The call of wild foods was a gentle murmur when I first started gathering food. It was the sound of my grandmother’s voice as we dug sassafras and picked scuppernong grapes. Delights like poke salad and mayhaws weren’t just funny words in old country songs; they were hunted, put on the table, and eaten with great relish.
As the years passed, wild food retreated to the fringes of public interest, but it never lost its hold on me. I was probably standing at the low-tide mark in the late seventies, when I visited numerous San Francisco restaurants trying to sell my baskets of wild mushrooms. I found only two chefs who’d ever seen a chanterelle before—and both were French. One refused even to believe my mushrooms were chanterelles because “they do not grow in this country.” The other chef recognized the fresh chanterelles but thought they were far too large. He informed me that the ones he was using from a tin can were superior because they were small and French. These were the two best known chefs in San Francisco’s two finest restaurants. Five years later, both restaurants’ doors were closed and in had swept the dawn of fresh, local, seasonal California cuisine.
Now, more than three decades later, I find myself sitting squarely at the curious crossroads of the Stone Age and haute cuisine. I can’t count the times over the years I’ve crawled out of the woods quite oblivious to the leaves and twigs in my hair and marched directly to a chef in a crisp white uniform. Thirty years ago the late, great chef Masataka was thrilled to parade me and my chanterelles past diners whose private jets were parked just a few miles from the woods I hunted. One minute I’m worried about how we can get our mushrooms across a raging creek and eight hours later I’m putting the fresh cèpes into the hands of a delighted sous-chef at the French Laundry . . .
At the “picker” forager camp you sit with muddy knees, hoping there’s enough dry firewood or that the mother bear and cubs don’t come back. Meanwhile, the chef in the immaculate whites prays his line cook isn’t impossibly hungover. The camp crew has just enough water to rinse the black trumpets to put on the hot dogs (quite good!), while the chef wonders whether to cook them in sous-vide. Muddy jeans and glistening stemware, old pickup trucks and limousines, campfires and Viking ranges, a roll of bills and a wallet full of plastic: The contrasts may seem huge from a distance, but there isn’t a hairbreadth of difference between the foragers’ and the chefs’ passion for their work. I know; I cross these worlds every day . . .
When asked “How did you get into this business?” I have to think back over thirty years of selling wild foods and the founding of Wine Forest. It does seem an odd path for someone with a degree from a fine college and a previous job in Chicago television. In Chicago I met my late husband, an Estonian whose very life was saved by his family’s foraging skills during the starvation days as refugees in World War II Europe. He showed me my first chanterelle. After we moved to the hills above Napa Valley, where I still live, I was as surprised as anyone to find that what made me truly happy was crawling around the woods finding absurd quantities of chanterelles. Although I began with a passion and talent for putting wild foods on my own table, by 1980 this passion was spilling over and into restaurant kitchens . . .
People simply fall in love with wild foods. Lord knows these wild things swept me away. Folks want to be seduced by their mystery, their freedom from the bonds of agriculture. Our human civilization, based on agriculture, has struggled for millennia to no longer depend on foraging in the wild. But here at the start of the twenty-first century, the old hunter-gatherer lurking in all of us just won’t let go.