For Langdon Cook, a walk in the woods isn't that different from a walk through the produce section of the supermarket. He's a writer, blogger and all-around outdoorsy type, but in outdoorsy Seattle, he's made his name primarily as a forager.
He's kind enough to let me tag along on a mushroom hunt in the Cascades. In the back of his Subaru (the official car of the Seattle outdoors) he already has a basket full of morels, porcinis and coral mushrooms — the fruits of about ten miles of hiking, he says. He doesn't want me to be too specific about our location because other mushroom hunters might yell at him. But he's not so protective of his foraging secrets. In fact, he enjoys teaching people how to spot food.
He lists the foods at hand just in this section of the forest: Fiddlehead ferns. Stinging nettles. Miner's lettuce.
"[Miner's lettuce] tastes a little bit like say those expensive French baby lettuces that you might buy for a lot of money in the market. You can harvest it for free right within the Seattle city limits," he says.
But Cook isn't some dumpster-diving "freegan." His interest in wild foods began as something to do on hiking trips, but it's now evolved, as has his taste for the finer things. "Have you ever had an elder flower cordial?" he asks, and rolls his eyes heavenward. "Ah! it's wonderful! With champagne or an adult beverage."
Cook is the part of a nucleus of dedicated foragers in Seattle. One of his friends is award-winning chef Matthew Dillon, who's made foraged foods a mainstay of restaurants like Sitka and Spruce. Another friend is Jeremy Faber, a legendary forager who has built the company, Foraged and Found Edibles, that supplies restaurants with foods that can't be cultivated.
"It's a nasty, prehistoric-looking plant that has these big parasol-shaped leaves, and the leaves have spines on them," he says. "But, we can have our revenge by eating the buds in the springtime." He describes the buds' flavor as akin to "inhaling the forest."
In another era, a plate of weeds may suggest poverty, but Cook and others like him have elevated foraging to a fine dining experience.
Cook modestly describes himself as a "pretty decent home cook," but he's a lot more inventive than the average stay-at-home dad. That's clear enough in the way he prepared those devil's club buds.
"I infused cream and made a chocolate sauce with them. And it was delicious. And then I did the same thing with a Bordelaise sauce, which I poured over meat."
It's this kind of thing that's made Cook's blog influential. Another prize-winning chef, Blaine Wetzel, says it's his favorite website, and he checks it to see if Cook is foraging for foods he hasn't yet noticed.
But there are limits to what Cook will eat.
"The forager's golden rule is that you never, ever eat a food you can't identify with 100 percent certainty," he says. The dangers go beyond mushrooms. The northwest has plenty of poisonous greens, such as poison hemlock — the stuff that killed Socrates.
"It looks like wild parsley. Or a wild carrot. That's a family where you really have to know your stuff," Cook says.
Cook eats things only after he finds a record of other people eating them — especially local tribes, for whom none of this is particularly new. Ethnographies of native life are his primary source of information for potential "new" foods.
He says the thrill of eating new things is not what he's after. What motivates him, he says, is the outdoors itself. He wants more people to forage, because it gives them a direct stake in the natural world.
"Any experienced mushroom hunter in this area, say, someone who has a really nice patch of chanterelles, has had the really unfun experience of visiting that patch and finding that the whole thing's been logged," he says. The more people find their favorite foods in nature, he believes, the more they'll care about what happens to it.
Thanks to Cook and others, interest in foraging as a way to reconnect with the land is growing beyond a few specialists and chefs --so much so that Seattle is developing the first urban food forest open to foragers.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel in Washington, D.C.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
I'm Melissa Block, spending this week in California at NPR West. And we've been hearing about innovators on the West Coast, people who try news things or eat new things, in the case of today's innovator.
NPR's Martin Kaste introduces us to Seattle's Prophet of Foraged Foods.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Langdon Cook is taking a walk in the woods and, as usual, he's finding free food.
LANGDON COOK: Ooh, there's a nice one.
KASTE: Today, its morel mushrooms in an undisclosed location in the Cascade Mountains. Undisclosed because he says other mushroom hunters might yell at him if he revealed the exact coordinates. Cook himself isn't quite so protective of the morels. He actually likes to teach people how to spot them.
COOK: Actually, Martin, why don't you open up your mushroom eyes a little better, put on your morel goggles and see if you see something.
KASTE: Morel goggles aren't a universal gift, but Cook is patient with the newbie.
COOK: Now you're getting warmer. Getting warmer - a couple more paces, just don't step on it.
KASTE: This is what Cook does. He finds wild food and he teaches other people how to do it. Food is everywhere, he says. You just have to learn how to see it.
COOK: In this area, I might find fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles which, you know, one of my favorites. It's a weed. It is more nutritious than virtually anything you can grow in your own garden.
KASTE: Cook admits that part of the appeal is that this stuff is free.
COOK: You know, Miner's lettuce tastes a little bit like, say, those expensive French baby lettuces that you might buy for a lot of money at the market.
KASTE: But Cook is not some kind of dumpster diving freegan. He's part of a nucleus of dedicated foragers here in Seattle; chefs and outdoorsy types whose interest in wild foods has grown into a bona fide movement. These days, the top restaurants around here know that their menus had better include something that was forged.
Cook is mainly a writer and an experimenter. Take, for instance, his project involving devil's club, a plant usually known as the bane of backwoods hikers.
COOK: It's a nasty, prehistoric-looking plant that has these big parasol shaped leaves, and the leaves have spines on them. But we can have our revenge by eating the buds in the springtime.
KASTE: He modestly describes himself as a pretty decent home cook, but he's a heck of a lot more inventive than the average stay-at-home dad. That's clear enough in the way he prepared those piney-scented devil's club buds.
COOK: I infused cream and made a chocolate sauce with them. And it was delicious. And then I did the same thing with a Bordelaise sauce, which I poured over meat.
KASTE: It's this kind of thing that's made Cook's blog, The Fat of the Land, so influential. One prize-winning chef has said it's his favorite website, and he checks it often to see if Cook is foraging for a food that he hasn't noticed yet.
But there are also limits to what Cook will eat.
COOK: The forager's golden rule is that you never, ever eat a wild food that you can't identify with a hundred percent certainty.
KASTE: It's not just deadly mushrooms you have to watch out for, he says. There are plenty of poisonous greens in the woods, not to mention poison hemlock. You know, the stuff that killed Socrates?
COOK: It looks like wild parsley or a wild carrot. That's a family that you really have to know your stuff.
KASTE: Cook isn't looking for cheap thrills. He eats things only after he finds a record of other people eating them, especially the local tribes, for whom none of this is particularly new. He also says he's not after culinary glory. The real reason he promotes foraging, he says, is to give other people a direct stake in the outdoors.
COOK: Any experienced mushroom hunter in this area - say, someone who has a really nice patch of chanterelles - has had the really un-fun experience of visiting that patch, you know, and finding that the whole thing has been logged.
KASTE: The more people find their favorite foods in nature, Cook says, the more they'll care about what happens to it.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.