Food

We've Lost Nearly All of Our Wild Foods -- What Happened? And What Are We Missing?

Fish are the last wild food that most of us will eat.

A few days from now, a single bluefin tuna will make international headlines when it sells for an ungodly amount of money -- perhaps more than $100,000 -- at Tokyo's Tsukiji market. And while the high price of the first bluefin of the year will be extraordinary, the rarity, and thus the prestige and high pricetag of bluefin in general, provides a clue to humans' dietary history. Once upon a time, wild foods were a regular and beloved part of the American diet. Today, the American epicure might dine on foraged mushrooms and ramps, but for many of us, fish are the last wild food we eat. What happened? And what are we missing?

Georgia Pellegrini, a chef who has worked in elite restaurants in New York and France, decided to answer this question for herself when she set out to hunt her own food. As her new book's title implies -- Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time -- she entered into a masculine realm in which she was often the only woman. Pellegrini traveled across the United States and even England, hunting everything from squirrel to elk. As much as she stands out as a woman, she also stands out among the local and sustainable food movement. (An anthropologist recently pointed out that the local food movement "has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating.")

As a chef, Pellegrini focuses on her meal's flavor more than many other sustainable food writers. At one point, while contemplating pulling the trigger to shoot a javelina, Pellegrini says, "I wonder if I had to work hard enough for this. I wonder if I had to exert myself enough... Then I wonder how javelina taste."

Pellegrini points out that an animal's flavor reflects its diet. "There's a vast difference in flavor," between wild game and meat from the store or even from the farmers' market, she says. "Wild animals are athletes; they exercise their muscles and eat whatever they want. Cattle live in pens and eat exactly the same diet. With wild animals, you really have to think about how you cook them based on what they are eating. You aren't just thinking about what you are about to eat; you are thinking about what you're about to eat ate."

This is what draws Pellegrini to hunting: having to immerse herself in her environment and think from the point of view of the animal, both to successfully hunt it and to cook it. "You think about your environment while you're in it. You're in nature, you're part of the experience." For example, she notes, "if I'm hunting for ducks and I'm in New Orleans on the coast, I know the ducks are probably eating fish. Depending on the type of duck, I know what the diet is. But animals sometimes get desperate. If there's an overabundance of an animal, that's when the diets get strange." As a chef, she knows that animals hold their flavor in their fat. To decide how to cook wild game, she will often render some fat in a pan and taste it first.

Hunting and wild foods hold a specific place in American history, one that historian Ann Vileisis tracked through time in her book Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back, and one that Andrew Beahrs traced through the life and favorite foods of Mark Twain in his book Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.

In 1879, after he had been in Europe for more than a year, the homesick Twain wrote a long wish list of American foods he longed for. Many on the list were wild foods from specific places: Blue point oysters, Connecticut shad, Baltimore perch, Missouri partridges, and so on. When Beahrs set out to eat Mark Twain's favorite foods, he decided to look for foods for which Twain had left specific instructions. "Things like prairie chickens from Illinois, lake trout from Lake Tahoe," says Beahrs. Before long, he "realized that Twain was so specific about them because they were the wild foods that could only be had in these specific places. That helped me to realize that these foods were set in his life in a very particular way. These things could be placed at different points in his life so there was a biographical element to them."

What Twain perhaps couldn't have known is that he was chronicling the beginning of the end for so many wild foods. What he thought of as quintessential America foods would soon leave our diet. When he did find them, Beahrs was unable to eat prairie chicken from Illinois, Tahoe lake trout or Philadelphia terrapin; he was lucky to see those critters in the context of conservation operations.

Two factors play a role in the destruction of wild populations: overhunting/overfishing and habitat destruction. Prior to the advent of the railroads, food was local by necessity, and spoiling your environment was synonymous with wiping out your favorite foods. Once the railroads could transport food across the continent, factories were free to pollute and to utilize hydroelectric power from dams that cut off fish migration routes without causing noticeable consequences at the dinner table, and diners were unaware of the ecological consequences of their meals. "With so many fish coming from everywhere else," writes Ann Vileisis," the fish of a particular local river no longer seemed critical."

And yet, as one area's supply of a wild food was depleted and another replaced it in the market urban diners were blissfully unaware. "If a shopper could not find a curlew from New Jersey, she could find a curlew from Indiana. If she could find no curlews, she could find a snipe. If she could find no snipe, she could always buy a domestic chicken," writes Vileisis. "The fact that wild birds and fish were known by many colloquial names in the market further obscured extirpations from shoppers' view. Instead, at the market all evidence pointed to a comforting, distant plenty that hid the possibility of any limits -- the possibility that one day a shopper would not find what she wanted."

