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Out of the Wild 

Iso Rabins' foraged food is the toast of San Francisco's gourmet set. Health inspectors and environmentalists aren't so thrilled.

Wednesday, Mar 18 2009

Page 4 of 4

Rabins stood before him in sunglasses, dark blue jeans, and charcoal-colored New Balance shoes, holding a Starbucks cup. "It's wild," he offered. "It is," Koepf said. "It's a perversion. A cultural perversion."

The merits of current state and federal fishing regulations can be argued both ways, but are indicative of a prevalent modern mindset toward wild places that is incompatible with the goals of hunting and gathering. According to this outlook, forests and oceans should be preserved in something approximating a state that predates human civilization — looked at, and not eaten from.

Rabins' hope is that eating wild food can bring people into a more immediate and vital relationship with wilderness. "Right now, we think of the woods more abstractly," he says. "It's out there; we like to walk in it. But we don't value it in that personal way, as a food supply."

He adds, "In a capitalist system, the only way someone's going to care about a resource is if it becomes profitable. I think as interest grows in wild food, it will actually help protect the resource."

Others think the resource is already protected just fine, thank you. Commercial foraging is illegal, for example, in all California state parks. "We have the parks as an inviolate place for plants and animals," says Roy Stearns, spokesman for the state park system. "Parks were not set up to be a commercial enterprise. They were set up to be a preservation of what's there." The same is true of federal parks like the Presidio, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Rabins said he had been unaware of Park Service regulations governing the Presidio until late last month, and said he plans to cease foraging there. As for the bulk quantities of mushrooms he buys from foragers in far Northern California, he said he trusts that his hunters are prowling private land or other legal spots — but acknowledges there's no knowing for sure. "You really don't know where they're from," he said. "They come from the woods, and someone walks out of the woods and sells them to you. It's sort of a don't-ask, don't-tell situation."

On the evening of Friday, Feb. 27, Rabins showed up at 18 Reasons, the upscale Guerrero Street art gallery and dining room affiliated with Bi-Rite Market, the Mission's renowned gourmet food store. The night's main event was a four-course dinner built around foraged foods, including chickweed salad with Half Moon Bay squid, Portuguese caldo verde soup prepared with nettles, and garganelle pasta with sautéed black trumpet and hedgehog mushrooms. Rabins had brought a sheaf of flyers detailing the final composition and pricing schedule of his foraged-food boxes, ranging from a $40 "Veggie" box of nettles, salad greens, fruit, and mushrooms to an $80 "Pesca-fungitarian" box featuring rock cod and extra 'shrooms. (When it comes to fish, Rabins has been obliged to relax the otherwise regional emphasis of his boxes because of local fishing restrictions. He says he will procure it from locations as distant as Canada when it's not available in California waters.)

After debriefing a small crew of servers on the contents and preparation of each menu item, chef Morgan Maki took a few minutes to offer a reporter his thoughts on ForageSF's financial prospects while dinner guests trickled in. "I think if it were going to succeed anywhere, Northern and Central California would be the place," said Maki, a butcher at Bi-Rite. This isn't just because of the Bay Area's prevailing ethical-food trends. The enterprise of supplying foraged food to consumers is geographically self-limiting. Maki noted that in the wintry landscape of Montana, a state he used to call home, a project like ForageSF would be impossible.

There were 19 guests in all, each paying $40 for the meal. The well-heeled crowd of thirtysomethings gradually took their seats at a long wooden table between walls hung with unframed sketches. Among them was Jennifer Jones, owner of a boutique clothing store around the corner. It was her first foraged meal. "I'm excited to see what it's like," she said.

Halfway through the second course — a bowl of caldo verde, prepared from wild nettles and salt cod, with a vibrant green hue akin to that of wheatgrass juice — she had made up her mind. "It's so overwhelmingly fresh-tasting," she said. "It's so potent. It's not even that the flavors are intense. They are, but that's not it. It's so satisfying to eat something that's so close to the earth."

If people like Jones or Maki don't share the concerns of San Francisco's health inspectors and parks officials, it's not because they're scofflaws, but because they increasingly make culinary decisions based on an antique ethos of food production that today's regulatory apparatus simply is not built to understand. Rabins' big idea depends upon faith in and familiarity with the men and women who procure edible things, not the bureaucratic superstructure that grew up over the past half-century to curb the excesses of industrial-scale food production.

In the world of wild food, says Bi-Rite wine buyer Josh Adler, "there's that element of trust." In other words, consumers must believe their favorite forager knows enough to distinguish an edible mushroom from a poisonous one, or a clean leaf of miner's lettuce from one ridden with bacteria. Rabins hopes his customers will place that extraordinary trust in a film major recently converted to mycological pursuits. Granted they do, it is reasonable to ask where there's room, even in the Bay Area's niche food market, for a forager facing doubts about the safety and environmental toll of his products.

The answer: at 18 Reasons, amid a chatty and affluent crowd. As the meal unfolded, a mirthful din filled the small room. The storefront windows on Guerrero had steamed over. Rabins sat at the head of the table, beaming and fielding questions about wild food, an attractive blond woman at his side. The diners around him conversed avidly, leaning forward on their elbows, sipping wine and unfiltered beer. By the end of the night, three of them signed up for CSF boxes. An eager tension seemed to grip them. The salad course was over; their plates were empty. Like the ill-fated eater in Pong's cautionary tale, these men and women had entered a state of euphoria — but their livers were still intact, and they would live to tell the tale.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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