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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
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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."

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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