Mark Twain, born in 1835, was alive at a particular time in American history to witness this transition. Twain traveled all over the country, from his birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri, south to New Orleans, west to San Francisco, and east to New England. Beahrs reflects, "The point is that Twain was there [in these places]... he wasn't actively involved in the destruction of these lands but the fact that he was even there was a sign of the mechanization of America. He was able to take railroads and steamboats to go to these places. He was there to observe the transformation of American land and water. He didn't see any of it coming but that's what was happening."

Twain's ability to travel and enjoy so many wild foods often meant that Americans had achieved the technological ability to exploit those foods or destroy their habitats.

Lake Tahoe was not a common destination for Americans of European descent before Twain visited and enjoyed its lake trout in September 1861. The rest of the nation was caught up in the Civil War, and Twain was caught up in avoiding it. The enormous fish he enjoyed there did not disappear immediately. Fishing for markets as far away as Chicago took their toll, as did pathogens from other trout species introduced into the lake in the 1920s. But the end for these fish was truly the result of the Derby Dam, completed in 1905 to irrigate western Nevada to grow cantaloupe. With its migration route cut off, the last Lahontan cutthroat disappeared from the lake by 1940.

Twain was born at an ominous time for Illinois prairie chicken as well. Prior to his birth, the prairie chickens' habitat -- prairie -- was mostly safe from settlers who wished to farm it as "the defiant, incredibly dense tallgrass roots stopped traditional plows as suddenly as though they'd struck bedrock," as Beahrs put it. But two years after Twain's birth, in 1837, John Deere invented a new type of plow that could easily "break the prairie," allowing the settlers to use the rich, fertile soils of the prairie to grow crops.

For a time, the prairie chicken, a type of grouse, thrived. As cornfields replaced prairie, the prairie chicken's population grew, as the birds gorged on corn while retaining enough natural prairie habitat to survive. The newly built railroads shipped a seemingly endless supply of prairie chickens to eaters across the country. But once cornfields almost entirely replaced the prairie, the prairie chickens became rare. Pellegrini recommends using prairie chicken in some of her recipes, but hunters cannot legally shoot them in Illinois, the Prairie State, as Twain instructed. Instead, they would have to obtain them from Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, or -- if they are very lucky -- Minnesota, which holds a lottery each year, allowing about 120 prairie chickens to be killed during a five-day hunting season in October.

During the 19th century, "there was a very different way of thinking about animals," says Vileisis. "People didn't really have that concept of wildlife as something that was valuable, aside from eating it as food." And so millions of birds, fish and other animals that we'd now consider wildlife ended up in big city markets. "It may seem strange now," Vileisis says, "but the very idea of conserving wildlife arose first as a way to conserve the activity of hunting." As "market hunting" depleted game populations during the 19th century, "gentleman sportsman" began to promote a new hunting ethic -- centered on the importance of vigorous outdoor recreation, not food.

Pellegrini accepts the limits of nature in selecting what and when to hunt. "It's not possible to only eat what you hunted," she says. "We've taken so much of their habitat that there wouldn't be a healthy animal population left if we only did that. My food philosophy is that we don't need to have a big steak at dinner the way we thought we did." She eats many plant-based whole foods, supplemented by ethically raised meats, which might be from farms.

"For hunting," she says, "It's about conservation: seeing which animals we don't have enough of and which ones we have too much of." Wild boar is an example of an animal that causes trouble in the form of crop damage, destroying the eggs of endangered species, and uprooting endangered plants. "The great thing about them," reflects Pellegrini, "is that they are delicious."

Vileisis concurs, saying, "It's difficult to accommodate both of those views at once -- seeing animals as wildlife and food. When we see them as food, we think about their flavor or how we might cook them; when we see them as wildlife we think about them as beautiful animals to observe, and their needs for habitat. It's a confusing mix of values." And unfortunately, as in the case of both the extinct passenger pigeon and the endangered bluefin tuna, when an animal becomes rare, there are those who react by offering to pay more in order to eat them, and others who will risk the consequences of poaching if necessary in order to earn that money.

With such a history of wiping out species we once prized on the dinner table without even realizing our loss, have we learned anything? Can we be content to dine on overabundant species like wild boar or even jellyfish (it's delicious, just ask the Chinese) while leaving the remaining bluefin tuna population in the ocean until it can recover? And do we even have the capacity to regulate such recovery efforts, given the high incentives for poaching? Or will diners cluelessly move on to eating less prized varieties of tuna once the bluefin disappears, without even knowing what was lost, as Americans have done since the days of Mark Twain?