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An intimate exploration of foraged flavors brings nuance to the wild food discussion

Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food

Gina Rae La Cerva
Greystone Books
2020
336 pp.
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For those of us who travel for a living, the COVID-19 crisis carries extra bite. Books such as Gina Rae La Cerva’s Feasting Wild offer a balm of sorts, transporting the reader out of lockdown and into a world of little-known and endangered flavors on the margins of where human society rubs against wild ecosystems.

Feasting Wild is an ambitious book that asks a big question: What does it mean to eat wild food? Like most big questions, the answer can differ depending on the scale. La Cerva approaches this question both from a personal perspective and through the voices of diverse groups, ranging from Polish foresters to urban chefs foraging for wild treats in graveyards. She shines light on the larger context of humanity’s relationship with wild foods in snippets and glances, giving the reader little jewels of introspection and observation. This is a journalistic exploration based on phenomenological research and a very good one.

La Cerva warmly welcomes readers along for an intimate journey into the world of wild food. Together, we visit corners of the world’s food system that have rarely been explored in print at this level of detail; places such as Borneo, where La Cerva describes the exacting preparation of a bird’s nest for consumption, and the forests of Sweden, where she takes us along on a moose hunt and then walks us through the difficult work of processing the meat.

We also vicariously experience some very interesting meals. At Noma, a high-end, avant-garde restaurant in Copenhagen, for example, unusual ferments ranging from lacto-fermented raspberries to preserved mosses offer a good bridge into the complicated world of bushmeat preparation.

At times, the intimacy of the book crosses into the literal. There is a love affair and hints of a free-range childhood, seasoned with sketches any field researcher would instantly recognize: humidity, uneasy interviews, rattling bush planes, and questionable motorcycle trips. La Cerva reveals the landscape in brightly lit detail and gives generously of herself, and the result makes for a suitably satisfying feast.

The opening third of the book jumps rapidly from Copenhagen to the forests of Poland and includes glimpses of La Cerva’s childhood in the desert of New Mexico. The richness of the book shows through in glimmers here, but I felt the overall theme of wild food, loss, and change was scattered at first. Some of this was personal. I grew up in a town similar to the Danish commune of Christiania; the “free society” that La Cerva marvels at while exploring Copenhagen reminds me of bickering over chores, and her sense of wonder falls flat.

La Cerva finds her voice in Part Two. Her description of the bushmeat trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most tightly crafted and engaging pieces of writing I have enjoyed in years. Here, the pages flow by like the great rivers of the Congo Basin, taking the reader through the realities of the bushmeat trade and the desires of the eater. La Cerva is not blind to the pressure that bushmeat consumption puts on endangered species or to the economic realities that drive the bushmeat trade. However, she also captures the cultural importance of bushmeat, a factor we will need to consider as conversations regarding the role of wild foods in the spread of zoonotic viruses continue.

We follow the meat as it travels to the markets of Paris and, in doing so, fall deeper into the author’s life. Her love affair with the man we know only as “the hunter” and the wildness he represents provide a counterpoint for the wild foods she seeks to capture.

The final third of the book is a fitting denouement. In the woods of Sweden, wood smoke and the chill of the passing seasons help La Cerva tie up open narratives. Her sudden shift in this section to the exploration of the edible bird’s nest industry came as a dessert of sorts. Although she does not manage to access the wild bird caves where edible nests are harvested, she does uncover the reality of nest farming. When she tastes tea brewed from the nests and describes its underwhelming flavor, we are reminded that in the case of wild food, the myth often overshadows the tepid reality. I was a little disappointed that this section was so short, but that is my usual reaction to desserts, both real and literary.

Feasting Wild did have one weakness that is worth mentioning. The book cleaves tightly to the narrative of wilderness as paradise lost, a fallen kingdom. As William Cronon noted in 1995 in the New York Times Magazine, prompting a canon of related literature, wilderness is a profoundly human creation, the result of a particular set of human cultures at a specific moment in their history (1). This is, however, a minor quibble, given how deeply this book spoke to me as a kindred traveler.

References and Notes:
1. W. Cronon, “The trouble with wilderness,” The New York Times Magazine, 13 August 1995.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Geography and the Environment, University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, BC, Canada, and the author of Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (ECW Press, 2019).