Some cookbooks make you cook. The recipes are smart and well-crafted and will clearly work, and you want to run to the kitchen and get started.
Other cookbooks make you think. They are provocative and, at their best, subversive, and expand your possibilities even if you never cook a single recipe.
Today we have a thinking cookbook. When I first looked at this book a few weeks ago it seemed meant to be weird. In fact, it seemed at first to have a self-consciously outré quality that set my teeth on edge. An example: “lemonade” made, not with citrus, but with 2000 lemon ants, a citrusy-tasting ant found in Southern California, crushed and macerated. Surely juicing a lemon would be quicker and better, although the image of some earnest chef-wannabe counting out 2000 lemon ants is an interesting one that will be with me for a while. The author proposes that some fermentations to make vinegar need to get started from the fruit flies that they naturally attract because the little bugs carry something (Acetobacter presumably) that start the conversion to vinegar. Yech. As I see it, fruit flies are why humans invented cheesecloth, and nothing will convince me that they are better fermented than slurped straight-up just as they land in your wineglass, an ingestion that I avoid if at all possible. There are a series of recipes with “forest floor” seasonings composed of grass and leaves found under trees, and I can’t say that I have ever nibbled on a grass that I would consider potentially useful as a seasoning. There are a lot of recipes for lacto-ferments, and having lived through the last lacto-fermenting craze, I am not very enthusiastic about having another one. Lacto-fermented elderflower “beer” might sound elegant but is nowhere near as good as a well-made wine. The current obsession with local terroir in wine often involves mediocre grapes, inferior bottling practices, and determination to drink bad wine because it somehow tastes of the locale, and I thought that author/forager Baudar’s “primitive brews” would be much like that.
In short, I thought that I would pan this book and get on with other things. Instead, after owning it for a few weeks, I keep going back to it and thinking, and gradually realizing how wrong my first impression was. I have seldom encountered a book that makes me think as creatively about possibilities, and this is after reading, foraging, and cooking for decades. Now the lemon-ant lemonade seems, not tricksy and silly and literally intended, but an invitation to explore the possibilities around you in ways that you might never have thought of on your own. In effect, the recipe tells you “Don’t limit yourself. Think about every possibility.” Bauder’s practice of letting his gaze light on something familiar and spending some time thinking about its culinary possibilities is infecting me with new pleasures and possibilities. Make wild greens kimchee out of whatever greens suit your fancy, and not only enjoy it as is but dehydrate it to use as a seasoning? Sure. Try cold-infusing the deliciously honey-scented goumi blossoms in my front yard to make a drink, as Baudar does with elder flowers and others? Not until my bushes get bigger, but then I will. Put a few of their blossoms on salads now? Of course. The trash Siberian elms that invade the Rio Grande bosque; have I ever thought about whether their scented cambium (inner bark) had any flavoring possibilities if roasted or smoked and infused? Not until I read this book. I like to make verjus from unripe grapes in the summer and enjoy its clean sourness anywhere that I might use lemon juice, but I’ve never thought of juicing other unripe fruits for the same purpose, and I’ll enjoy testing their range of flavors. I may well try roasting outdoors on a hot stone, or cooking something fast and delicate by arranging pine needles and herbs over the food in question and burning them. It has been a decade since I made flavored vinegars for shrubs, but now I will because this book has excited me all over again about the possibilities. And yes, I will certainly be trying “primitive brews” akin to his and experimenting with my local versions of his SoBeers, fizzy low-alcohol concoctions somewhere in between soda and beer. I’ll be tasting my own local grasses and herbs again to test their flavoring possibilities. I’ll be making vinegar-based and fermented hot sauces. I’ll try vinegars flavored with an assortment of my local seeds to grind into a mustard-like condiment. In short, I will view the familiar things around me, with uses that I think I already know, with new excitement and find new uses for them. Once over my initial dubiousness, I began to think that this is one of the most exciting cookbooks that I have read in a very long time. See where it leads you. Odds are that I will never cook a single recipe from it as written, because that isn’t the point.
I trust that it goes without saying (but here it is anyway): YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY when foraging. Study, consult guidebooks, and know for certain what you are about to taste. This book is not a guidebook and will not teach you the safety of your own local plants and animals. Don’t wander around tasting things at random, like a feckless innocent in Not-Eden. That kind of thing gives foraging a bad name.