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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.

Rabins' paying jobs have always been restaurant gigs, and after he moved to the city he started bartending at Fresca, a chain of Peruvian restaurants. While visiting his father a year and a half ago in Willow Creek, an inland hamlet of Humboldt County near the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, some family friends brought over a gift of wild, edible mushrooms plucked from the local hills. "I was like, 'No fucking way,'" Rabins recalled. "'Really? You actually forage for wild mushrooms?' It was this amazing moment. I was like, 'You have to teach me this.'"

Soon Rabins was networking with mushroom foragers in Mendocino County, buying in bulk and selling to chefs at famous Bay Area eateries like Chez Panisse. As a mushroom middleman, he began confronting some of the logistical issues faced by any food buyer. At one point, a 100-pound shipment of wild mushrooms worth about $1,500 rotted over the weekend in a UPS shipping warehouse. ("They'd actually started to compost in the middle," Rabins notes dispassionately.)

He also began getting familiar with the eccentric ranks of those who know the woods well enough to find hundreds of pounds of mushrooms in the first place. Rabins remembers in particular a late-night rendezvous with a gentleman in the parking lot of a Burger King in Willits. "I felt so much like a drug dealer, it was insane," he said. "I pulled up and he pulled up in his pickup truck. It was just packed with mushrooms. We spent about an hour weighing them."

ForageSF already offers direct product sales, and this month will launch a small batch of CSF wild-food boxes that will range in price from $40 to $80. Rabins hopes to start with 20 subscribers and build the service over time. He also wants to include an educational component to the business, with foraging tours and talks. It was to that end that he was headed to Santa Cruz, where he was to meet Christian Schwarz, a budding mycological scholar whom Rabins hoped to bring to San Francisco to offer presentations on mushrooms.

There would be no darkened Burger King parking lots for Schwarz, who requested that Rabins meet him outside a bagel shop downtown. A rail-thin 20-year-old with luxuriant dark hair and a ghostly complexion, Schwarz is an ecology and evolution major at UC Santa Cruz. He became a mushroom enthusiast in his early teens, in the way that other young boys develop obsessions with skateboarding or baseball statistics. But his hometown, San Diego, was not prime fungal territory. Attracted by the Central Coast's moist, forested hills, he came to UCSC.

"My interest in mushrooms is mainly academic," Schwarz said. When talking about mushrooms, he frequently betrays an abstract turn of mind; at one point, discussing the fatal "death cap" mushroom, two ounces of which make a lethal dose, he remarked, "People who have eaten it and survived said it tastes really good."

As he and Rabins drove into the hills of Soquel, where they were to go on a recreational mushroom hunt — the equivalent, in foraging circles, of unfamiliar executives meeting for a round of golf — he expounded upon America's relative dearth of mycological traditions when compared to such countries as Russia or Italy.

"Here in the U.S., we don't have a long foraging history," Schwarz said. In China, he said, citing research by renowned mycologist David Arora, one infamous strain of wild mushrooms provokes an identical hallucination of xiao ren ren, or "little people," among all those who eat them. Many do so by accident — for example, after eating the culprit fungus in a dish prepared at a restaurant — and the resulting visions stir no more alarm among Chinese diners than an upset stomach.

The fungal kingdom is a living rebuke to biologists, who still know astonishingly little about mushrooms — how long they live, why and how they spring up when they do (a mushroom can mature in a span of time from several hours to several months), or how they propagate. The mushrooms we eat are the fruiting body of extended, nervelike networks of the organism mycelium, which attaches itself to the roots of trees or to decaying vegetative matter. The vacuum of hard knowledge surrounding this subterranean entity has invited a plethora of pseudoscientific observations; at least one prominent mycological expert, Paul Stamets, theorizes that the mycelium is a sentient being.

This being was to prove elusive for Rabins and Schwarz, who parked the car and wandered into the woods above Soquel Creek, their shoes crunching over mats of dead fern branches and maroon scrolls of madrone bark. The air was cool. Water from the past week's rains dripped from the boughs of redwood trees. After a time, an excited whistling struck up somewhere in the woods.

It was Schwarz. He had found what would be the day's sole edible mushroom: a black trumpet, or Craterellus fallax, an earth-colored bugle of a fungus, typically sautéed, admired for its smoky flavor. After a moment spent admiring the mushroom, Rabins and Schwarz resumed the hunt, with no further luck. Eventually they gave up. Schwarz cast the black trumpet into the woods. "Go," he said softly. "Spread your spores. Please."

On the way back down the trail, Rabins lit a cigarette. Schwarz walked ahead with long strides, whistling "Silver Bells."

The cult of mystery surrounding the mushroom is only enhanced by its aura of danger. Most people know that eating the wrong wild mushrooms can make you see strange things or kill you. What they don't know is just how outlandishly potent some of these naturally occurring poisons are.

