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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

On an unseasonably warm winter afternoon, Iso Rabins stepped out of a silver Subaru Legacy at the intersection of Walnut and Pacific streets, a tony corner of Pacific Heights that abuts the southern edge of the Presidio. Pausing to roll and light a cigarette, he hopped the waist-high stone wall lining the park. Behind him, rows of shingle and brick two-story houses climbed uphill into a bright February sky. As he stepped slowly and deliberately across an overgrown hillside bisected by a dirt walking trail, eyes trained on the ground like a man who had lost his wedding ring, the gentle ping of bats on baseballs rose from fields below. Suddenly Rabins froze, knelt, and began to nibble on a weed.

"This is wild radish," he said absently, eyes scanning the ground as he masticated his find. "I've used it in potato salad, with wild salad greens. There's a subtle flavor to it." A few more steps and Rabins came upon a patch of Claytonia perfoliata, or miner's lettuce, so named for the 49ers who grew fond of the plant as a source of Vitamin C during the Gold Rush.

The bounty did not stop. Looking around, Rabins rejoiced at the presence of chickweed (another salad green) and stinging nettle. The latter, once blanched to remove its prickly spines, would be the key ingredient that night for his nettle ravioli supper. "Look at all this!" he said. "This is crazy."

Less intrepid diners treated to the spectacle of this scavenger hunt would probably agree with the crazy part. But in Rabins' world, the weeds that blanket this stretch of the Presidio are of interest to others besides sweater-clad Chihuahuas on the hunt for a latrine. This man is in business, after all, and he was looking at his products — several of them.

Rabins is mounting a first-of-its-kind commercial enterprise, called ForageSF, that would provide the denizens of this food-frenzied urban center with regular access to wild-growing edibles — not just salad, but mushrooms, seafood, and fruit, as well as "wild-crafted" or processed goods such as acorn flour. (The selling of meat from wild game, such as deer, is illegal.) This month, he is launching a "Community Supported Forage" (CSF) box of wild foods. Modeled on Community Supported Agriculture organic-farm boxes, the subscription service will provide clients with a biweekly allotment of seasonal foraged products.

"Maybe we're a little spoiled here in the Bay Area, but even the farmers' market has become too pedestrian," says Rebecca Klus, a San Francisco cooking instructor and wild-foods enthusiast.

You can dispute the tastiness of stinging nettles, but there's no contesting the fact that Rabins, like any savvy capitalist, is meeting a demand. Some heavy hitters of Bay Area haute cuisine have joined the wild-food cheerleading section, and chefs at renowned eateries such as Chez Panisse, Pizzaiolo, and Incanto have all done business with Rabins.

"In my cooking, I would love to use more wild food," says Jerome Waag, a chef at Chez Panisse who has worked at the Berkeley restaurant for 15 years and has bought wild mushrooms from Rabins. A native of southern France, Waag describes the appeal of foraged food with continental flair. "It comes directly from the earth and the wind and the rain," he says. "It's sort of a concentration of natural forces, as opposed to something that's been more organized. I think it's for the flavor, but also the whole romantic aspect."

But in Rabins' case, finding an eager and untapped market for his products is the easy part. His is a supply-side problem. In this day and age, hunting and gathering — humans' sole means of feeding ourselves for most of our species' history — is a proposition fraught with ethical, logistical, and legal problems. In the U.S., a gamut of regulations governing food safety and environmental conservation would long ago have rendered any surviving forager societies extinct. And there's no shortage of people who think Rabins' effort to buck the trend of modern agricultural and industrial food production is misguided at best — and dangerous at worst.

San Francisco's chief food inspector, for instance, says a steady stream of unregulated foraged food into the city could bring with it diseases or even death — leptospirosis, a bacterial infection spread through animals' urine, can cause jaundice and kidney failure, and some mushrooms are among nature's most grotesquely effective poisons. There's also the matter of whether wild ecosystems can bear the effects of anything beyond the most modest return to mankind's previous foraging habits. Rabins recently learned that in the Presidio, one of his heretofore steady sources of foraged food, removing his favored salad greens for commercial use is a federal offense subject to a $125 fine.

So far, Rabins' efforts to get ForageSF off the ground raise more questions than they answer. Among the most interesting: How did one of humans' most elemental and ancient activities — finding and eating food in the places we inhabit — become so complicated?

The day before he foraged the Presidio, Rabins had driven down to Santa Cruz to see a guy about the modern era's most valuable and widely consumed foraged food product: mushrooms. As his car chugged along Highway 17, threading the redwood-forested hills south of Silicon Valley, Rabins pulled onto a turnout and hoisted his iPhone from its resting place by the emergency brake.

"Christian," he said. "This is Iso. We're on our way down. Where would be a good place to meet?" After a moment, he hung up and smiled. "They've got me pulling over to make phone calls," he said, shaking his head. "The Man's got his foot on my neck."

At first glance, he seems a less-than-likely target for the Man's subjugation. Rabins is a lean, bearded 27-year-old of middling height, with warm brown eyes and short brown hair. Like some of the foragers with whom he does business, he has led a nomadic existence. He was born in Santa Cruz to parents he affectionately describes as hippies; the product of Russian Jewish forebears, his first name means "shoreline" in Japanese. He lived in different spots as a child — Philadelphia, Vermont — and attended the Buxton School in western Massachusetts, a small boarding school where students split the wood that heated their buildings. He studied film at Emerson College in Boston, traveled in Italy and Mexico, and, like so many other East Coast émigrés, fell in love with San Francisco on a drive up Highway 1. He moved here in the fall of 2007.

About The Author

Peter Jamison


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