Book Review: Fat of the Land, by Langdon Cook

Fat of the Land by Lagdon Cook

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.

Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager
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.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Fat of the Land, by Langdon Cook

  1. Yes! I was intrigued by this book after reading a review somewhere else (Heather, maybe? I’m a sieve brain). What a great approach to eating, and it lets you feel vindicated in your disdain when some jackass mocks you just because you were found harvesting dandelion greens one time a few years back. Or something like that…huh. Apparently I’m still upset.

  2. Great review, Jonny. I really enjoyed reading another person’s perspective on Lang’s book. His subject matter is one that is perhaps closer to home for me (figuratively and literally), and its political aspects had somewhat escaped me. Most of the reviews on Amazon are from folks who also live in the PacNW, and I think they share a bit of regional pride (read: bias) that your review refreshingly avoids. 🙂

  3. Also, Heather is a total hippie.

    I’m going to buy this as soon as I have the time to actually read it. Probably around holiday time. Nice review.

    Are you scouring Prospect Park for wild greens and mushrooms yet?

  4. heather – you’re right: the issues of land and resource use, and conservation vs. exploitation were fascinating aspects of this book. Hunting is largely an anathema to me, but i will concede that the hunting lobby has been instrumental in saving large tracts of America’s wilderness from development into sub-divisions.
    Peter – what, at first glance, I thought was a clump of fungus/mushrooms under a tree in the park the other weekend, turned out to be several mold-covered dog turds. Lang is strangely quiet about this phenomenon. Funny that, eh?
    Tina – don’t let anyone make you feel bad about collecting your own dandelions. You should be the one mocking them for spending hard-earned money buying weeds you can pick for free!

  5. At the risk of being gauche (hah, love that word and its haughtiness), I’m gonna jump in here to second Heather’s kudos for Jonny’s perspective. Though FOTL is something of a love letter to the Northwest, my hope is that it will burst through the regional curtain to bring its ideas about food/nature/landscape/recreation/health to a broader market. Yes, razor clams are a PNW specialty–but clamming has a rich history on the East Coast as well, and folks should be pissed about places where the shellfish beds have been polluted or looted into non-existence. Same with Dungeness crabs vs. blue crabs, or salmon vs. stripers. And then there’s a whole bunch of content about wild foods that are found coast to coast: stinging nettles, dandelions, fiddleheads, mushrooms, berries, and so on.

    But politics and messages aside, I hope mostly that readers enjoy the storytelling at the heart of these essays. For me, foraging is about spending good times in the outdoors and then enjoying the fruits of my labors around the hearth with friends, eating real food and telling stories. Thanks again to Jonny for his excellent review!

  6. Good write up Jonny – very good.
    I quite liked ‘toast’ though..but then I have a soft spot for Nigel as he used to say hello to me in Neals yard cheese shop (yes yaya London town) he always seemed to be dropping things.
    I have ordered ‘Fat of the land’ thanks to this review.

  7. @Rach – I should add that I am a fan of Nigel Slater too. I thoroughly enjoyed Toast which reminded me greatly of the suburbs of Manchester circa 1980 and my own upbringing. I may have expressed myself inexpertly, but I meant to suggest that I liked Slater’s memoir because it largely avoided all the “when I was a lad everything was better…” cliches.

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