The other day, a Flat Rate Priority box of 2 dozen oysters arrived from Cape Cod. Beau, a college acquaintance turned Facebook friend and fellow food lover, had gathered them himself near Wellfeet, where he lives. When he’d posted a general offer to send oysters for bartered items, I pounced on it within seconds.
The postmistress in Center Conway told us we were lucky she didn’t eat the oysters herself and pretend to us that they’d never arrived. We certainly felt lucky. They were some of the freshest, sweetest oysters either of us had ever eaten. And they were gone so fast. The instant we got home from the post office, Brendan put them on ice and got out the shucker while I made a shallot-vinegar sauce and a ketchup-horseradish-Tabasco-Worcestershire sauce mixture. We poured ourselves some wine and stood at the counter and downed all 24 of those oysters with wild gusto. When they were gone, we grinned with loopy, dazed, chops-licking glee at each other.
It had made them taste even better, knowing that he had just… gone to the ocean and picked them up. If we’d bought them at a store, eating them wouldn’t have been as much fun. And they certainly wouldn’t have been as good.
My mother and sisters and I spent the summer of 1972 with my grandparents in a rented farmhouse in Maine. It was near a beach whose name I don’t remember; we called it Blue Boat Beach because of an upside-down dinghy that was always there. That summer, we picked wild blueberries that just… grew in a meadow for anyone to eat. They were warm and sweet and bursting with juice. My sisters and I gorged on them as fast as we could pick them. If our mother had brought them home from the supermarket, we wouldn’t have been nearly as excited about them.
When I lived in France during the year after high school, there were things around the place that I could just… go out and get and bring back and feed to the family I worked for. I picked up basketfuls of sweet, meaty chestnuts that we roasted in the fireplace around Christmastime. Peppery, bright-green watercress grew in a large, stream-fed stone pool. I put it into salads with lamb’s ear lettuce. Wild nettles could be picked (with gloves on) and washed and chopped and made into an excellent, savory soup with potatoes, onions, and a bit of butter and cream.
Starting when I was in college, I spent many summers on an island off Nantucket called Tuckernuck, where my mother’s third husband’s family had a house. The small island had no paved roads, electricity, or stores, nothing but twenty or so old shingled cottages scattered through grassy moors and scrubby woods. We went surf fishing for striped bass and bluefish, casting out into the waves, standing waist-deep in the water. When I reeled in a fish, I clonked it on the head to kill it, and then, later, on the breezeway of our house, I attached it by the tail to a big, rough clipboard and slit its belly open with a sharp knife and reached in and pulled out its entrails, feeling as macho as Hemingway.
My mother used to stuff the oily, strong-tasting bluefish we caught with whole garlic cloves, lemon slices, and sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme that she pulled from the kitchen garden. She doused it in olive oil and surrounded it with potatoes and baked it. That was the best bluefish I’ve ever eaten – rich and tender and so garlicky and herby, its gamey-fishy flavor was overwhelmed and conquered.
We took quahog rakes and a bucket in the rowboat around the point in low tide to pull huge, knobby clams from just under the sand on the shallow sea floor. I used to make a good chowder out of them. Just as with the wild blueberries in Maine, it was so much more exciting to eat the food we’d found or caught than it was to eat lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers from the kitchen garden. Gardening takes a lot of ongoing work, whereas foraging in any form feels romantically primitive and elemental and is instantly rewarding. The taste of the wild is seductive.
When I saw Beau’s offer, I’d been intending for a while to learn to identify and gather some of the edible plants that grow in the woods and fields around here in New Hampshire. In exchange for those wild oysters Beau went out and got from the ocean, I offered to forage some mushrooms and send him some – oyster mushrooms would make a particularly nice symbolic exchange.
I imagine that mushrooming is something like an Easter egg hunt – you prowl around the woods until a glowing white or pearlescent orb leaps at your eye. Of course, as a novice, I’ll invest in guide books and exercise extreme, obsessive caution, but what I’m really gunning for is to tag along with a local experienced guide, someone to teach me the difference between edible and toxic fungi: morels and “false morels,” chanterelles and Jack O’Lanterns, Hen of the Woods and the intriguingly (and no doubt accurately) named Sulfur Shelf. Fresh mushrooms are amazing, sautéed very briefly in olive oil with garlic, thyme, lemon juice and zest, tossed with hot linguine and topped with parsley and Parmesan cheese, but they’re not worth dying for, or even spending a night doubled up in acute gastrological pain for. Very few things are.