Larry Pong, principal food inspector in the San Francisco Department of Public Health, recounts the case of a man who ate a bad mushroom several years ago during a feast at a local winery. "He died a painful death," Pong said, quickly elaborating: "It was painful in the beginning. And then, after his liver disintegrated, he went into a state of euphoria. And then he died." Such cases crop up regularly in mushroom-hunting territory. Between January and November of last year, the California Poison Control System received 721 calls from state residents who had eaten questionable mushrooms, according to Stuart Heard, the agency's executive director. Three of those cases led to serious illness, and one to death.

Mushrooms aren't the only foraged food with which people must take care; hemlock, which killed Socrates, resembles wild parsley and often grows among patches of chickweed. But Rabins says he takes the safety issue seriously. "I know a lot about seven types of mushrooms, and that's all that I ever sell to people," he said. "I wouldn't pick a wild mushroom, look at it in a book, decide it was the same one, and try to sell it to somebody."

For Pong, these assurances don't cut it. Citing the grave risks associated with ingesting wild plants and fungi, he argues that Rabins should be subject to regulations governing other food vendors. Pong says he already knows what his answer will be if an application from Forage-SF arrives on his desk: "We would just flat-out tell him, 'You can't do this.'"

But things may not be so simple. Given its novel nature, ForageSF falls into something of a regulatory gray area. Rabins has registered his business with the San Francisco tax collector's department, and says he was told after consulting with city authorities that he did not need special permits to sell wild-food products. His goal, he says, is to run a legal operation open to public scrutiny — but he came away from the permitting process with the impression that government officials weren't quite sure what form that scrutiny should take.

"I just became frustrated with the whole licensing situation," he said. "I feel like I did put in the time trying to make it right, and they didn't know the answers to my questions."

Others fear the ecological toll of Rabins' approach to foraging. Connie Green, a commercial mushroom broker from Napa County, hires nomadic foragers — many of them Laotian and Cambodian immigrants who hunted and gathered in the hills of their native countries — to scour the great morel zones of the Northwest, in places such as Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. While on the hunt, Green sets up camp in the forest with anywhere from six to 14 foragers. Yet even she questions whether putting nature's supply of wild mushrooms on tap for a city in thrall to food fads might not pose new risks of overharvesting. "If people don't have an understanding, be sensitive enough to the life of that plant, they can do real harm, particularly when it's driven by [customer] orders," she said. "You have to be able to say no."

Nature's inability to feed large numbers of people is a simple fact of human history. Various theories of our species' transition to agriculture have been propounded, all turning on the theme that the quantities of food rendered by hunting and gathering were inadequate to sustain a growing population. But our ingenuity in bolstering the food supply came with tradeoffs. Agriculture, for all its improved predictability, delivered a narrower and hence less healthful range of cultivated food staples, as well as the diseases that spread when humans live close to livestock. "The key to agriculture is that it's not necessarily more nutritious," UC Berkeley anthropology professor Kent Lightfoot said. "It's more viable."

An object lesson in the viability of supplying anything beyond a meager clientele with foraged products can be found in the grim fate of humanity's last large-scale source of hunted and gathered food: the commercial fisheries. On a recent Friday morning, Rabins wandered along Pier 45, behind San Francisco's tourist-thronged Fisherman's Wharf. Passing crab pots teeming with seagulls beneath a bright winter sky, he ducked into one loading dock after another. He was looking for a supplier of fresh local fish, which he hoped to include in his CSF box.

One after another, buyers gave him a somewhat astounding answer: Eating fish from San Francisco Bay has become practically impossible because of a dispiriting combination of environmental regulations and economic reality. Salmon season was likely to be cancelled for the second year in a row because the fish had been depleted by poor river conditions, and crab quotas for many fishermen had been met within the first few weeks of the winter. Local sardines were sold to companies operating tuna pens in coastal Mexico. About the only edible fish being pulled out of the bay was herring — and almost nobody eats herring anymore. The fish are stripped for their roe, which is sent to Japan.

Eventually Rabins encountered Ernie Koepf, a tall, shambling herring fisherman sporting a silvery mane of hair and a torn plaid shirt open at the neck. Leaning back against the dock rail above his boat, the Ursula B, Koepf offered his own take on the situation: Increasingly zealous regulators had deprived San Franciscans of local seafood.

"It's taken about 15 years, but various interest groups, among them well-meaning, organic, green-thinking folks, have fucked themselves out of having fresh fish," he said. "Now, I can tell you for a fact that there's lots of fish available out there, but I can't get access to them, so the public can't get access to them. That's why those guys over there were all giving you the horse laugh. I'm eating a piece of fish wrapped up in a fucking piece of plastic when the same fish is swimming right out there."

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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