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What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

What I Learned from a Week of Eating Only Wild-Foraged Food (Pt. 1)

foragefoodI’ve long wondered what it would be like to dedicate a week to eating only wild-foraged foods and this has been my week to give it a try.

The foraging experience is vastly different depending on the season. Early spring is abundant with fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and savory mushrooms. Late summer has an array of ripe fruits and tree nuts. But mid-summer, while lacking in tender greens and beefy fungus, serves up a main course of berries – strawberries, thimbleberries, blackberries, serviceberries, elder berries, and huckleberries. I timed my week-long foraging experience to coincide with this wild-berry buffet.

I have some broader inquiries to make about the experience but here are some initial observations about the week.

1. It takes time: The first four days of the week all started with a couple hours of picking huckleberries in the mountains around the Spokane. My rule has been to pick only enough for each day, so each day has arrived with nothing in the cupboard. In this sense it’s the ultimate slow food. I’ve enjoyed the quiet time in the mountains for reflection each morning but the time required would make it difficult to fit into my non-sabbatical rhythms.

I could imagine making one day a week a forage day, sampling what nature offers up and intentionally making time to head out into the wilderness.

2. I’m surprised I’m not more hungry: My daughters’ softball tournaments later in the week led to afternoon foraging, which meant going long stretches without any food. To my great surpise my cravings have been minor during these long stretches. Early in the week I was cranky and hungry, but with six days under my belt my hunger has subsided. Last night I actually had leftovers from dinner.

I find this to be true every time fast. The first couple of days are miserable but after getting over that hurdle there is a quiet contentment that comes over my body and mind. At first I rebel against the limitations as a small crisis, but then the crisis passes and the limitations become a path to a strange peace. I suspect that this experience is what compels religious ascetics.

3. Berries get old after awhile: It seems like a dream come true to eat your fill of huckleberries every day but I’m kind of sick of them at this point. Thankfully I discovered purslane, a nice-tasting wild green that grows abundantly in our garden. There is a poisonous lookalike (spurge) that grows right alongside it so you have to be careful, but it is fantastic in a little stir-fry. It is also renowned for containing more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green vegetable.

I also discovered an old apricot tree on conservation area land in Spokane Valley. I have avoided gleaning from working farms but the apricot tree is wild at this point so it’s fair game. Because the tree isn’t being watered the fruits are small and the sugars are concentrated. Wow! The best apricots ever.

The purslane and apricots are good examples of the tasty but hidden abundance that surrounds us.

I’ve also eaten thimbleberries, serviceberries, and tiny strawberries.

4. There is enough: The first couple of days were filled with urgency. I wondered if I could gather enough each day to sustain me. I even picked strawberries the size of sunflower seeds, thinking that they might be all I would have for the day. I now know, at least this time of year, there is enough. Huckleberries are the perfect example.

Spokane is part of what I’ll call the Huckleberry Belt. You go anywhere in the mountain regions of Eastern Washington and Montana and you’ll find that huckleberries are a cultural icon. Red-fingered pickers sell them at stands on every corner in tourist towns and high-end boutiques carry lines of huckleberry soaps, make-up, and gourmet candy.

Whole families in this region dedicate summer-weeks for camping and picking berries, filling coolers with them for jams, pies, and the freezer. Everyone has their “secret spot” for picking and no one is too eager to share the details of the location. It’s one of those, “I’d tell you where we go for berries but then I’d have to kill you,” sort of situations.

There is a strong culture of scarcity around this legendary berry, primarily because it only grows in the wild. Despite their best efforts, hortculturists have failed to cultivate huckleberries for commercial growing. Like morel and porcini mushrooms, farmers can’t grow them and package them for Costco. It’s a wild plant and you have to go into the wild to harvest. Go here for more background on this.

This wildness lends itself to the sense of scarcity that surrounds the berry. If a food doesn’t grow in crop rows or through industrial practices, we can’t imagine there is enough and so we sneak around to keep others out of our patch or some even pay $80/gallon plus $35 shipping to buy them online.

Well I’m here to bust the myth of scarcity that surrounds the huckleberry. My foraging week has led me to the mountains almost every day and every place I go is packed with berries. Huckleberries are everywhere. They are not scarce, they are abundant and there is enough for everyone in the Inland Northwest to harvest till it hurts – your back and your tummy. (I’ve learned that it is actually a little uncomfortable if you eat too many.) If you live in Spokane there is no need to drive to the Canadian border to your families secret spot. Just drive 30 minutes to Mount Spokane and hike around a little and you’ll find your fill.

