Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Field Notes

I listened to a man talk about foraging for food old school before attempting some new school foraging of my own.

Max Watman was doing a reading from his new book, "Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food" at the Library of Virginia, usually a place I walk to.

But because I had lunch plans afterward, I drove only to find the garage marked full. That's expected when the General Assembly is in session, but it's not.

Turns out the governor convened a press conference this morning at the library, meaning all the indoor parking was gone. I managed to find a spot on the street behind a license plate marked "Senator."

I bet he doesn't have to worry about having enough change for the parking meter.

Inside, I found a seat just as the talk was beginning and Watman was noting that it was Publication day, an all but meaningless fact given how few people read physical publications anymore.

Happily, I do not count myself in that group.

He began by reading a  section from the book about fishing in the Shenandoah where he grew up, talking about how he loved doing it but wasn't very good at it.

Mentioning how fishing involves being moved from a meditative state to a blood-fueled adrenaline thrill, he read a reference to a cannon used by Union soldiers at Gettysburg.

"I probably should have edited that out," he joked to titters from the audience before finishing the story of ultimately catching a catfish with "a crazy Dali mustache."

Stressing that a big part of the book was about trying things, failing at them and continuing to fail, but failing better with each attempt, he admitted that midway through his pursuit of real food, it began to wear on him.

He's one of those people who can recall in detail entire meals eaten years ago and proceeded to catalogue a few. I know a guy similar to that in that he can tell you what wine he drank at any given meal.

Talking about what it means to forage when you travel, he mentioned people who seek out the familiar when they're away, reminding me of the long lines of Americans I saw outside a TGIF in London, a depressing sight.

But his emphasis was on what great joy there was in seeing everything in a different light when you're away, how learning to forage is a lot like traveling where you have to learn to be aware of what's around you.

His best story on that subject was about discovering tins of caviar for $27 at a Russian deli, buying them and "flipping" them to restaurants for $70, still half the retail price. "Everyone was happy," including Watman who proceeded to get positively hedonistic about putting caviar on practically everything.

Sometimes being in pursuit of real food is a lot more pleasurable than you might think.

Nothing strokes the passion of the palate like the ocean, he told us, supporting my mother's long-time theory that children eat best at the beach because of the salt air.

One vacation, he took a lobster pot full of ocean water and cooked it down to the salt. Now he could sprinkle bits of the ocean on everything.

Seeking more ocean food for his guests, he used seawater for risotto, foraged for sea snails and seaweed and voila! Dinner.

"There's an outdoor shower at your beach house designed for getting rid of all the things I was going to feed my guests," he laughed.

I go to the beach every summer so I'm already looking forward to trying ocean risotto in a few months. And don't even get me started on the pleasures of an outdoor shower.

It was an interesting talk about a journey I'm unlikely to make (hunt and butcher? probably not) but am happy to hear about from one braver than me.

And while he'd taught his son to forage for dandelions, my lunch companion wanted red meat, tough to forage for in the Slip, so we somehow ended up in the '80s time warp of La Grotta.

Honestly, I don't think that dining room has changed one iota since I first walked down the stairs into it decades ago.

Over sauteed fillet of sole with diced tomatoes, pine nuts and basil in a chardonnay sauce, Friend and I caught up on each other's goings on in an empty dining room.

I was only slightly pea green with envy over his upcoming trips to Charleston and Savannah for R & R, but I let it pass because he was full of good gossip.

Given the enormous portions of food on my plate- two fillets, a cheese-covered square of polenta, crispy green beans and an eggplant roll-up- I was really too full for desert but he insisted so coconut cake and chocolate mousse cake soon arrived at our table.

When the two dessert plates were cleared, very little remained.

Sometimes nothing strokes the palate like a book reading followed by lunch in a dim basement with a friend who wants to kvetch.

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