Nature, Food, and Humanity: An Afternoon with Langdon Cook

“There’s a mission in everything I do,” said author and forager Langdon Cook. “I help people reconnect with the landscape, which brings us back into balance with the natural world.” Interviewed just prior to a presentation on foraging in the One World dining room, Cook gave a nod to his surroundings at SCA. “After all, what is more basic and essential than feeding yourself?”

A popular annual speaker at SCA, Cook came to share stories of the natural bounty of the Pacific Northwest’s four seasons. With cuisine as a frame for inviting people in to discover the wonders of the natural world – and the value of preserving it – Cook has cultivated a national following for his both his lectures and thoughtful, entertaining essays about the foraging world and the characters that populate it.  Adventurous in spirit and palate, he has followed mushroom hunters on cloak-and-dagger searches to the most remote corners of the forest, and for a full year lived off the grid in eastern Oregon.  Educated as a novelist, he became so engrossed with the connection between what grows in the landscape and what we share around the table that he put down his novel and began writing the essays that have now made his name. His first book, The Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, grew out of his fascination with the quirky, and sometimes notorious, world of food foragers as well as the objects of their desire: the greens, seafood, and exotic mushrooms available to those with the skills to see them.

“Nature, food, humanity. That’s where I really planted my flag.”

Living proof that passion brings a subject to life, Cook lights up while talking about how he cooks the fiddleheads and chanterelles he harvests. Self-taught, he learned to cook as he learned to forage. It all starts with respect for the basic ingredients, he said, and he goes from there: Scallops with Chanterelles for company, and pasta with fiddleheads, Parmesan, and lemon for his family of four. While he modestly describes himself as a home cook, he might exceed that description with an unusual recipe for nettle paneer. Traditionally made with spinach, the twist is a good one, he said. “Once you try it, you’ll never go back.”

Cook brought this same level of intense curiosity to the local mushroom trade in his book The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, which he describes as the largest legal all-cash business in Washington state. This catholic interest in the underground economy of Black Trumpets, King Boletes, and Golden Chanterelles found him on the run from park rangers and - even more dangerous – other mushroom hunters searching for the same gold in the same hills.  “I wanted to put the spotlight on these characters working in this underground economy,” Cook said. He noted that most varieties of wild mushroom can’t be cultivated, but grow, and must be harvested, in the wild. “Most of our delicious mushrooms can only be found,” he said, adding “It’s a multi-million dollar enterprise, and we happen to live in the heart of it.” Many SCA students will recognize some of the characters in the book, including Seattle’s own star chef Matt Dillon.

Cook will soon release a third book. Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon from River to Table, is an account of his travels through salmon country in the Pacific Northwest. His goal? To cultivate the culture of this seminal fish in its own home. “ In North America we have a 10,000 year relationship with salmon,” he said. “We have to learn from the salmon. They have survived through the millennia through diversity, and the ability to maximize whatever curveballs nature throws at them.” That close relationship, he added, means that anything that we do in the interest of salmon habitat benefits humans as well.

Nature, food, and humanity came into clear play as Cook gave his lecture on spring foraging, using cuisine to inspire ideas for dishes incorporating fiddlehead ferns, a wide variety of mushrooms, and even the humble geoduck. While on the outset foraging seems like a good story about bringing dinner home from the forest, it’s far more than that, Cook believes. It’s a way to encourage good environmental stewardship, bring people back into deep contact with nature, and cultivate awareness for what we need to do to protect the future of the planet. Passionately optimistic, he conveys a hopeful vision of conservation that combines wisdom with innovation, a connection he believes starts in the landscape and ends on the table.