CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food

By Gina Rae La Cerva
2020, Greystone Books
ISBN-10 1771645334
ISBN-13: 9781771645331
Hardback, 336 Pages
Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
$26.95 USA/$32.95 Canada

Geographer-anthropologist Gina La Cerva could just as readily have titled this book Feasting Wild No More, for in its page she focuses primarily on what we’ve lost by feasting on market foods. “In losing wild foods from our diets,” she writes, “we have lost something unnamable. We face a spiritual crisis, an existential loneliness greater than any heartbreak.” She suggests that when you eat something you’ve foraged for yourself, you feel like you’re eating the experience. The flavor is wholly different from store bought, probably genetically-engineered food.

Feasting Wild is at once a travel book, an ecological document, and a personal memoir. Ms. La Cerva describes (among other things) the remarkably upscale Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, the bush meat trade in the People’s Republic of the Congo, a moose hunt in Sweden, bird’s nests collected for soup in Borneo (i.e., Sarawak), and her love affair with an environmentalist whom she simply calls “The Hunter.” Personally, I would rather have read about the rampant wildlife markets in China than about “The Hunter,” even if he does have “the lithe body of a stripling.” For those markets are also zoonosis markets, a fact that’s currently laying low our species. What is a zoonosis? A disease that eagerly travels from animals to us.

Ms. La Cerva refers to hunters as “perhaps the most agile naturalists among us.” While I would have preferred the word “observant” to “agile,” I can attest to this statement. In my northern travels, I’ve often shown fungal specimens to indigenous hunters who know nothing about fungi, and they’ve immediately pointed to the most significant diagnostic features. Ms. La Cerva also says that women “have been the primary food producers,” although her book’s most detailed account of food production — a limb by limb, organ by organ account of butchering moose in Sweden — is performed by men, with a few women as spectators. Even so, I can imagine no better tutorial on how to butcher a moose than the one she provides for the reader in this chapter.

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the book concerns Ms. La Cerva’s admittedly illegal visit to New Haven, Connecticut’s abandoned Winchester gun factory. She expertly segues back and forth between her wanderings inside this supremely rusted structure and the birds killed by the guns created inside its walls. We’re not talking about simply turkeys killed for Thanksgiving. No, there were once 119 different types of wild bird species shot for urban markets in America. On a somewhat different note, she offers the most lyrical description of a badly corroded building I’ve ever read. Here’s an example: “The walls have turned a marbled green, stained with pale blue and the muted orange maroons of reptile skin.”

All well and good, you might be saying, but does the author include fungi in the book? The reader might initially think so, for one of the book’s chapters is titled “Heavy Beasts with Mushrooms in Wild Honey,” while another is titled “Moose with Chanterelles in Cream Sauce.” But there’s only a page or so about mushrooms in the “heavy beast chapter,” and only a paragraph about chanterelles in the “moose” chapter. Elsewhere, nada. She doesn’t mention the reason for this omission, but in a post-publication interview, she says that she’s reluctant to forage for mushrooms because they’re “integral to the health of a forest and, as more people get interested, there is a concern that overharvesting is going to impact the larger ecology.” I share this concern myself.

So why am I reviewing Feasting Wild here if it has hardly anything to do with fungi? Because it implicitly puts the act of fungal foraging within a broad ecological context, one that relates to the health of our beleaguered planet. Also, my quibbles aside, it’s a very good book.

— Review by Lawrence Millman
— Originally published in Fungi