Archive for category Wild Foraging

Book Review: San Francisco – A Food Biography

SFFoodBIoSan Francisco: A Food Biography, by Erica J. Peters, Rowman and Littlefield (, 2013, 242 pages, $38.00

Rarely is history so delicious. Billed as a real urban biography of the “full food culture of a city,” San Francisco: A Food Biography – the second in the Big City Food Biographies Series – is a mouth-watering celebration of the City by the Bay’s epicurean history, resources, and people as told through its markets, restaurants, dishes, and cookbooks. Author Erica J. Peters, director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, cooks up a tasty tale that begins with the Native American foodways of the indigenous Ohlone people and ends in San Francisco’s celebrated dining rooms and diners.

Recalling the preindustrial landscape upon which San Francisco took root, Peters begins by bringing the golden hills to life with the collection, processing, and preparation of acorns ground, leached, and soaked to prepare puddings eaten with seaweed or clams, or fried into breads and chips; the greens of clover, poppy, miner’s lettuce, columbine, milkweed, and mule ear tossed into salads or steamed and boiled; and the bulbs of Mariposa lily, soaproot, and brodiaea browned or roasted over hot coals. Succulent wild strawberries, cherries, elderberries, manzanita berries, and madrone berries were eaten fresh, cooked into jams, or dried, while the Ohlone foraged far afield following seasonal migrations in search of wild game – sardines, minnows, trout, salmon, sturgeon, black-tailed deer, antelope, quail, beaver, otter, raccoons, squirrels, and rabbits. With such a bounty at their fingertips, the world was their mussel, their clam, and their oyster.

But with the arrival of Mission Era European explorers in 1542 and colonists after 1776, followed by the Gold Rush in 1848, the great mixing pot that is San Francisco today began to stir with the introduction of new cultures and new ingredients. As corn replaced acorns and cattle replaced elk and antelope, the city sprung to life in the Mission lands surrounding Mission San Francisco de Asís (or Mission Dolores). With the Latino ‘Californios’ came roast beef, frijoles (beans), enchiladas, and tamales. Next came the African Americans who introduced southern-comfort okra, collared greens, and black-eyed peas. The French introduced champagne, caviar, French bread, and cornichons. And the Chinese brought to the table bamboo shoots, shark’s fins, rice liquor, and chop-suey. With every nationality that stumbled off a ship or wagon train came a pantry of ingredients and a menu to suit.

Although every city is certainly molded by its denizens, Peters is careful to illustrate how California’s particular history carefully shaped San Francisco’s culinary trajectory. It seems inconceivable to imagine a time when San Franciscans looked down on French and Chinese cuisine, but such was the case in the city’s formative years when citizens believed the dishes’ sauces were there to disguise inferior ingredients. As neighborhoods ebbed and flowed with Russian, Jewish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Irish immigrants in tune to World Wars or Prohibition, so too did their restaurants, markets, bakeries, grocers, and butchers. And while certain ethnicities had to struggle more than others to make ends meet as restauranteurs selling the taste of their home countries, others strayed away from their cultural traditions and instead adopted the traditional ‘American’ fare. Nowhere is this clash of culture and cuisine better realized than in San Francisco’s restaurants, recipes, and cookbooks, which Peters mines for their telling histories to reveal the steaming, broiling, simmering, charred underbelly of our favorite haunts and digs, from the Poodle Dog Restaurant to the Cliff House.

In her role as culinary historian, Peters is the perfect guide to San Francisco’s greasy spoons and gourmet grottoes. Whether you’re a history buff or a food saveur, whether you’re a fan of It’s-It ice cream or a Rice-a-Roni junky, San Francisco: A Food Biography is sure to feed the foodie in you.


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Book Review: Paddling North

Paddling NorthPaddling North, by Audrey Sutherland, Patagonia Books (, 2012, 171 pages, $22.95.

Paddling North is the story of Audrey Sutherland, who braves the Alaskan coastline solo in a nine-foot-long inflatable kayak. But from the start, the only thing that is cast off in this adventure is the reader’s sense of time, of place, and of Sutherland’s supposed passion for the trip she is about to undertake. On page one, Sutherland inauspiciously sets sail with a typo (“There seemed be total wilderness…”) paired with a bait-and-switch lede about an encounter with a grizzly bear that – spoiler alert! – ends up taking place not during, but in a last-few-pages flash-forward recollection two years after the close of her 800-mile paddle from Ketchikan to Skagway. Confused? Me too, especially given that Sutherland’s purported paddle plays out over two summers, but the narrative disingenuously unfolds in a single trip.  Too, she never outright tips her wool cap as to when the trip takes place except through clues in the forward or sprinkled throughout the narrative like the occasional bear scat she encounters (the closest, really, she comes to interacting with bear): “Since that first voyage, I’ve paddled… 22 more years in Alaska and British Columbia,” and “It was only after 20 more years of paddling this country…”

Sutherland recounts her trip in a clipped, mechanical pace. Take for example her encounter with a family she comes across while traversing the Behm Canal: “Ahead lay a buoy – and a boat and people on shore by the cabin: three adults and three kids. My preference for solitude was balanced by their hospitality. In the morning, 12-year-old Rick taught me fishing techniques for the spinning reel and confirmed that I had been seeing mink.” It is surprising how much time, and yet how little substance, she can pack into three sentences that span late afternoon to early morning the following day. Or later, “I came back to the cabin and lit the fire I’d laid yesterday. Hot tea and rolls and change out of the wet clothes.”

