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.

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.

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