for us, actually. Elsa loves the outdoors. My plan was always to have her hiking, camping, canoeing. Now, it's to have her identifying plants, foraging, picking berries, mushrooms, etc.