It starts three years ago, at an event held to raise funds for a documentary about the United States’s hunger crisis. Co-sponsored by a major lifestyle magazine and held at a celebrity chef’s newest restaurant, the evening featured a quickie appearance and plea from two of-the-moment Hollywood stars and copious amounts of food and alcohol. No one paid attention to the trailer for the cause—the film—when it aired, because the crowd was too busy shoving the pizza, made, on the spot, by two special guest stars—a TV actor and chef personality—down their throats, reaching for the constant supply of hors d’oeurves being passed around, or tossing back flutes of bubbly. Nothing about this embarrassment of edible riches said “hunger.”
Fast forward to last week, when, I learned, via Paddy Ryan at the Daily Kos, that Walmart, “the third highest revenue grossing corporation in the world,” with earnings of “over $15 billion per year in pure profit,” is currently “the number one driver behind the growing use of food stamps in the United States with ‘as many as 80 percent of workers in Walmart stores using food stamps.’”
Finally, while reading about how this country’s slave population supplemented its mostly measly rations in Jessica Harris’s High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America, I saw this: “Foraging in nearby woods allowed the enslaved to add wild greens like watercress to their diets, as well as such items as ramps, chives, and wild garlic.” This was the final straw—or, chive.
In the arts, there has been a longstanding tradition of high culture stealing from low. When it’s done well, cleverly or respectfully, we call it appropriation. This is where the original meaning or reference isn’t lost. In fashion, French couturiers began incorporating street wear into their designs in the 17th century. Since then, that field has delivered some of the most memorable evidence of this haute-bas mash-up. Marc Jacobs’s controversial introduction of grunge to the catwalk in 1992 is one of the better examples. Fine art, especially the Modern stuff, has its moments too; the quintessential model has to be Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.”
As in fashion and art, so too in cuisine. The last few years, especially, have seen endless iterations of street food gone upscale—Daniel Humm’s eponymous bacon-blanketed deep-fried “dog” topped with, in addition to relish and molten Gruyère, shaved black truffles comes to mind. Last year, at Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park, the same, four-star, $195-a-head (before drinks or service) restaurant where Humm served a petite version of his creation, I was faced with what I like to call The Bell Jar dish, which you can see here and which The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells described so elegantly in the related article. It’s a smoke-filled glass dome covering a few slivers of sturgeon that sit on a metal stand we were told was handcrafted in Brooklyn. Beneath that stand is a pile of flora and fronds meant to impart flavor to the fish. Our server announced that someone had been dispatched to Central Park to forage for that bushy heap.
I started to giggle. I grew up in New York City. While some people might like to think of it as a bucolic urban oasis, I couldn’t help but recall the grittier truths—dirty, used syringes; the drunken urinators; the illicit sexcapades—that lie within the manifestation of Frank Law Olmstead’s Greensward Plan. No one else saw the irony. When I next had that dish, I was told the restaurant’s hired forager had gone off the grid to find the requisite greenery.
This isn’t the only restaurant getting in on the foraging action. It’s happening at deluxe venues around the world. No longer is it enough to serve petit fours at the end of the meal, or make your own marrow-infused cultured butter. You have to hire someone to comb the meadows, woods, or, in some cases, public parks for edible things—and not just mushrooms. They’re out for berries, lettuces, herbs, edible blossoms and whatever else they might dig up. And let’s not forget ramps.
Anything foraged gives you points. I’ve received press releases about new urban hotels that boast “a restaurant with American-themed cuisine that uses local ingredients sourced by a dedicated, on-property forager” and read stories like this and this.
Foraging, like its trending buddies, meat-curing, pickling, and canning, is a survival tactic originally developed and implemented to stave off hunger, save money and make sure nothing went to waste. There are those farmstead restaurants that consider foraging part of a bigger sustainability mission—they use everything on their property to support their businesses. It’s another way of living off the land. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about foraging being used as a selling point; scavenged greens being presented and sold as the equivalents of caviar and champagne, and upwardly mobile home cooks going on lichen-seeking missions for the fun of it.
Having the time to catch butterflies, take a butchery class, hunt for truffles or cook batches of heirloom citrus marmalade for the pleasure or entertainment those activities afford is a luxury. This stands in stark contrast to history’s earlier foragers. Slaves barely had time to make themselves dinner, let alone tend their gardens. If the historical reference isn’t working as a touchstone, you might think of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. That’s foraging, people. Welcome to life in District 12. Today’s rampant marketing of both the practice and its various yields would make us more inclined to think foraging a privilege reserved for District 1 alone.
Let’s be clear, I do not wish to suggest the practice itself is to blame. It’s the cavalier mis-appropriation of foraging as a trend that offends.
Yes, the publicists and marketers are responsible in that they promote this reinvented brand of foraging. But they’re not the ones feeding the information to the public. That’s where I come in. We, the food writers, and our editors and publishers, are the ones going on about the new exciting craze for gathering and serving ramps instead of covering a different trend—our nation’s hunger. I’ve been guilty of pitching a luxury-angled foraging story, and I’m none too proud of that. Not going to do it anymore.
Maybe we could, all of us, collectively try not to suggest, assign or produce that kind of content. I understand that poverty, malnutrition and starvation aren’t considered welcome fodder for most food and lifestyle glossies. At least, though, we could put the kibosh on the hypocrisy, and stop irresponsibly touting a practice associated with those unglamorous topics as something all the cool kids are doing.