Eating on the Wild Side (Review)

In Summer of 2013, Jo Robinson published Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. She wrote a New York Times piece in advance of it, “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.”

I’m glad this book is out. It corroborates what I’ve been saying since 1995. From the introduction: “we will not experience optimum health until we recover a wealth of nutrients that we have squandered over ten thousand years of agriculture, not just the last one hundred or two hundred years.” Well put.

What kind of nutrients are we talking about? The kind and the quantity you supposedly get from supplements.

If we were still eating wild plants, there would be no need for these supplements. One species of wild tomato, for example, as fifteen times more lycopene than a typical supermarket tomato. Some of the native potatoes that grow in the foothills of the Andes have twenty-eight times more phytonutrients than our russet potatoes. One species of wild apple that grows in Nepal has an amazing 100 times more bionutrients than our most popular apples; just a few ounces of the fruit provide the same amount of phytonutrients as six large Fujis or Galas.

How do you like them apples? One hundred times the nutrition — and one hundredth the sugar. And unlike most supplements, the nutrients in wild food are in a form your body can actually absorb. This book, then, is a step in the right direction, but certainly not the last.

Eating on the Wild Side is supposed to be “a radical new way to select fruits and vegetables.” The word radical means to go to the root of something. Robinson certainly goes to root of the problem, but then immediately runs back to the surface, as if down there, one couldn’t breathe.

Most of this book is devoted to what I call “nickel and diming” between cultivated foods on the pretext of choosing the ones that have been less developed, that are closer to being wild. In that case, the book should be called Eating on the Side Closer to the Wild Side. The book is called “the missing link,” but am I missing something? If you knew wild food was better for people, wouldn’t you recommend eating wild food?

The same critique applies to The Wild Diet (2016). There’s no wild food in it. You’ve probably heard the story of the man who, one dark night on the way to his car, drops his keys. Someone sees him looking under a streetlight and comes over to help.

“Where did you last see your keys?” they ask.

He replies, “oh, I heard them fall over there.”

“Then why are you looking here?”

“Because over here it’s easier to see.”

Are wild foods really not an option? Not in my experience. I live in The Garden of Eden. I eat the best food in the world and as much of it as I want. When I teach about wild foods, I have a guarantee that if we have to walk more than twenty feet to find wild food, you get your money back. I have never had to return a dollar. Once I was speaking at a downtown hotel. I took everyone to the parking lot and found ten wild mushrooms in the median — right under the streetlight!

Where is the disconnect here? I found it, quickly and tellingly, on page 13:

What can we do to restore the long-lost nutrients and flavor of our fruits and vegetables? Clearly, we can’t go back to foraging for wild plants — there are too many of us and not enough wilderness. Imagine, for a moment, the 1.6 million inhabitants of Manhattan trekking up to the Adirondacks to gather wild roots and berries; it’s not going to happen.

This statement illustrates two of the four modern myths of foraging: one, that foraging is difficult, and two, that there’s not enough wild food for all of us.

Foraging is easier than shopping in the store. Robinson’s home page says, “few of us will go back to foraging in the wild for our food.” That’s true. Fortunately, in order to go foraging, nobody has to go “into the wild.” There is more wild food in the city than in the woods.

Is there really not enough wild food for all of us? Yes and no. This same argument is being used to promote genetically modifying food, namely, that there’s not enough cultivated food for all of us. This is how the war against nature escalates.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. It’s a very simple one, one that has been practiced successfully for thousands of years. You don’t have to rely on the wild to eat wild food. All of the plants and most of the mushrooms I’ve mentioned can be cultivated — easily. It may sound like an oxymoron, but you can grow wild food. It’s called permaculture.

The whole point of Robinson’s book is that what’s important about wild food is not that it’s not grown but that it’s not bred. It’s still in the form we evolved to eat, its natural form. Being adapted to its environment, not adapted by us for other reasons, wild food is easy to grow: it grows on its own.

Why don’t we grow what grows easily on its own? Robinson continues with a second alleged reason:

Few of us would choose to eat wild plants, even if they were growing in our own backyards. Some varieties of sour crabapples have five times the cancer-fighting capacity of a Honeycrisp, but most of us would choose the sweeter, juicier fruit all the same. We are no longer accustomed to eating our bitter medicine.

