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.

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.

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