Q & A with “The Flavors of Home” author Margit Roos-Collins

FOH2cover_web800pxThe Flavors of Home is more than a forager’s guidebook. It’s a call to adventure, a lyrical case for getting to know your home landscapes better, and a celebration of savor. As author Margit Roos-Collins puts it in her introduction: “My job is to partner with your own curious and lively spirit…and encourage you to get out there and start tasting.” First published in 1990 and now updated, her book does exactly that, laying out clear and incisive advice for both new and seasoned foragers, as well as presenting the foraging experience through an captivatingly poetic lens. I talked to Margit Roos-Collins via email about the process of writing the book, the evolution of Bay Area foraging culture, and practical tips for any beginning forager.

The first edition of The Flavors of Home came out nine years after you began working on it. What led you to begin writing the book?

I’d been working as a paralegal on a sex and race discrimination suit, and one of the plaintiffs told me she’d given herself two years to write a book about the case. She was only a few years older than me and it was like a light turning on, to know someone my age and gender who planned to just up and start writing after doing an office job. Like, “Oh, that’s an option?”

I’d taken an evening extension course on California marine biology and had learned that the fish species present in San Francisco Bay vary seasonally in response to day length and rainfall changes, even though we don’t have big temperature changes the way most of the country does. That intrigued me, coming from a strong four-season state like Tennessee. It made me curious about other peak seasonal events in the Bay Area like the winter herring run. So I decided to research and write a book about seasonal natural history here. This included writing about edible wild plants and their seasons.

Seasonal patterns in my adopted region felt like a necessary thing to learn about. Thoreau’s quote was much on my mind: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Somehow that translated in my mind to needing to know how the seasons in the sky and plant and animal life around me fit together, and to be sure that I experienced the best of them: the meteor showers, the dramatic animal migrations and courtships and childrearing displays, the spring wildflowers and the tastes of the local plants. And though I feel fairly sure now that that wasn’t what he was focused on, the quest gave me several of the great years of my life, hiking, experiencing, tasting, reading, finding experts to question, and writing it all down.

Where did you start, and what took the most time along the way?

As to plants, I began by going to every docent-talk and ranger-walk I could find to learn what the local edible plants were. I made lists of them by comparing local floras (published lists of the plants in an area) to the plants discussed in foraging books from all over the country. And then I went in search of them and tried different ways to prepare them. It all took time but the main delay was a seven-year intermission between finishing the book and seeing it published, while my husband and I went east for law school and jobs in D.C.

I was living in San Francisco during the years of writing the book. After three years of work, I had a contract for the book to be published and went off to law school, which kept calling to me and was an itch I needed to scratch. But a year later, the publisher pulled out of all natural history publishing because the market was drying up. It was the mid 80s and the zeitgeist ran more to investment banking, “Material Girl,” and Reaganism. My husband and I were in Boston then. Between finishing law school and spending a couple of years in Washington afterwards, I wasn’t back in the Bay Area full-time until 1989. At that point, I asked Malcolm to reconsider the book because Heyday had always seemed like such a good fit to me. He said the edible plant chapter was a book in its own right and Flavors was born.

This book is most immediately about the beauty of tasting, but as your prose and the drawings indicate, it seems just as equally about the beauty of seeing and touching wild plants. What’s it like for you to see people forage for the first time, people who aren’t necessarily used to interacting with wildlife in such a tangible way?

It’s very satisfying if they like what they taste. If they don’t like their first taste, then I try hard to find something else they can try on the same outing. It’s like sharing any other enthusiasm; you hope to make a match between experience and person, and when it works it’s a great feeling. I’m always grateful and honored that the ones who are new to tasting are willing to try something on my say so. When someone steps outside his or her comfort zone, you always want it to be a success, since that’s how we grow and make life rich.

Margit Roos-Collins

There’s so much relish and wit in your prose, and the book is just as much a literary pleasure as it is a gustatory one. I can open to any page and, in the midst of a description of huckleberries, find passages like: “An hour or two of picking is all we need to recapture what we came for. Which is what? Basically, it is time spent outdoors without an agenda—who cares how many berries we pick? Without deep conversation, or small talk, or any real interaction with another human bundle of desires or demands.” Which books and authors particularly influenced your writing style?

