Immediately after putting down Fat of the Land, I opened Toast, UK food writer Nigel Slater’s memoire of the food he grew up eating in suburban England in the 1960s. There are few threads linking these two books together — food being perhaps the sole aspect — but something in Slater’s introduction caught my attention, expressing, as it did, what I had enjoyed most about Lang’s book:
“When a cooking writer pens his autobiography, it is invariably written with a fresh-baked, rosy glow. Tales of baking at their mother’s knee is [sic] what is expected.”
Fat of the Land could have fallen into this happy cliche of cooking recollections penned simply as sweet pablum for a reader not wanting to be challenged. Instead, the author details his chronological development as a foodie — both generally and specifically as a forager — in a way that rouses the reader to head for the hills in search of our dinner, or at least, to consider doing so. Through humorous anecdotes of his coutrship and marriage, this book is a refreshing and entertaining read about the author’s “food awakening” as a complete lifestyle change, rather than the achingly dull tales Slater descries.
In fact, Cook’s evocative stories of foraging his Pacific Northwest — from the highly polluted to the few scraps of remaining pristine wilderness — stirs the Lewis and Clark in all of us. And, while it may be occasionally depressing to read about how degraded most of our natural environment is, with constant reminders of catch limits and the need to be careful about where to gather ones wild edibles due to pollution, the comparative bounty that the author finds to eat is remarkable and inspiring.
“To Cook, the great outdoors isn’t for whooping weekenders in neon spandex crushing it under their ATV wheels, it’s dinner.”
However, for me, since I do not know that part of the country well and could not be described, even generously, as an outdoor type, Cook’s detailed descriptions of the where, the how and the why of wild foraging influence more the way I think about the environment in a political sense than my plans for the weekend. The dichotomy between bounty and restriction, between poison and good health, between fear of the unknown and liberty from the tyranny of the supermarket aisle, are writ large in Fat of the Land. Lang advocates passionately, yet subtly, for America’s wild places, the creatures that inhabit them, and retention of traditional native food-ways, while retaining his obvious sense of wonderment at learning how to harvest natural bounty. Indeed, far from making his tread lightly ethos appear all P.C. and tame, his well-researched and informative discussions of prudent mushroom gathering, cautious fiddlehead hunting , and careful shellfish collection make it seem exhilirating and, almost, dangerous.
To Cook, the great outdoors isn’t for whooping weekenders in neon spandex crushing it under their ATV wheels, nor is it just beautiful scenery either, it’s dinner. His hands-on approach to finding the original slow food — as he puts it “food that can’t run away” — offers up a bristly, energetic experience, nourishing to both body and soul, that you simply can’t get off the supermarket shelf.
By Langdon Cook
Skipstone, 2009, $26.95.
Available from Amazon
Also read Heather @ Gild the (Voodoo)lily’s write-up of Lang’s book here.
And, for more of Lang’s tales of eating on the wild side, visit him at his blog, Fat of the Land.