Confessions of an Urban Forager

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With spring, this city boy’s life orbits back towards its perihelion with nature. Disintermediated greenery awaits just out my door again, no camping trips necessary. Time to walk the parks and explore a nearby riparian reserve, time to contemplate gnarled wild apples putting forth their pale green buds and lacy white blossoms. I sit in the sand of a Chicago beach and gaze at the vastness of water and sky where downtown’s skyscrapers—like a towering ship in the distance—meet mighty Lake Michigan, dotted with sailboats newly released from winter dry docks, yawing in the wind.

I stroll to our neighborhood farmers markets, opening for the season. I’ll feast my eyes on the freshly picked fruits and vegetables that glisten in the fullness of outdoor light, unlike factory farmed produce embalmed in supermarket fluorescence. I’ll pick up a deep green, dewy bunch of rapini—“broccoli raabe” as my Rome-born mother called them—and smell its earthy Cruciferous freshness. At home I can steam them lightly, drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and fresh chopped garlic, perhaps sauté it all with sweet Italian sausage or bits of pancetta—maybe tossed with a little orecchiette in the Apulia style.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like carrots or beets or squash much, but, unlike my contemporaries, I loved greens—not just spinach, like Popeye, but the other, more bitter, exotic ones. That was probably because I got to run around in open fields and meadows, gathering greens with a real penknife my parents let me use for the occasion. I associated freshly picked rapini and mustard greens with special outdoor adventures—rites of spring in which I took part.

That was still a time—in the 1940s and 50s—when “taking a Sunday drive” out to the “country” was still considered family recreation.

When I was growing up in Boston, Massachusetts, and later Los Angeles, we would pile into the family sedan and take it for a spin on country roads through the nearby hills. The drive had no purpose other than the joy of driving and usually included a picnic somewhere along the way. When the season was right, we could pick bundles of wild rapini and other greens from pastures and meadows. This was usually in March and April, and, following the rainy season, even May.

Neighborhood markets didn’t carry greens other than spinach back then. One could find them only on occasion in Italian produce markets in Boston’s North End, or downtown Los Angeles near Chinatown and the iconic, elegant, mission-deco, often-filmed L.A. Union Station. That could be a trek (another adventure for me as a kid) by Boston Green Line, or later by big red Pacific Electric trolleys from our bungalow court apartment in Hollywood.

In summer, the Sunday drive meant a trip to the beach, which could include gourmet foraging of another kind. One of my most vivid early childhood memories was digging for little neck clams out on Cape Cod, which my mother loved to devour on the half-shell with fresh lemon—everything shared with me, except for her cold glass of Pinot Grigio.

Soon after that, we migrated to Los Angeles, with its own beaches. My father got work as a welder at Lockheed in Burbank, building P-38 fighter-bombers during World War II, which excepted him from the wartime draft. I went from one grammar school to another—an odd kid with odd, unshared sensibilities, knowing more about opera and tortellini than baseball. It seemed like every kid I met was either from Iowa or Arkansas.

Sundays we would drive to Malibu Beach—only part of which was populated by movie stars’ homes then. We would stop at one of the then-half-deserted coves north of the settlement, towards Point Magu, and spend the day on the sand, where I learned to body surf. When the tide went out, my father and I—sometimes with an uncle or cousin—would take a few pails and swim a short distance to one of the outcroppings guarding the cove.

Me, age 8 or 9, with my uncle Vinny (just back from WW2 Army service in the Pacific), on Santa Monica Beach, CA

There, we could reach just under the waterline and cut away clumps of mussels, using fishing knives. It was all on the up and up. My father would have paid for a fishing license. I remember sawing at the tough fibrous byssal threads by which these creatures attach themselves to the rocks, doing my darnedest to get some into my pail between breakers when all I could do was hang on. As I learned, the best, freshest, safest mussels to pick were those that inhabited the rock below the low tide line, assuring that they had little direct exposure to sun and air. If we harvested two or three dozen, it was a lot.

The Pacific surf along that Malibu coast is always chilly, barely tolerable for swimming, except for the half-wild child that I was. The experience was of a brine universe I can still smell if I close my eyes, of unrelenting spray and the constant pull of roaring in and running back out. It was total immersion in every way conceivable, during which all conscious thought gave way to purely visceral intuition. One might say spiritual—in any case, I look back on such moments as formative in a way that words cannot fully capture.

The adventure didn’t end with the picking. Once we got our little harvest home—kept fresh in icy water buckets—we had to trim and rinse the mussel shells clean of sand and fibers. Then we would give them a quick steaming and immersion into hot, homemade marinara sauce with fresh herbs and garlic, all finally served over linguine. I remember the glistening rainbow mother-of-pearl inner shells as they opened in the steaming pot, revealing fat, delectable, pale gold and salmon-colored flesh and yielding up an intoxicating aroma of the roiling sea from which they came. I remember feasting on those handpicked mussels as a sort of communion with the limitless ocean, with nature herself. Savory mouthfuls evoked the sensations of diving under rolling waves, eyes closed, and hanging there submersed and weightless, arms forward, hearing their muffled roar breaking harmlessly over me.

