BANQUET IN THE RUINS is the story of how wild foods have become a rare luxury. Because hunted and gathered foods come from wild environments, this book is also an adventure story. I travel to some of the last untamed places looking for the artifacts of a vanishing way of life and find an answer to the question: Why are we suddenly so enamored with a “wild” nature just as it appears to be on the brink of winking out?
Like a feminist John Muir or a punk Michael Pollan, I chase down wild vegetables and feral domesticates, a naturalist of the anthropogenic wilds. Along the way, I go to a roadless village in Borneo, forage in a cemetery in Copenhagen, fall in love with a hunter, explore the remote forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and head north to meet the Inuit in the Arctic fighting desperately to preserve their traditional lifestyles in the face of oil and gas development.
Through an examination of the ecology, economics, cultural history and hunter-gatherer psychology behind venerating wild foods, this book explores the shift in our environmental ethics since the Industrial Revolution. In my hunt for undomesticated food, I discover that our relationship to Nature is as much a result of cuisines, colonialism and conservation, as it is the loss of our personal connections to landscapes and seasons.
Two-hundred years ago, half the American diet consisted of wild foods. Hunting and gathering were associated with poverty and subsistence. Today, most people will never eat anything undomesticated, and “foraged” flavors and “gamey” flesh are increasingly a mark of wealth, refinement and purity. The top restaurants in the world serve weeds to their elite clientele. The most desirable wild foods have become globally-traded commodities, as expensive as diamonds and pearls, with extensive ties to the black market. Those that still depend on some wild foods for subsistence are finding their lifestyles rapidly changing as new roads and markets penetrate into even the most remote of places.
From the turtle soup craze in 18th century England to fowl frenzy in 19th century America, from urban foraging to remote jungle gathering, on the trails of the edible bird nest trade and wild meat smuggling, from mushrooms to moose hunts, to a season of arctic whaling and a traditional lobster bake on an island in Maine, BANQUET is reminiscent of a great dinner party, a flow of conversation seamlessly picking its way from one topic to the next that mirrors the grand sweep of dishes passing by.
Ultimately, I illuminate that turning Nature into a symbolic luxury drives exploitation, makes us mere tourists in the wild, and allows us to forget that our little histories are embedded in this ecology too. If we have any hope of saving wild Nature, we must recognize that it belongs to all of us.