Sutherland’s trek becomes less about place than about checking off stops on an itinerary, bouncing between uncertain Forest Service cabins and hot springs marked on her maps. Alaska’s Kodak moments become glancing mentions. Upon reaching Hole in the Wall – as good a place as any seemingly worth at least an adjective or two, right? – Sutherland remarks, “I paddled in good conditions to Hole in the Wall and through its slot. The narrow, high-sided pass opened out into a grass-lined bay. It [the bay] would be a good place to anchor for a bigger boat…” That’s it? Nothing about natural arches or rock formations?

At times, the entire story reads as though Sutherland padded her diary entries enough to make of them a story. So it comes as no surprise that the few times she drops snippets from her journal, the dairy entries aren’t all that different from the story narrative. They’re cursory, removed, distant. Overall, the narrative ebbs and flows as though reading over Sutherland’s shoulder her diary or a text or email. Could it be this jumpy, distant narrative stems from the 20-year gap mentioned above? In much the same way Sutherland hypothesizes John Muir’s Travels in Alaska, written 15 years after his adventures took place, reflects Muir glossing over the misery of his wilderness treks, perhaps the veneer of Sutherland’s exuberant passion and thrall about places explored and moments lived have similarly worn away over the passing score years. Sutherland’s difficulties balancing the past and present also come through in a device she leans on regularly, an awkward time-traveling transition in which she interjects from the present-day to note, “Later, I’d read… that a fox farm was here in 1923” or “Later, I read Vancouver’s own journal notes about this area”.

If nothing else, her writing – understated, muted, and numb – drives home the discomfort and perils of soloing frigid waters under uncertain weather conditions: choppy waters, sinister currents, the cold and wet and wind. The only warmth we experience is that of her admirable instinct to mend neglected oil and wood stoves, and the mouth-watering meals she prepares on them. There are no MREs or tinned meats. No, Sutherland makes it a point to wine and dine herself every step of the way: marinated artichokes, Romano cheese, cioppino, bacon, and mango apple cobbler; Sirah and sake and chablis and rum; and foraged cockles, limpets, and self-smoked salmons steaks. Such repasts prove creature comfort to author and reader alike.

Still, there are moments that break the ice, where Sutherland’s compassion stirs and her brevity is becalming. Writing about petroglyphs she finds along the rocky shoreline, we share a tender moment where she reflects on past inhabitants as she makes a rubbing of a glyph using her stuff sack and crushed fern. If only there were more treasurable moments like these, perhaps Paddling North would have stayed afloat. But at story’s end, there are no skin-of-your-teeth close encounters with bears as promised, no life-and-death experiences, no epic revelations or ah-ha moments to speak of. Just bear poop, a tipped kayak, and the author’s sense of self-accomplishment. Caught in these doldrums, Paddling North instead finds itself lost at sea.

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Book Review: Closer to the Ground

Closer to the Ground: An Outdoor Family’s Year on the Water, In the Woods and at the Table, by Dylan Tomine, Patagonia Books (, 2012, 230 pages, $29.95.

In a book as delightful as it is delicious, former fly-fishing guide-turned-writer Dylan Tomine’s Closer to the Ground follows the Tomine family through four seasons in the Pacific Northwest as they live off the land and sea. Writing with gentle humor, insight, and hard-earned know-how, Tomine proves himself a simple practitioner – not a preacher – of the wild food foraging/hunting lifestyle. Whether he’s examining  the challenges of living off the land, the ethics of harvesting wild food, fatherhood and relationships, the changing seasons, or the tragedy and the ecstasy of the commons, Tomine casts his introspective prose far and wide.

Together with his wife, Stacy, the couple’s effervescent children – 3-year-old encyclopedic, narcoleptic Weston; and 6-year-old Disney warrior-princess Skyla – act as free-spirited foils to Tomine’s pervasive, self-effacing pessimism. For as often as the fearless (in both the worldly and gustatory sense) Weston and Skyla accompany Tomine into the woods and out to sea to learn and practice the art of foraging at their father’s side, Tomine finds himself humbled time and again by what his children have to teach him about the outdoors, about patience, and about himself.

Whether he’s stalking chanterelles with his son or wrestling windfalls to the ground for kindling, Tomine somehow makes foraging, hunting, gathering, and gardening appear instinctual and effortless, despite the very real sweat and tears. Tomine minces garlic, not words: behind the steam baths of Dungeness crab, larded spring Chinook, pankoed Pacific oysters, giraffesque geoducks, cutleaf berry crisps, tender king salmon collars, and mule deer rump steaks are pulled muscles, slack lines, inclement weather, barked shins, tumbles, thorns, and mud and guts. And yet I still finished the last chapter salivating, feeling envious of his back-to-roots lifestyle. In the end, the buttery chanterelles, garden-grown blueberries, and littleneck steamer clams awash in garlic butter left me more than a little hungry, and a little more willing to pull a muscle or bark a shin or two in exchange for some wild-caught delicacy off Tomine’s manna menu. For today’s famined souls, Closer to the Ground is not only a taste of what it’s like to live off the land, it’s also a feast for all the senses.

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