As a child, living with or near my grandmother, I enjoyed solid, nutritional, home-cooked meals. In certain seasons, we drove out to farmers' roadside stands for fresh produce and meat. Later, when my mother worked at a supermarket, my siblings and I adjusted to packaged meals she brought home—TV dinners, pot pies, canned soups, and frozen vegetables. Meals were predictable: fish sticks, French fries, and frozen peas or corn (or both), especially on Fridays; Kellogg's or General Mills cereals or toasted Wonder Bread for breakfast; meat, potatoes, and vegetable for dinner most nights. Our diet was now store-bought, local, and predictable.
Remembering those meals when I read about different approaches to culture and cuisine, I realize how isolated is my sense of how people not raised like me lived their lives. We take a certain way of living for granted until we're confronted with an alternative way. Recent memoirs have raised my awareness of alternatives quite a bit.
In Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, Gina Rae La Cerva compares past and present food preparation. "For 99 percent of our history," she points out, "humans ate hunted and gathered foods. [. . .] As recently as two hundred years ago, nearly half the North American diet still came from the wild [. . .] Today, most people will never eat anything undomesticated or uncultured." It's rare to eat untamed food. She sets off to discover what it's "like to consume the least processed foods, the most unadulterated," food not "overbred, monocultural."
Her observations of what she sees—and tastes—are lively, vivid, and detailed. In Borneo she is given a sautéed caterpillar. "It bursts in my mouth, releasing hot eggy water. The chewy body gets caught in the back of my throat like the caterpillars I ate in Congo." The image slowed my reading. (A few days later a Facebook friend posted a photo of "fresh fried tarantulas" she'd eaten in Phnom Penh: "Crisp, sweet and spicy--once you get up the nerve to pick them up and bite into a couple legs"). I now think of sautéed caterpillar and fried tarantula much too often.
In Congo La Cerva witnesses the trade in wild foods. She watches "men unload crates of smoked game," sees monitor lizards, forest turtles, piles of river fish, a live river crocodile strapped onto a motorcycle, its mouth tied shut. "A man in green flip-flops and a Central Michigan Football Champions T-shirt carries a pair of freshly killed monkeys with rust-red and grey fur. Their long tails have been tied to their necks, making for a sort of handle. The man holds them in one hand and his cell phone in the other as he walks through the market. Monkey arms and legs and hands and feet dangle downward and swing slightly in the air."
As a CMU emeritus professor, I'm startled by the man carrying monkeys, but mostly impressed by how thoroughly the scene comes alive, turning the reader into an observant bystander. Everywhere she visits, she notices how changes in population, politics, and commerce affect the availability of wild foods. In Borneo, she hopes to "study the trade in edible bird's nests, [. . .] one of the most expensive wild food products in the world." The nests of the cave-dwelling white-nest swiftlet consist of 95 percent saliva; black-nest swiftlet nests contain around 50 percent feathers. The swiftlet population was sorely depleted by commercial exploitation until people figured out how to farm the birds and their nests. Wild cave nests are now hard to find.
La Cerva distinguishes between farmed nests, "pure white and uniform, an accurate reflection of their industrial production," and nests from wild caves, "beautifully complex and aesthetically disordered." Wild cave nests "look like stalagmite seashells," multi-colored with "just a few traces of grey downy feathers." Served bird's nest soup by a friend, she finds the nest "soft, but discernible, with a chewy, slippery, almost leathery texture."
While sampling other wild foods—Swedish moose, Polish boar, Maine lobster, garlic from a Copenhagen cemetery—she ponders how commercial enterprise and environmental alteration separates people from ancestral history, their connection to the land that gave them existence. She warns us, "I've often felt wary of trusting the future, especially if the past is any measure of its path. But if we don't believe in the future, we must live in the unreliable present."
We dwell in the present—it demands our attention—but considering the past with the depth and breadth La Cerva provides helps us better understand where we are, makes us more alert to where we're heading,
Note: Gina Rae La Cerva, Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food. Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books, 2021