A dozen years later I’d take my own young daughters to a rented family beach house in Malibu. We didn’t gather mussels, but we did catch the legendary California grunion under a full moon at midnight. The little sardine-size silvery fish native to the California coast came up the beach to breed during spring and summer months during the higher tides at full and new moons. Tens of thousands of the little fish ride waves up onto the sand to lay and fertilize their eggs. They are protected during May and June, but one may gather them in July and August with a fishing license and without use of any nets or implements, only bare hands and only in limited amounts.

The sight of them appearing from the sea suddenly in the moonlight is pure magic—an experience to treasure. We caught a few, but mostly watched. Preparing and eating them entails a lot of work for little reward, though delicious. Each bony little fish must be gutted and cleaned. We would then flour and fry them lightly in olive oil. De-boning them was a delicate operation, leaving a tiny tasty fillet, if you don’t mind picking a few stray spines out of your teeth.

I never dug for clams or harvested greens with my daughters as they grew up, but we did hike mountains of shores all over California. We picked wild blackberries along the Russian River and in the Sierras in late summer until our fingers were dyed purple and our stomachs queasy-full. It took a lot of willpower to put berries in our little buckets instead of eating them all as we went along. My daughters learned, as I had growing up, that there are few things in life that are quite as exquisite as the complex taste of fresh-picked vine- or tree-ripened fruits, sweet or sour.

My Los Angeles-raised second daughter, Kara, moved off to northern Montana to raise her own family. There, struggling many years, she transformed herself from city girl to something of a mountain woman. She and her husband honed their hunter-gatherer arts over the years—probably the only members of our family who could survive a zombie apocalypse. Besides being a lyrical poet and skilled crafts person, working at lodges and at home, she taught herself to be a gourmet cook specializing in native foods. When I visited, she made us fabulous meals from local catches and harvests—including trout we had just reeled in from nearby creeks, venison from game her husband had taken in season and that she had dressed and frozen, along with wild mushrooms, greens, and fruits, not to mention eggs fresh from her hen house. (She and her husband, by the way, never trophy hunt. They take only what they will actually use for themselves.)

As a kid who used to sample gooseberries from bushes as I walked home from school, I now wonder about the meaning, if any, of my early gastronomical encounters with nature. In any case, they stay with me. The boundary between myself and the natural world is porous and almost imperceptible. Perhaps those experiences made it so. Not to say that I am unique in this, only that it seems fairly remarkable for a lifelong big city denizen who has never gone in for wilderness treks, mountain climbing, white water rafting, mountain climbing and so forth.

Nature is more than high-def information to me. It’s more than statistics, documentaries, and spectacular photos, more than museum exhibitions. It’s to touch, breathe, smell and taste as well as see. My connections are multi-sensory, just as they were with those rapini, clams, and mussels I picked as a kid. I don’t connect exclusively with what’s on my tiny screens except as needed to communicate, amuse myself, and stay informed. Likewise, the glass and steel corridors of power seem like stage props to me as well.

It saddens me that I would not recommend foraging to city kids today. Our waters and fields have been tainted too much by the toxic wastes of mindless greed. I talked to a man fishing off a Lake Michigan pier the other day, for example. As with those I used to meet fishing from Pacific Ocean beaches with their long poles, I asked him what he had been catching. “Nothing,” he responded. “Most of the fish are gone, and what I do catch I throw back. Too much pollution,” he added, even though cleanup strides have been made over the past several decades.

Just because we live in cities—as do more than 80 percent of American and Europeans—we don’t have to disconnect from the planet on which we live. Organized nature trips, cruises, and resort adventures—however well planned—don’t necessarily make up for a general alienation from the natural world in our once-removed lives. The prevailing metaphor putting humans at the apex of the food chain ignores the deeper truth that every plant and creature on that chain is connected and interdependent. Knocking out links weakens the entire chain. Biting into something I picked right from the ground somehow drove home an abiding truth we often take for granted: that every sustaining thing we eat comes out of the earth, no matter how beguiling its brand-name wrapping; every drop we drink flows from the oceans, rivers, streams and lakes, no matter the design of our faucets and plastic bottles; and everything we toss out will go back there, for better or worse, as well to enter our food supplies.

My eldest daughter, Alicia, spent many years teaching high school English in one of the poorest school districts of Oxnard, California, a small agricultural exurban town on a coastal plain about 60 miles outside of L.A. She made a point of organizing field trips to the local beaches and aquarium every semester after discovering that many of the low-income teenagers she taught had never seen the ocean a scant three or four miles from where they grew up. That’s a kind of poverty as confining as any material want, perhaps more so. Affluent kids growing up glued to game screens and social media can suffer similar sensory and spiritual deprivation, without anyone recognizing it.

As a kid, I didn’t appreciate how much these wild foraging adventures would enrich my experiences of life. These memories keep coming back to me. They helped ground me in every sense, even during those periods when I lost my bearings. We are part of the garden we tend. The virtual wonders we’ve created with technology lead us to forget who we are—of earth and by earth. One breath of sea air, wooded mist, or prairie wind can get me back. One bite of a ripe red tomato from my window box, even, can reconnect loose ends in an unhinged world, at least for a moment.

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