Food Foraging Pedalpalooza Ride

Eric and I decided it was time that we led a Pedalpalooza tour. For those of you who aren’t usual Portland cyclists, Pedalpalooza is a three-week bike festival in June. Some rides are practical and educational, like the NE Urban Farm Tour and Touring for Women, but most are just for ridiculous fun, like the […]

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I Approve of Poke!

Poke (pokeweed, pokeberry) is a poisonous plant, yet a popular wild food. This native North American perennial contains phytolaccatoxin and phytolaccigenin, which can cause symptoms ranging in severity from vomiting and diarrhea to seizures and difficulty breathing, sometimes death. The poisons are most concentrated in the root, which is never eaten, but can be cooked […]

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Japanese Knotweed

I need to find some knotweed in Portland. I’m particularly fascinated with it right now and it tastes good. Most people don’t want to find knotweed. It’s a terrible invasive. Japanese knotweed is so tenacious it is listed as one of the world’s 100 worst invasive species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. […]

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Why I Forage

I am not a survivalist. I don’t foresee a future when commercial food will not be available and food foraging will be a critical skill. The world is not going to end before the sun swells into a red giant, which won’t happen for another 5 billion years (and then there will be no Earth […]

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Beach Fire Cooking

Hello Pacific

“We should roast some mussels over the fire.”

A middle aged couple sat on a log on the Northern California beach with their two adult children, drinking beer and smoking weed. They had built a fierce fire out of driftwood, evaporating the March chill, so hot I wondered if it could turn the sand underneath into glass.

“But you’re a vegetarian,” Eric said.

“I know.”

“Okay, then.”

“How do you cook mussels over a fire?” I asked the family of locals.

“You just put them on the rocks. It’s hot enough. When they pop open from the steam, they’re ready,” the father said. “I just heard they tested them and the mussels are safe to eat now. Usually they would have been good a while ago, but there were still toxins.”

I was glad I had asked. Mussels suck in and consume Dinoflagellate plankton, which contain chemicals poisonous to humans. The concentration of toxin in bivalves, such as mussels, usually fluctuates in a seasonal pattern. If I hadn’t queried someone knowledgeable of the redwoods coastline, I could have poisoned my boyfriend and myself.

I had inspected the rocks exposed by the evening low tide. There were mussels, many of them, although they were small. Each one held tightly to the rocks with tough protein fibers called byssus threads or the “beard” of the mussel. I used my blue Squirt multitool, small enough to fit on my keychain, to cut (with the knife) and pry (with the pliers) mussels away. I was no expert. The shells of the mussels and surrounding barnacles cut into my soft hands. I decided five mussels were enough to try. I didn’t even know if I liked mussels.

The rocks around the fire were indeed hot. Eric and I couldn’t get our hands close enough to lay the mussels out evenly, flinging them towards the fire from a foot away. Within seconds, the mussel nearest to the fire split open, spewing boiling juices. Eric fished it out with a long, narrow twig, catching a knob at the end of the twig in the hinge of the mussel.

“Would you guys like some?” I said to the family.

“No thanks. We just had pizza,” the mother said, with a sheepish smile.

Eric arranged the cooked mussels on a flat, cool rock. Orangey tan flesh was visible within the parting of the shells. It looked good.

I had been a vegetarian for fourteen years, only breaking my discipline to eat seafood during a year in Japan, something I felt obligated to do in order to be a polite foreigner. I may have eaten mussels in sushi or something during that time five years ago, but I have no recollection, and I stopped eating seafood the moment I landed in an American airport. I do not think eating animals is inherently evil, merely unnecessary and often cruel.  People are unacceptably disconnected from their food. They can eat a cow, but they would never have the guts to slaughter one. Most people would cry, or become nauseous, and refuse. It becomes barbaric when someone has to personally kill something that they can nonchalantly eat in fast food. While hitchhiking in New Zealand, I encountered a number of family farmers who raised, butchered, and prepared most of the meat in their diet. I found that respectable.

I have modified my own morals such that I can eat meat, but only if I hunt, kill, and cook it myself. Anything I do not have the fortitude to kill, I do not have any right to eat.  I don’t have much mercy for bivalves, though. No face, no visibly squirming body. I tore the mussels off the rocks without much guilt.

I selected a smaller mussel from the cooling rock and brought it up to my nose: salty, smelling of the ocean, but in a fresh way. I opened the mussel entirely, appreciating the inner sheen of the shell, and dropped the side without the meat. The small morsel held firmly to the remaining shell. My omnivore’s teeth scraped it out.

I wasn’t amazed. It was satisfyingly chewy and a little disgustingly gooey. The mussel tasted the way it smelled. Mostly satisfactory, I supposed, but I wasn’t an expert.

“What do you think?” I queried Eric.

“Delicious. Straight from the sea.”

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The Salad Days

It’s officially spring and spring means green things. John Kallas’s Edible Wild Plants has been very helpful in identifying a few tasty greens available at this time in the Pacific NW.  The one I eat most often is chickweed, because it’s the most plentiful. I’ve even got a rich patch of chickweed about a block […]

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Milkweed

When I was six years old or younger, I made my father eat milkweed fluff. I know I was six or younger because we moved into our second house in the middle of my sixth year. In my brain I can see the bowl of milkweed seeds cooking in the old microwave of our first […]

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Coconuts for You

My boyfriend got me a machete for Christmas, but I couldn’t use it. I injured my arm in a bike accident in October, separating my shoulder and screwing up my rotator cuff. I was still having issues with pain and limited movement in December. “I hope this isn’t more of a gift for me than […]

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Chickweed

I’m a member of People’s Coop and every week they send me an email about their Wednesday farmer’s market. (Yes, it goes on through the winter.) This week they featured chickweed, which is pretty silly. Why would anyone buy chickweed at a farmer’s market? Why would someone even grow it as a crop, when it’s […]

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My Father’s Perspective

I am working on my MFA creative nonfiction thesis about food foraging. I asked my father to talk about my first experiences with wild food. One of my pleasures was taking Lauren out in the backpack, walking quite long distances, and she loved to ride in the backpack. I learned to stop and grab berries […]

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