In a cruel irony it is often our fear of scarcity that leads us to degrade natural places to grow crops or harvest timber which leads to actual scarcity. Haiti is an extreme example of this but the truth holds everywhere. Our fear of scarcity is too often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An alternative posture to a fear of scarcity is to live in wonder of the abundance of what nature offers up. Foraging has helped reinforce this perspective in my life this week.

5. Be careful: For every edible in the wild there is often a poisonous lookalike. Only eat what you know and rely on more than one source of information to identification. For example, my primary ID book says that purslane doesn’t have a poisonous lookalike, but all my other references point to spurge as similar to purslane. I’m grateful to the clarification provided by my these sources because in our garden the spurge grows right next to the purslane. So close that sometimes I’ll grab a handful of purslane and a spurge plant is mixed up in the harvest.

I’ll follow up with more observations later in the week.

28 Books in 28 Days – Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

28 Books in 28 Days – Christian Voices on Environment, Food, and Simple Living

Starting tomorrow, February 1, I will be reviewing 28 books in 28 days leading up to the release of my book, Year of Plenty, on March 1. Year of Plenty tells the story of our family’s experience in 2008 consuming only what was local, used, homegrown, or homemade. Our four rules, scribbled on a Starbucks brochure in a fit of consumer fatigue, led us into wonderful conversations about locavores (people who eat local food), going green, farmers’ markets, downshifters (people who intentionally seek to consume less), simple living, food not lawns, backyard chickens, and more.

There are already some great books on these topics. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan is a wonderful expose of how our far-flung food system has gone awry, and Alisa Smith and J.B. McKinnon pioneered the year-long-food-experiment genre with their book The 100 Mile Diet. (If I use the Canadian title to the book, it will be less obvious that I borrowed a little inspiration from their American released book, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet, for the title to my blog and now book. I wanted to call the blog Consuming Passions, but Nancy thought it sounded too much like a cheap romance novel or daytime soap opera. Of course, she is almost always right.) Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle took it a step further by telling the tale of her family’s year of eating local, and the beauty of her story is more than matched by the beauty of her prose. Colin Beavan firmly established the “bumbling eco-experimenter” genre with his book and movie, No-Impact Man, that tells the tale of seeking to live for a year with zero environmental impact in the middle of Manhattan. While Year of Plenty shares a literary eco-system with these books, it seeks to break new ground by offering a Christian reflection on these issues.

While Year of Plenty is based on a premise that there is a need for more Christian engagement with these important issues of the day, there certainly are other books that have already, in their own unique way, sought to flesh out an authentic Christian response. That’s where the 28 books in 28 days project comes in. Earlier in the week I consulted the wisdom of my Tweeps and Facebook friends, and based on their counsel, I came up with a list of some of the most important contributions to date. I chose books that were overtly Christian in their perspective, with the exception of books by Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben. Their writings draw from the deep well of faith and their works are highly influential, so I thought it was important to include them. I tried to have a good representation of books in the areas of environmentalism, food, simple living, and redemptive consumption practices, which are the main themes covered in Year of Plenty. Most are more recently published but there are some classics in the mix. I picked one obscure book, titled MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), that I found too intriguing to leave off. Some of the authors have more than one book on the topic so, in that case, I picked the one I thought to be the most important contribution.

Go here to see the full list on Springpad. The titles and authors are as follows in nor particular order:

  1. Simpler Living, Compassionate Life: A Christian Perspective, Michael Schut, Editor
  2. Farming As a Spiritual Discipline, Ragan Sutterfield
  3. The Amish Way: Patient Faith in a Perilous World, Donald B. Kraybill
  4. Living More with Less, Doris Janzen Longacre
  5. Global Warming and the Risen LORD: Christian Discipleship and Climate Change, Jim Ball
  6. Planetwise: Dare to Care for God’s World, Dave Bookless
  7. Earth-Wise: A Biblical Response to Environmental Issues [EARTH WISE 2/E], Calvin B. DeWitt
  8. Redeeming Creation: The Biblical Basis for Environmental Stewardship, Fred H. Van Dyke
  9. MISSIONARY EARTHKEEPING (Modern Mission Era, 1792-1992: An Appraisal), Calvin Dewitt
  10. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care (Engaging Culture), Steven Bouma-Prediger
  11. Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Bill McKibben
  12. The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, Norman Wirzba
  13. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry
  14. Food & Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread, Michael Schut, Editor
  15. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, Ellen F. Davis
  16. Bread for the World, Arthur Simon
  17. Natural Saints: How People of Faith are Working to Save God’s Earth, Mallory McDuff
  18. Made to Crave: Satisfying Your Deepest Desire with God, Not Food [Paperback], Lysa TerKeurst
  19. Enough: Contentment in an Age of Excess, Will Samson
  20. Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices, Julie Clawson
  21. A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, Katharine Hayhoe
  22. Serve God, Save the Planet: A Christian Call to Action, Matthew Sleeth M.D.
  23. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, Ronald J. Sider
  24. Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet, Jonathan Merritt
  25. The Consuming Passion: Christianity & the Consumer Culture, Rodney Clapp, Editor
  26. Saving God’s Green Earth: Rediscovering the Church’s Responsibility to Environmental Stewardship, Tri Robinson
  27. Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People, Scott C. Sabin
  28. The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God, Leslie Leyland Fields, Editor

