Alibi V.29 No.28 • July 9-15, 2020 

Book Review

Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food

NM-born writer Gina Rae La Cerva writes about our obsession with—and destruction of—wild foods

Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food

Feasting Wild
courtesy of Gina Rae La Cerva

It is slightly ironic, given the state of our wildlands, that we are seeing a recent cultural fascination with foraging and wild foods. One of the things Gina Rae La Cerva touches on often in her new book, Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, is why the trend has entrenched itself in the cultural subconscious now, when true wilderness is all but nonexistent. This seems like an example of not knowing what we’ve got until it’s gone, and—perhaps worse—trying to resuscitate it.

Her first story comes from a meal at Noma, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen largely responsible for fine dining’s sudden obsession with foraging. She is not as impressed as a decade of critics have been.

“To eat ants outside of periods of extreme scarcity, without the motivation of an empty belly, holds within it the paradox at the center of Noma’s dishes—the fetishization of need. … Even if you have never experienced famine, Noma is happy to invent this memory for you, so that you might experience the delight that can only come from killing extreme hunger.”

Noma and fine dining establishments in general, La Cerva points out, are quick to gloss up and profit from food that is, at its roots, peasant food, much of which is historically foraged or hunted. Just like tiny homes playing the role of socially approbated trailer homes for wealthy white people, “foraged” meals at Noma that cost $500 at the low end are appropriation of the foods that poor and Indigenous people ate—and in some places, still eat—to survive.

The history of wild food is intimately tied with that of colonialism and capitalism. As La Cerva points out, the concept of entitlement to the wild and its bounty created class distinction in ancient Rome, which wrote some of the earliest legitimized hunting laws. “These followed the ideas of ferae naturae and res nullis: wild animals belong to nobody and anyone was free to kill them as long as the hunter was not trespassing on another man’s land. While in theory this gave common access to game, in effect it meant it belonged to wealthy landowners.”

This idea sounds eerily close to “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

As European colonists came to the New World and found a myriad of species new to them, they saw potential for nearly unlimited profit. La Cerva writes, “Of course, what appeared to be a wilderness to the colonists was in fact land that had been inhabited for thousands of years by Indigenous Americans, whose land management practices were partially responsible for the abundance of edible wild birds.” This abundance, which was relayed back to England by letters, told of “endless flocks of geese and doves and pigeons. Partridges the size of hens. Wild turkeys—sweet and fleshy and weighing nearly forty pounds—were found in groups of a hundred.” New settlers brought muskets, and reduced this bounty by an immeasurable amount.

Throughout this tale of history and our ongoing, fraught relationship to wild food, La Cerva manages to weave her own personal narrative into the book as well. She doesn’t keep much distance between herself and her subject, and instead of feeling unprofessional it feels true to life—instead of just presenting her research like she’s defending her thesis, she shows you these vignettes of herself doing that research: relating a story of her Jewish great-grandmother as she walks through some of the oldest remaining forests of Europe, getting hit on in Polish by the park rangers she’s interviewing, attempting to gain the trust of some street merchants in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who don’t quite believe that she’s not an undercover cop.

This personal thread through the story threatens to throw the whole thing off the rails, though, when a romantic subplot shows up. Especially since it involves breaking what is essentially the prime directive of researchers and reporters: don’t sleep with your sources. While in the DRC learning about the black market bushmeat trade, La Cerva interviews a man who works for a conservation organization there, and falls for him almost instantly. It’s the kind of romance that only happens when you’re traveling and consequences seem unimaginably distant. This love interest remains a part of the rest of the book, and he becomes almost a co-researcher with La Cerva, traveling with her to many of her further research locations.

I imagine La Cerva writing early drafts of this story and agonizing over whether to include this indiscretion at all, and deciding, in the end, that it would be disingenuous not to. And I don’t blame her for it—after all, who knows how many writers have done the same thing during their research and not mentioned it in the end? Ultimately, it doesn’t subtract from her message, but humanizes her and adds a genre-bending flavor to the story, making it immensely more enjoyable.