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Foraging for Mushrooms and Other Goodies
Foodies think they've discovered something new, but they're just biting off Italian style
Recently, Time featured an article about how foodies are taking to the woods to forage for ingredients, from truffles to wild leeks. Joel Stein, the writer of this article, seems to think this was an ancient custom making a comeback in the modern age. He just hasn't met my family or half the Italians I know.
I'm not talking about the posers on TV who call themselves Italian. (You know who you are, Jersey Shore cast.) I'm talking about the real deal. My Italians have been foragers since birth. In fact, in some parts of southern Italy, such as Ischia, the small island off the coast of Naples that is the home of my ancestors, foraging was the only way to eat - or at least eat well.
To this day, my father feels as though he found gold when he comes across wild mushrooms. He knows how to tell if they are poisonous. They are not the porcini of his youth, which he found in the mountains of Ischia after a couple of torrential downpours followed by some sunshine in the early fall. But he cooks these wild American mushrooms in fresh tomatoes and garlic and enjoys them all the same.
Indeed, the people of Ischia continue to forage for mushrooms every fall. It's a sacred tradition. Those who are in the know about which mushrooms are safe to eat can even make a small living on it. They sell their finds on the streets of Ischia Porto, the island's capital. They hold milk crates filled with porcini on their shoulders and shout, "Funghi, funghi. Compri funghi."
Even those who collect mushrooms for their family and friends – not for business – won't tell people where they go for the mushrooms because they don't want others to steal their thunder by finding them themselves. They freeze the porcini and ration them throughout the year. If the rain never comes, the mushrooms don't come either – and it's a great disappointment.
I've eaten these foraged mushrooms on pizza, in white wine sauce, or even raw. Each one is a delicious morsel. But my peasant people don't limit themselves to mushrooms. My father seeks out wild dandelion (yes, dandelion) to make salad. He could probably tell you which berries are safe to eat and what flowers are edible, too.
Italian peasants were also hunters. My people hunted rabbits and even little birds (not quite pigeons) back in the day. Now, they buy the rabbits - instead of killing them themselves - and we eat them just about every Sunday. In fact, if you want to give someone a really nice gift among my people, you can give them a rabbit for Sunday dinner. Rabbit, in fact, is the signature dish of Ischia.
I remember heading to the fridge and finding little birdies with their feet up waiting to be cleaned and smothered in tomato sauce. Americans have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese as comfort food that harkens to childhood. Southern Italians from my father's era have little birdies and weeds. (This is not to be confused with weed; it's the plural form of the word and refers to those dandelions.) Since my sister became a bird expert (she's a zookeeper), my father has stopped eating these little fellows. Still, however, there was a time when he trapped them, cooked them, and ate them with great pleasure.
While those other so-called Italians are fist pumping down the shore, my people go there to collect crabs, perfect for linguine with red crab sauce. They plop steel cages with bait into the ocean and pick up a slew of crabs, which we carry home in buckets. We always have to chase one or two crabs who escape and slide across the kitchen tile.
Now, these gourmets think that these foragers are innovating cuisine. And American people think that Italians eat chicken parm in between fist pumping. In reality, the Italians I know were always foragers, and they eat everything that's edible. But they make it taste good first. If it's free, all the better. They know just where to find what they're taste buds desire. This hunting and foraging is not trendy for them. It's a way of life, and it once was a way to live.
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