So what do you think? Does the list cover the most significant contributions or are there some that I’ve left off? You can lobby me to add books to the list but I’ll only add them if you provide the blog post review along with the reason it is important to the conversation. I’ve read many of these books already, but there are many I haven’t, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll offer my perspectives on each book but will also reference The Englewood Review of Books for some of these titles. They are currently the go-to source for book reviews of books on these topics. If you’re not following them already on Twitter or Facebook, you should be.

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

On Monday I wrote up a post on the much heralded New York Times article,While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales. This kind of story is the bread and butter of the fast evolving food blogosphere, of which Year of Plenty is a very small part. A large media outlet like the Times does the original reporting and then it gets echoed throughout the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and Facebook Friend-Feed-Frenzyverse. It received so much attention that I initially wasn’t going to bother linking to it, assuming that everyone had already seen it. But when I got around to actually reading the Times article, something didn’t seem quite right. The article was factually correct in its reporting but cryptic in the way it described the relationship between the USDA and the Dairy Management Corporation. It hinted that the U.S. taxpayer-funded USDA was pulling the strings on the Domino’s marketing campaign.

This subtle hint in the article was turned into the brash assertion all over the internet that U.S. taxpayers were not only paying for the $12 million campaign with Domino’s for extra-cheesy pizzas, but that the USDA, and therefore the government, was running the ad campaign. While I highlighted in my post some smaller blogs that reported the story this way, Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder gives a good summary of how this played out among some of the most influential people and news platforms in America:

Food writer and journalism professor Michael Pollan tweets that “our tax dollars (are) at work promoting Domino’s pizza.”

Kerry Trueman (co-founder of EatingLiberally.org) states on the liberalHuffington Post that Domino’s Pizza is selling gobs of cheese with the help of a “government handout.”

The Atlantic says the “government wants to fatten you up with cheese.”Paul Waldman at The American Prospect writes a government agency uses “taxpayer funds” — “your tax dollars” — to promote double melt cheeseburgers.  Matt Yglesias writes a headline saying “Tax Dollars Going to Subsidize Cheesier Dominoes (sic) Pizzas,” adding that this is the kind of “government spending…we could entirely do without.”

Because of previous stories I’ve done on the agricultural checkoff programs, these assertions didn’t sound quite right. So I did something that Michael Moss,“ace New York Times Reporter” didn’t do; I made a couple phone calls and actually talked to someone at Dairy Management about the program. As far as I can tell, in all the reporting that’s been done on the story, I’m the only “reporter” that talked to Dairy Management to better understand their relationship to the USDA. I also talked to a representative of United Dairymen of Idaho to get a better understanding of how the checkoff system works.

Moss explained in the article why he didn’t have those conversations:

The Agriculture Department declined to make top officials available for interviews for this article, and Dairy Management would not comment. In answering written questions, the department said that dairy promotion was intended to bolster farmers and rural economies, and that its oversight left Dairy Management’s board with “significant independence” in deciding how best to support those interests.

The crux of the whole story is the nature of the relationship between the USDA and Dairy Management and Moss didn’t speak to anyone at either entity? He apparently got a written response to questions from the USDA. This may be a case of the USDA and Dairy Management not doing their job of accurately explaining the nature of the relationship, but I’m baffled that I could get through to them to ask probing questions and he couldn’t.

So is it possible that I did a more thorough job of reporting on the relationship between the USDA, Dairy Management, and taxpayers than the New York Times?

I’m flattered that the “So Good” food blog seemed to think so. In assessing the reporting on the USDA and Dairy Management the blog says;

The most accurate breakdown of this organization’s role in this story can be found in this post on Year of Plenty, Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy – What’s So Controversial About That?

