“When I’m an old man and can no longer go foraging,” Strusinski says, “if you hold a chanterelle under my nose, the smell will make me weep.”
ONE DAY IN MAY, in a venerable old cemetery somewhere in northwestern Connecticut, a trio of food professionals clusters around a handsome pitch pine tree delicately infused with essence of dead New England farmer. The three of them are greedily plucking pale green buds and stuffing them alternately into plastic baggies and into their mouths. “These are f———ing good,” says a test-kitchen chef from the Momofuku restaurant empire. “Great texture!” a colleague agrees.
Evan Strusinski, who makes his living foraging wild foods, steps back and sizes up the tree as if he means to collect the whole damn thing. He eyes the car in which they arrived and asks, “Does this Prius have a roof rack?” Then he eats a few more pine buds and his voice pitches up like Regina Spektor singing about tangerines: “Oh! They’re so poppy! So juicy! They inspire me to nibble.”
“Put it in light syrup, focus on the texture,” the Momofuku guy riffs. “Pine poppers! Serve ’em on ice cream.” Later they notice the lemony-tasting sheep sorrel on a hilltop nearby, and all of them drop to their knees as though in worship.
A certain lunatic enthusiasm for wild foods tends to infect people who go foraging with Strusinski, especially when he is in his usual hunting grounds, in the mountains of Vermont or on the coast of Maine. It’s contagious: Strusinski, a boyish 39-year-old with curly, uncombed hair and a now-and-then beard, will be digging edible roots with his bare hands and suddenly whoop, “I feel like a wild pig foraging for truffles!” Or he’ll push back his battered fedora and start to sing as he works his scissors deftly through the perfect threadlike scapes in a sloping field of ramps—“I’m going to be rich”—and then speculate on how many scapes it will take to procure the 1972 Toyota Land Cruiser of his dreams. (The idea is not entirely far-fetched: he recently paid a doctor with wild mushrooms for removing an awkwardly placed tick.)
Filling out a shipping label one afternoon a few weeks later at a FedEx office in North Clarendon, Vermont, Strusinski pauses over the company-name line and writes “Monsanto Gone Wild.” He does not have a real company name, and his reluctance to come up with one has become both a running joke and a point of pride. (Other proposed names include Forgive Me My Trespasses and Nibble & Spit.) The Styrofoam cooler boxes he uses, mostly set aside for him by local merchants, carry labels saying “Grindstone Neck of Maine” and “Think Tropical Think Tilapia.” In the rush to get everything packed, Strusinski has inadvertently gotten some grass clippings caught under the packing tape. So he scribbles a message along the side: “= Authenticity.”
The destinations of the packages he ships that day include some of the most highly regarded restaurants in New York City: Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern, Mario Batali’s Del Posto, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko and Ssäm Bar, Franny’s in Brooklyn, and trendy newcomers Atera and Torrisi Italian Specialties.
And when the packages Strusinski sends get opened in those busy restaurant kitchens, people tend to pause. They gather around to ogle the carefully trimmed cattail shoots, sweet flag, wild ginger, sea beans, and any of about 150 or so other plants, fungi, and even lichens in which Strusinski deals. They inhale deeply as the aroma of black locust flowers comes rolling across the prep tables. “It’s like opening a treasure chest,” says one chef. Another sends Strusinski a text message acknowledging receipt: “Everybody in the kitchen has a culinary boner.” Or, as one of Strusinski’s New York visitors explains it to the FedEx lady, somewhat more discreetly, “He’s a total superstar in New York. All the crazy-famous chefs really adore him.”
TECHNICALLY SPEAKING the wild-foods movement has been around since we first slithered up out of the primordial ooze. Euell Gibbons (“Ever eat a pine tree?”) made it a fad with his 1962 book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and crunchy back-to-the-earth sorts have kept the movement simmering ever since, particularly in Pacific Northwest cuisine. Foraging also has deep roots in Italy, France, Russia, Korea, and Japan, where gathering mushrooms and other wild foods is almost a sacred ritual.