Into the Wild
It’s a soaking wet morning in Seattle. Coaxed outward by the rain, the ’shrooms will tomorrow be popping from the forest duff and sprouting sideways from decaying tree trunks. Langdon Cook ’89 will be out there, trekking nimbly down forest trails, surveying the secret caches of matsutake and morels that dot his mental map. But today he’s in the city, huddled with me outside the entranceway of the crowded brunch spot where we’ve just eaten cheesy egg scrambles and buttermilk biscuits the size of our hands. Between us I am cradling, like a bird’s nest, a paper towel that holds a pile of wild fungi: eight golden chanterelles and a pudgy white porcino sliced in half lengthwise.
Cook has brought me these mushrooms, a sample from his most recent haul, as a gift. As raindrops pelt our jeans, he gives me careful instructions on how to cook them into a pasta sauce flavored with sage and dry vermouth. “Now, I don’t know how you feel about cream sauces,” he begins, an impish smile gathering at the corner of his mouth. He casts his light-blue eyes on a pinhead-sized wormhole in the porcino. Holding up the bolete, his close-cut fingernails edged with woodsy debris, he shows me how to cut out the hole. The mushroom’s meat is white and otherwise without blemish. I feel very good about cream sauces, I assure him.
In the prologue to his new book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager (Skipstone, 2009), Langdon Cook writes: “In four years of college in rural Vermont, I’d cracked open the great books of literature but never cracked an egg.” After Middlebury, he learned to feed himself, but it wasn’t until his year as an MFA student at the University of Washington that he was properly introduced to foraging. Hiking along the Pacific Coast with his future wife, Martha Silano—a bird-watching poet whose outdoorsiness attracted him from the outset—Cook was astonished to see her grow excited over a cluster of Frisbee-like mushrooms sprouting out of a hemlock tree. They cooked the fungi that night in a stir-fry, and Cook was hooked. He soon became a voracious gatherer of the Pacific Northwest’s wild edibles, scratching the sand for clams at low tide, memorizing the choicest spots along mountain slopes for plucking huckleberries from their bushes, cultivating—to his neighbors’ dismay—a wild dandelion patch in his front yard. A longtime fisherman, he learned to free dive for Dungeness crabs in the frigid waters of Puget Sound and jostle for squid-jigging spots along its waterfront on cold winter nights, pulling up Pacific squid with a boisterous crew of first-generation immigrants as they schooled him on the proper techniques.
It wasn’t always such a wild life. Cook grew up along the crowded I-95 corridor in Connecticut. In high school he shipped off to Philips Exeter Academy, where, he says, “I didn’t thrive.” Middlebury proved a better match: his love of literature sizzled under the tutelage of Jay Parini, and he found friends of the lifelong variety, some of whom appear as characters in Fat of the Land. (“Can’t we just buy some crab at the market like normal people?” one Midd alum asks memorably in an essay called “Crab Feed” after escaping from a too-small wetsuit that Cook wants him to rent for a free dive.) Then came grad school and, in 1997, a job as a books editor at fledgling startup Amazon.com. It was fun, at first. Cook’s colleagues in editorial were literary types—veterans of publishing houses and newsrooms—and an egalitarian spirit ruled. Cook recalls company-wide e-mails where employees openly debated policies with CEO Jeff Bezos. “That didn’t last,” he says. When Amazon went public, things changed. Friends were fired without warning, priorities shifted towards the bottom line. It wasn’t fun any more.
In 2004, he quit. He and Martha packed up their three-year-old son and left Seattle to become caretakers of an off-the-grid homestead in Oregon’s Rogue River Canyon. Propane powered their refrigerator and small stove, and the nearest neighbors lived 10 miles down the river. To no one’s surprise, Cook loved it. In Fat of the Land, he describes days spent chopping wood, fly-fishing steelhead in the Rogue, and crouching around the grounds picking mushrooms that he’d identify with a guidebook at night until it was too dark to see. He hoped to stay through the winter, but when Martha became pregnant with their second child, the risk outweighed the adventure. They went back on the grid.
“When we came back to Seattle, I went into a pretty deep funk,” Cook recalls. Whenever he could, he’d escape to the woods for mushrooms, wild greens, and berries. He nourished his yen for self-sufficiency by catching and cooking wild salmon for the family’s supper, drying porcini for the winter, stuffing zip-lock bags with huge stashes of protein-rich stinging nettles for soups. At first he cooked the same recipes he’d prepared on the homestead’s propane stove: grilled fish, wokked veggies, simple pastas. Then the culinary bug bit. Chanterelle stir-fry became beef bourguignon with porcini and chanterelles. He cooked Pacific squid in their own ink. Experimenting with recipes in the kitchen, converting his wild haul into haute cuisine, Langdon Cook discovered a sort of a peace with city life. Jars of thimbleberry jam and pickled seabeans lined kitchen shelves that once housed brightly packaged store-bought items. The Cook-Silvano household was eating well.
Meanwhile, he wrote. He worked for a year as the Web editor of an environmental Web site. He pitched—and sold—stories to magazines, local and national, and shopped around a book proposal about living off the grid. “Publishers told me: ‘Everyone wants to live off the grid,’” says Cook. “‘Give me something new.’” To gauge interest in wild edibles, he started a blog called Fat of the Land, where he posted recipes and tips. The world’s foragers came out of the woodwork. The interest was there. A Seattle press accepted his proposal and Cook started writing. “When you’re writing well,” says Cook, “you just want to go out and have a party. When you’re not, you want to curl up and die.” To Cook’s delight, he kept the party going for a full year, and in early September, Fat of the Land was released.
On the evening after our breakfast interview, the rain pelting the windows in the galley kitchen of my apartment, I toss diced squares of shallot into a pan of melting butter, the first step to creating Langdon Cook’s Creamy Mushroom Pasta. I chop up the chanterelles and my now wormhole-free porcino and add them to the mix. Within seconds a sweet woodsy smell wafts upward from the stovetop, filling my apartment with an aroma as appetizing as any I can remember. Suddenly, I’m ravenous. I add heavy cream and sage and give the mixture a stir. And then I stand there, staring at it, impatiently anticipating the moment when I’ll spear the browning porcini meat with my fork, when I’ll taste that first earthy bite of a wild thing.
Jessica Voelker ’00 is an editor at Seattle Metropolitan magazine.
Langdon Cook’s Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager is available in bookstores nationwide.