Wild food harvesting is piece-work.
Foraged foods from the wilderness are this year’s hottest trend in natural, ethical eating. They’re lauded as more organic than organic: after all, they grow in the wild, where there aren’t just ‘approved’ pesticides and fertilizers, but none whatsoever. Growing of their own volition, these native species don’t need a farmer to tame them—and perhaps warp their purity, sapping them of taste and nutrient value.
Wild food is also, paradoxically, celebrated as the most local of foods, though the wild was once upon a time the most remote and alien of places. This sense of locality arises in the figure of the forager, the man (and almost always it is a man) whose profile makes up most media reports on wild food; the man who goes deep into the woods and brings its bounty back out, directly to you. Like the family farmer he’s wholesome, connected to the soil and its seasons. And in this way wild food becomes small-scale, fair trade, a way of supporting local economies. There aren’t any intermediaries, and no 2 500 miles, just a quick jaunt out of the city, into your local wilderness.
Who is this forager? He’s a character drawn at first glance from our collective imagination of the mushroom picker. A solitary and vaguely European, upper- or at least middle-crusty sort with a walking stick and wicker basket, perhaps accompanied by a well-trained hound that can sniff out the prey, he knows the secret patches where these sorts of things grow and will take their locations to his grave. And in this latest incarnation he’s also become a lay botanist, conjuring names and identities out of the tangle of green, bringing us closer to the miracles of nature we city-dwellers forgot from want of exposure: our plant-loving, Earth-loving Adam. With that basket he spreads the seeds and spores, helping the foods grow. At the same time, with his compass and his technical outwear and the shimmering blade of his knife, he also takes reasonable precautions in light of the animals, the elements, of getting lost: all our vague urban fears of the wilderness handily dispatched.
A commercial mushroom buyer’s shack.
But the fact of the matter is that while this man really exists, is who he says he is, and does what he appears to do, hidden behind him is a whole society of other men (or almost as often women, elders and families) who we never seem to hear about. They are the pickers. Like fruit pickers and vegetable pickers on farms, they’re often marginalized and poor, working a physically demanding and dangerous job to make ends meet the only way that seems possible. They confront the cold in threadbare sneakers and jeans they bought at Walmart, pick into a plastic bag that last held groceries or a six-pack of beer, and don’t need a compass because they know these woods well, as anyone who worked them day after day, year after year would. Their dog is a burly one designed to take on a bear, and if they carry a weapon it’s a rifle, because their knife is a tool, meant to cut stalks and stems as quickly, numerously and profitably as possible: they’re paid by the piece, and the profit always seems less than it should.
In Canada these people are most often refugees from ruined local resources economies: from shuttered sawmills and denuded oceans, from blighted reserves. In the United States they tend to be refugees of another sort, Laotians, Hmong, Vietnamese and Cambodians fleeing the still-rippling violence of the Vietnam War. In other words, the people who produce the vast majority of wild food aren’t foragers but pickers, resource workers displaced by machinations of power they did little to cause but do much to suffer. They struggle to survive in capitalism’s precarious hinterlands by gathering raw materials for the profit and use of someone more powerful. Someone somewhere else: someone in the city.
It’s hardly fair to blame anyone involved for this. The media are interested in a hot new trend; they want to find a local business that’s engaged in it, to tell about it. The owner, the forager who sells wild foods to chefs or at farmers’ markets, really is a forager; that’s why and how he is in this business. Although obviously one man is not enough to supply all of a city’s restaurants, some of the product comes from their own forays in the bush, and when the press comes knocking, they take them to the place they both love the best: the woods. They believe in wild food, in its value and uniqueness, in its healthfulness, in its superiority to the products of the global industrial food system. And in many ways, they’re right. For instance, unlike many agricultural workers, the Canadian pickers at least love their work: love being in the woods, the freedom and excitement of it all; love being their own bosses instead of working a soul-crushing job with an overseer who treats you like dirt.
Mushrooms packed in standard baskets for shipping.
What they don’t love is having all the risk and few of the rewards: having nothing to eat when nothing grows to pick; ending up stranded at the end of the season, having spent all their money on gas that’s gone, 1 000 km from home—if they have one. They don’t love trying to break into urban markets on the other side of the continent. Failing to negotiate the cultural and class differences, they are turned away at the airport when they try to ship their product because of their lack of credit and their soiled clothes. They are turned away at the restaurant for fears of contaminated or misidentified mushrooms. And so the contradictions of contemporary capitalisms gain another foothold. Once again, and this time in the realm of the most natural, most ethical, most plainly good product yet, the true nature of production and the difficult circumstances of the producers are well-veiled. The wild, that place that seemed so newly close to home, at end remains so very far removed.
Dylan Gordon (@KnowWildFood) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Toronto, researching the ethics and economics of wellbeing in the Canadian trade of wild food products. (www.dylangordon.ca)