I wish I were a sufficiently conscious reader to answer this question, but I have no idea who has influenced my style. I have loved so many books on such a wide variety of subjects and in so many different voices, and I’ve had my share of those moments of being staggered by the insight and grace in an author’s prose. But I don’t recall ever thinking, “Ah. This is how a book should sound. I choose this to be my guide.”

At the beginning of the book, you cover the ethical responsibilities of foraging. For anyone reading this interview who has no previous foraging experience but wants to try: what makes a responsible forager?

Boiling down a complex and essential topic to a paragraph means I’ll leave things out, but here are the main requirements as I see them:

  • Choose species that are abundant and resilient enough to support foraging without diminishment.
  • Spread out from other foragers and other trail users so that impacts don’t get concentrated in a few spots.
  • Harvest with enough care that there’s no visible impact afterwards.
  • Choose foraging locations that are either sanctioned or tacitly accepted by the owner or land managers. When in doubt, ask about harvesting the specific species you have in mind.
  • Focus on the many edible greens and blossoms of introduced, invasive plants and on berry, nut, and mushroom picking. Leave native plant bulbs and blossoms in peace unless you have permission to try them on privately owned land.
  • Be responsible to yourself, by only tasting plants that you can identify positively and know to be edible!
  • Don’t harvest more than you will eat.

The book goes into this in more detail. Doubtless this list would look different in another couple of decades and I cringe to think about what advice I’m giving now that will seem barbaric or ignorant or woefully incomplete later. The main thing is to think about what you are doing and do it, always, in a way that seems sustainable, satisfying, and least likely to have a harmful impact. The guidance will evolve but those goals should hold up pretty well.

How have Bay Area foraging communities evolved since you first published the book? What changes have you been happiest to see? What concerns you the most?

The Internet and social networking have made it easier to find other foraging enthusiasts and create those communities, though in olden times we did eventually find each other at foraging lectures or guided hikes. I regret that some of the institutions that sponsored foraging events back then shy away from them now; I assume that the burden of liability lawyers’ warnings is what brought that loveliness to an end. What concerns me most is that recreational foraging, which tends to have a very light impact on the land and bonds people with nature, is threatened by illegal commercial foraging on the same wild lands. There seems to be more commercial-scale plant removal now that wild foods are hot menu items. That leads to land managers feeling like they have to bear down and be more restrictive with everyone, and the recreational foraging community takes the impact both in terms of reputation and in terms of reduced access to land.

Throughout the book are recipes for dishes like radish pie and elderberry syrup. What’s the next dish you want to try with wild plants? What’s been a hit with friends and family most recently?

Honestly, right now my culinary life is focused on incorporating more legumes rather than thinking about wild food recipes. But curly dock is volunteering in good quantity in the garden this year, and as soon as it’s a little bigger I plan to try it in a bean dish; as greens go, dock is tender and citrusy. Today I found shepherd’s purse in the yard for the first time and enjoyed chewing the hot seeds even as I was weeding it out; most of my foraging these days is opportunistic like that. The most recent hit was definitely the blackberry cobbler last summer.

Any special foraging advice for the 2016 warm season?

No. I’m writing this in mid-February, seeing my garden soil cracking with dryness in what’s supposed to be a big El Niño year, following four years of what I read was the biggest California drought in 1,200 years. And ours is even worse than the drought back then because the climate is hotter now. So you’d think that the berries would be all dried up and dreadful, wouldn’t you? And yet, last year, I had a great afternoon picking ripe, juicy, wild blackberries with my daughter in late summer from abundantly loaded bushes.

Clearly, the foraging experience seems to be a bit unpredictable. Maybe that unpredictability does translate into this advice: go out there and see what you find, regardless. If plants are dry and uninspiring, they are entitled to be and you need to try again in a wetter year. But no matter how much or little rain falls between now and summer, there will be species that are thriving and you will find patches that can spare a few leaves or nuts or berries to connect you with your animal inheritance.