Call of the Wild (Food)

A food journey. 2008-2020

My life, for the most part, seemed to be pretty typical and average. Degree. Job. Married. House. Fancy car. Up until one life-changing day that I held my two month old first born child, who cried nonstop in my arms for an endless twenty-four hours after an adverse reaction to a routine vaccine. Reality hit like a brick wall in those turbulent, panic-ridden hours. I was inextricably linked to this human in a way that I never had been connected to another. Sure, a marriage vow was one thing, but this. This was a connection, a love so much deeper, dare I say karmic. Her life, her very existence depended completely on me. Who was I to take on such a responsibility? I barely knew how to take care of myself. During my pregnancy my diet was the worst in my life, I had gained over 75 pounds, and was on the verge of becoming diabetic. In those dark, endless hours of comforting her alone that fateful day, and feeling the most helpless I ever had in my life, I ruminated on the meaning of my life and questioning my early motherhood at 25.

My daughter and I, 2008

One month prior, my newborn also suffered from severe eczema that riddled her skin with angry and irritated boils. She was not a happy baby. I knew something was not right, even though the doctor passed it off as normal and from my nascent research I suspected it was due to a dairy allergy. But she wasn’t drinking cows milk at one month old. It was me and my addiction to cheese and ice cream. Her incessant crying made it quite clear to me then the relationship of what we put in our bodies—be it foods, medicines or other non-natural chemicals—has a drastic effect on us. Not only that, I needed to be strong and healthy to raise her in the best way that I could. But, it was only the very first step on a long and winding journey ahead.

I suffered immediately from an abrupt and serious descent into post-partum depression those first few months, several times seriously plotting to run away with my daughter and to never be seen again—or worse. My husband at the time insisted that I somehow “fix myself” and nudged me in the direction of pharmaceuticals. Without knowing any better or having any support in alternatives, I was promptly prescribed high doses of drugs that numbed every last bit of feeling and emotion out of my existence. As a naturally highly sensitive and emotional person that needs to sense the world through deeper meaning, creativity and feeling, I was nothing but an empty and robotic shell. The days went on and on—I mechanically moved though the actions of what I thought I was supposed to do, never again crying, but also never smiling or laughing. Days, months, years went trodding by, every day just like the last. I lost any passion or interest I had for life—the only things that vaguely interested me was food and my nascent garden.

After the success of relieving my daughter’s severe eczema by removing all dairy from my diet, I switched to a completely plant-based diet and bought my very first cookbook. I explored every recipe in that book and to this day it remains one of the most stained and tattered tomes from those relentless early explorations in the kitchen. Each meal was an adventure to look forward to, an empty creative canvas. And, I was getting healthier and what seemed like endless, uncontainable energy. By removing dairy, my chronic pain and environmental allergies nearly completely disappeared. I had spent most of my childhood and young adult years embarrassingly suffering from chronic sinusitis, likely contributing to my introversion and shyness. Had I only known.

While nearly all of my ailments disappeared with this initial change of diet, it didn’t quell the depression. I was terrified to go off the drugs without knowing what the other side would be like. Yet, there was this pressing, relentless voice in the back of my mind pleading with me to realize I was finally strong enough to release them.

I continued to study food and nutrition, burrowing deeper into the rabbit hole of how the foods we eat interact with our body, mind and even our spirit. I leaned into raw food diets and everything they promised: weight loss, increased vitality, improved mental clarity, and boundless energy. Carefully tracking everything I ate, it came nearly to an obsession. I began to make everything our family ate from scratch—breads, crackers, chips, sauces, granola, condiments, desserts—and every meal was carefully crafted and thought out with organic ingredients from the farmer’s market or the garden. Often times I made several different meals, from something only moderately healthy my then-husband would tolerate, something simple for the kids, and then I would thoroughly enjoy my latest culinary experiment. Exploring food was the only thing that kept me going in a loveless marriage and the lonely, exhausting, and monotonous days of toddlerhood. Every waking day felt excruciatingly the same as the last, for years on end. The only memories I have of those years are in memorized recipes and hard-earned meals.

My favorite garden tomato of 2012

At long last, I came to a point where I felt that I could finally free myself from anti-depressants in 2012. I felt that no matter what life brought to me, I could nourish myself and those I loved through food. Despite recommendations, I abruptly quit taking the medication and as my body detoxed the pharmaceutical, I began to see the color, hope and passion not only to return to life again, but in a new way that I had never dreamed of.