I’ll let you read my blog post to decide if I did a more thorough job, but I do know that because of those phone calls I didn’t take the “tax-payers paying to promote cheesy pizza” bait, like so many others.

There are a couple of lessons for me in this;

1. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

2. Don’t believe everything you read in the New York Times.

3. When it comes to food politics and debates about food systems, the problem is not the demonization of food, as the Daily Yonder proposes. The problem is the demonization of people. In this case the demonization of people at the USDA and Dairy Management as evil cheese-conspirators.

If this is the problem than the solution is to talk to people and give their perspectives a genuine hearing. In other words, to be in relationship with people. In my case, when it comes to writing about food, that means being in relationship with small local farmers and large scale farmers, conventional and organic, following Grist and #agchat on Twitter. It takes all perspectives to get the story straight. Go here for a recent post on why living in an agricultural region like Spokane where I am in ongoing relationships with people involved in all aspects of the food system makes me a better food blogger.

One of the grand lessons from our year-long experiment in eating local is that relationships with people involved in bringing food to market is the key to developing just and sustainable food systems. This includes farmers, but it also includes business people. The core crisis in the food system is a break-down in the relationships between people involved with bringing food to market and those sticking the food in their mouths. Relationships breed accountability, pride, quality, health, and sustainability. A vaccuum of relationships creates paranoia, pollution, corruption, unhealth, shoddy practices, and most of the other ills in the food system. That’s why I am committed to eating locally and promoting local food.

My diagnosis of the situation is more than just about good reporting and blogging. (Warning: If you don’t follow my blog this is going to sound totally random.) It’s actually rooted in my Christian faith and my role as pastor at a Presbyterian church. My focus on relationships arises from my understanding of Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In my judgement, this call to be in relationship with people is the key lens through which to see everything, including food. In my upcoming book I have a chapter dedicated to explaining this perspective. I hope it will be a helpful contribution to food debates that too often get bogged down haggling about food miles, carbon footprints, or cheesy marketing campaigns.

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

Food Fight, Ctd – In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet

A recent Chicago Tribune article had one of the more thorough treatments of the debates between industrial agriculture pragmatists vs. local food idealists.I was intrigued to hear about an upcoming book;

…economist Hiroko Shimizu and University of Toronto geographer Pierre Desrochers are finishing a 2011 book, tentatively called “In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet,” that argues locavorism is a misleading marketing fad that, among other problems, ignores the threat it poses to the current affordability of food and to the economic health of developing countries.

Food security can suffer if “you put all your eggs in one local basket and something goes wrong,” Desrochers said from his Toronto office. “I also have a problem when local food activists want to promote food that is either not economical or cannot compete with foreign food in that area.”

Go here for a brief article of the same name by Shimizu.

The whole Tribune article is worth a read but I should clarify one point regarding the use of food stamps at farmers’ markets. The article offers that as a counterpoint to farmers market elitism but early reports are that while many markets take food stamps, few consumers are taking advantage of it. Unfortunately, this has been true at the Millwood Farmers’ Market where we haven’t had a lot of food stamp transactions this summer.

Go here for my response to these debates.

Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

Food Fight: Washington Post Foodie Ezra Klein Defends Industrial Agriculture

6a00e5500a0b5588340134876e98f9970c-500wiEarlier in the week influential blogger Ezra Klein of the Washington Post wrote a short post dismissing the influence of the local food movement and heralding that “Industrial farms are the future.” He wrote;

Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can’t think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production — and then back again. Are there any examples I’m missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.

In the article he references an article from the Guardian in the UK where Jay Rayner argues;

Words such as local, seasonal and organic have become a holy trinity. But these are merely lifestyle choices for the affluent middle-classes, a matter of aesthetics, and nothing to do with the real issues.

If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture…and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.

Ezra Klein is a farmers’-market-shopping, meatless-monday-eating, full-on-foodie so his little post created quite a stir. Tom Philpot at Grist offered up the highest profile retort. He mainly takes down Rayner’s editorial and tisk-tisks Klein for passing it off as meaningful commentary. He writes;

Rayner’s argument goes like this: a) because the U.K. relies increasingly on food imports, and b) U.K. supermarkets demand flawless, uniform fruits and vegetables, forcing farmers to “grade out” much high-quality produce, and c) U.K. consumers have come to expect dirt-cheap food, then the nation “will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming” to avoid looming famine.

Really? The same line of reasoning could more logically have led Rayner in the opposite direction: that Britain’s food problems stem from a globalized industrial food system consolidated into the hands of a few powerful companies.