Similarly, on page 23:

Wild greens may be excellent for our health, but how do they taste? l suggest you find out. You can begin with dandelions. First, locate some dandelion leaves that are pesticide-free and have not been visited by neighborhood pets. Rinse a leaf and take a bite. As you will discover, the leaf is relatively thick and chewy and it is covered with tiny hairs, top and bottom. For a second or two, the leaves will taste rather bland. Then, in a flash, a bloom of bittemess will start at the roof of your mouth and spread down the back of your throat. If you pay close attention, you will note that your tongue and mouth are becoming faintly numb—undeniable proof of the plant’s painkilling properties.

Nothing in the grocery store has prepared you for this riot of sensations. Over the course of ten thousand years of agriculture, our farming ancestors managed to remove the bitterness from most of our greens. Unwittingly, though, when they removed the bitterness, they were also stripping away a host of highly beneficial phytonutrients that happen to have a bitter, astringent, or sour taste.

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Have you actually eaten much wild food? It doesn’t sound like it.

If wild food is neither plentiful nor palatable, then as Robinson concludes, “living on wild plants is no longer feasible.” We’ve already addressed the first assumption. Let’s look at the second.

Dandelion is not covered with tiny hairs. What looks like dandelion and IS covered in hair is cat’s ear (Hypochaeris sp.), which is sometimes, but not always, far more bitter. Neither dandelion nor cat’s ear is commonly used for painkilling — except, ironically, for cats. And that’s only because cats don’t tolerate salicylates, i.e., aspirin originally derived from willow and birch. And it’s dandelion flowers that are used for painkilling, not the leaves. But that’s a minor point. Let’s look at the top fifty wild foods.

Aside from dandelion, none of the five other most common edible wild greens in the eastern U.S. — chickweed, violet, lambsquarter, nettle, onion grass, and purslane — are commonly described as bitter. Not one of the twenty most common edible wild mushrooms in the country — including chanterelles, chicken of the woods, honey mushrooms, maitake, and more — are commonly described as being bitter.

Of the top five wild fruits in my area (Asheville, NC) — persimmon, blueberry, wineberry, and autumnberry — only blackberry is mildly bitter. None of the most common wild nuts and seeds that I know of — including chestnuts, acorns, black walnuts, hickory nuts, or lambsquarter seed — are bitter. Acorns are astringent, but all you do is soak them in several changes of hot water. Do you know what it takes to make cashews edible?

Europeans enjoy a little bitterness. Even in America, however, there are some very popular bitter foods, including coffee and chocolate. Roasted dandelion root is commonly found in coffee substitutes, and chicory, which is even more bitter, even more so.

I sometimes juice dandelion greens for my morning “coffee,” even after they flower, when many authors do say they are “too bitter.” But isn’t black straight or very dark chocolate too bitter for most people? The solution, of course, is to simply sweeten either one, and I use stevia for that. Similarly, there is a simple solution for bitter greens, either cooked or in salad. It’s called honey vinaigrette. On that note, people like sour taste or we wouldn’t use vinegar or lemon juice.

Finally, many of our wild fruits and nuts are no less astringent than their cultivated counterparts. Compare all the wild fruits listed above as well as black walnuts vs. English walnuts or hickory nuts vs. pecans.

Am I missing something? Why sell us short? Again, I’m glad this book points us in the right direction, but there’s no reason to not go all the way. After all, the destination really could be in our own backyards. For more on the feasibility of permaculture in this urban age, see here.

In Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Paul Shepard relates:

We live with the possibility of a primal closure. All around us aspects of the modern world — diet, exercise, medicine, art, work, family, philosophy, economics, ecology, psychology — have begun a long circle back toward their former coherence. Whether they can arrive before the natural world is damaged beyond repair and madness destroys humanity, we cannot tell.

Is the journey that far? The Lakota say the greatest distance a person will ever travel is from their head to their heart. As Eckhart Tolle explains in A New Earth, as soon as we get out of our heads, we get out of the madness that has characterized most of civilization. Let’s get to the heart, to the root of the matter. One is just beneath your head, the other just beneath your feet.

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