As I examined intimately each bite I took throughout the day, I began to look at foods and ingredients in a new way and how they made me feel. I wanted to know more. Where did they come from? How were they grown or processed? How many hands have they touched? What resources went into its production and its transportation? What air did it breathe when it was growing? Most of us have no idea how our processed foods are stripped of nutrients and real flavor, then artificially manipulated to seduce our taste buds and neural pathways into an endless cycle of cravings and addictions. For what? More, and more fake food until we no longer remember what real was or even that a carrot grows in dirt. I wanted to know what real tomatoes tasted like, what an in-season heirloom watermelon smelled like when it burst open from its unbridled ripeness. So I grew them. Whatever seeds I could manage to get my hands on, I planted in my front yard. One year, I had 75 individual plants of 20 organic heirloom tomato varieties were growing in my garden. With a great array of other heirloom vegetables and unusual herbs, I transformed our insipid suburban lawn into a food forest.

I was after real foods and real flavor.

Through my questing and research for real food, I experienced first hand the results of our entangled connection to the foods that we eat. With a newfound drive for a better way of living, I kept digging deeper. This unprocessed organic whole food diet was great and all that, but that voice started whispering to me again. These foods are good for me, but are they good for the planet? Where are they coming from and what are our options? I turned to my garden. And I turned to higher education, pursuing a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and finished with a degree in herbal medicine where I focused on the nutritional and medicinal aspects of herbs and, specifically, mushrooms. I still couldn’t quite find the answers I was looking for.

At the beginning of my schooling, which was enormously difficult with two children under the age of 6 and the dismantling of a nine year marriage, I encountered a single plant that changed my perspective one more time—Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. It seemed foreign, strange and incredibly uninviting—something I could not connect with in any of my memories of being in nature which was rooted in the Arizona desert and forests. I learned all about this plant’s nutrition and medicinal benefits and was astounded that a single plant could be capable of so much. It was more than something to eat or make into a tea. I began my search for this plant as I learned that it was found only “in the wild.” It did not need to be coddled by a farmer, fed artificial nutrients and watered regularly. It was self-sufficient. It didn’t rely on any humans that thought they knew better. It was real. This one plant sparked a whole new raging wildfire of passion for real food.

This concept of “wild food” had not been completely unfamiliar to me, as in childhood I had devoured the book My Side of the Mountain multiple times and had longed to run away to live in a tree and eat right off the land as Sam Gribley did—to make acorn pancakes and dandelion salads. Well, let’s be honest, it was mostly about the pet falcon. I’m still waiting on that one. But alas, I grew up in the Sonoran desert at the time and making a home in a saguaro and lack of water did not seem as enchanting. I digress.

My gateway wild food: Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica

On my quest, I escaped to my local trails during the day, dragging along my two restless children, touching most any green leafy plant, looking for stinging nettle’s identifying characteristic and lasting sting. (Admittedly not the best way to go about it, regarding the dense populations of poison oak in our area) The day I found it, a most memorable moment, was incredibly empowering. I could find and identify a single nutritious and medicinal food in the wild on my own. I’ve since seen a similar wave of excitement wash over folks who learn about and identify wild foods for the first time—or is it more a remembering? There’s something innate and primal about our connection to these same plants that have fed us for millennia and it is only recently that we have forgotten that connection through our domestication and disconnection of our food.

Since then, my journey spiraled rapidly into an adventure of all that wild food has to offer. From new and unique flavors of native and non-native plants, hunting for wild mushrooms across the United States and exploring exotic fruits in Mexico, deeply studying herbal medicine and nutrition with many different and inspiring teachers, investigating new culinary possibilities, connecting with some of the world’s greatest chefs, and not to mention how the simple act of collecting acorns on my daily walk becomes an integral part of the forager’s life.

I found a little bit of myself in the foods that I collected and tasted. Wild food escapes our attempt at their domestication. It doesn’t need us, nor follows any of our rules or bow to our attempts to contain it. We, however, need wild foods. We need them and their land to thrive. We need them to remind us of our own not so distant wildness. And that this wildness is too quickly slipping away. I’m not suggesting we all become foragers, but somehow cultivate a renewed connection to this invisible land that is so quickly poisoned and polluted, plowed over and pushed aside by shopping centers and sprawling suburban neighborhoods. It is not another hip product to be bought and sold. And that is why it escapes the capitalistic nature of our contemporary mindset. If we try to put a price tag on wild food, we cannot afford it. We have to change our thinking about food. It is the rudimentary foundation of life itself. No matter who we are or where we came from, it is our history. And our future. It is real food.

A foraged spring salad, 2020.

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