Yesterday, Klein offered a little bit of an apology for citing the Guardian editorial, which he admits is weak, but he sticks to his guns when it comes to the future of food being industrial;

…I’m increasingly less convinced that small and big are, in the overall scheme of things, terribly useful dividing lines for the future of agriculture. Whether one could hypothetically imagine feeding the world using decentralized production methods, I don’t see much reason to believe it will happen. At the same time, small farms can be run wastefully and large farms can be run sustainably.

When I say that the food movement is sending important signals to America’s agribusiness giants, I mean it — forcing them to innovate in organics and compete with Stonyfield and think about the success of farmers markets are types of pressure that could lead to really important transformations in how they do their business. And those are transformations that might then be copied by large producers in other countries. That’s why I think the most important role of the food movement is potentially changing the behavior of players like Nestle and ConAgra, and creating some large companies that demonstrate how a different ethos of food production can be brought to industrial scale.

Andrew Sullivan just pinged this dialogue so I suspect it will get a lot of play on blogs and editorial pages in the coming weeks.

This little food fight touches on so many different aspects of what I blog about here that it’s a little hard for me to decide where to enter in, but let me pick one aspect of the debate and see where it leads.

Klein mentions the hypothetical question as to whether it’s possible to feed the world through decentralized production methods. It’s typical in these debates for defenders of industrial ag to assert that it’s not possible to feed the worldusing organic or local methods and others reply that, actually, you can. Klein dismisses this line of argument as irrelevant. He says it’s not going to happen. He asserts that we have never seen “a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production — and then back again,” which is what would need to happen in the case of food. The industrial cat is out of the bag and there is no turning back. All we can hope for is mega-corporations that are responsible and responsive to consumer demands for more sustainable and local food.

He takes the the pose of the realist and on one hand I agree with him. I often say (I just said it yesterday in fact), that real substantial change in food distribution will have to come through changes to big retailers like Walmart. For an example of how this is happening with potatoes go here.

But I disagree with Klein’s and Rayner’s foundational assumption – that the production of food is best viewed as an “industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale…” For one, there is mounting evidence that food production does not work better on a mass scale. It’s only over the last 75 years that food has been imagined as an industry and practiced as such. We fed the world for millennia with small, local and organic agriculture. Modern industrial food practices are a very recent innovation and the long term consequences are still unknown.

There is no doubt that modern technologies have been a boon to the task of feeding people around the world, but there is something different about food than making cars or forging steel. Manufacturing cars is a product of the industrial revolution. Eating food arises out of the very nature of the created order. For all of history food amounted to more than the shallow categories of industry. Food was culture, family, provision, and for the three major religions of the world, a sign of God’s grace.

In the Genesis account of creation the first words out of God’s mouth to Adam and Eve are, “You are free to eat….” Not far behind is the warning, “You must not eat…” After their disobedience, God proclaims judgment, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Even in judgment there is a grace of provision.

It’s funny to me how casually we throw around the phrase “saving the world” in debates about sustainability. Isn’t it so obvious that “going green” is a veiled, modern-secular way of entering into the territory of apocalypse and salvation, the ancient categories of the human quest for life and meaning and God. Food goes deep into mysterious and hallowed places of human existence. Food cannot be reduced to the limited categories of industry and it does great damage to imagine it exclusively as such.

There is one thing I agree with in the Guardian column. Rayner says that the local, seasonal and organic food movements are a matter of aesthetics, and have nothing to do with the real issues of industrial practices and pragmatics of feeding the world. He’s right in pointing out that what drives the local food/sustainable food movement is, something beyond the pragmatism of calories and food miles, something more intangible. Aesthetics is a rather dismissive way of putting it. I would say that it arises out the human search for meaning and hope.

One last comment. Rayner claims that it’s only the well-off middle-class who have the luxury to dismiss the reality of food as industry. In my experience it’s actually the impoverished 2/3 world that understand the reality that food is more than industry. To the majority world food is culture, family and life. Most of the world gets that those are “real issues” that are relevant to conversations about food. Wealthy westerners are actually the innovators of the exclusive view of food as industry and profit margin. It is our particular single-minded lens that is foreign in the world.

The insurgent foodies in the western world are attempting to lift up other issues that are very real, issues that touch on aspects of human life that industry can never reduce and control, and issues that impact and change industrial practices.

As I see it, the task is not to de-industrialize food, the task is to re-enchant, re-annimate, and re-new our imaginations around food, which by necessity means to re-connect with the land that supplies us with food (and perhaps the Creator of the land), and along with that to re-connect with the farmers who farm the land.