Until the last decade, “foraged” was a word seldom seen in popular restaurant reviews or on fine-dining menus. Today, the practice of using wild-found ingredients is a full-blown food trend, with star chefs such as René Redzepi of the acclaimed Danish restaurant Noma incorporating ingredients like milkweed and wild berries into multi-course tasting menus that cost upwards of US$150 per person.
In the foraging world, as in restaurant kitchens, men garner the spotlight. But looking back from prehistoric times, women led foraging. Tribes of Native Americans still view foraging wild foods as a sacred act.
However, in the wake of #MeToo, which revealed that celebrity food veterans like Mario Batali and Thomas Carter created cultures of fear in the restaurant space, where has progress in the movement left female foragers?
Today’s female foragers span a variety of worlds and there’s no shortage of them actively working. Among the group are commercial foragers who sell their findings wholesale or directly to restaurants; those who use foraging for educational purposes; and those hunting for natural alternative-medicine remedies. They all face challenges, some specific to women and others universal among foragers.
Female foragers’ work is also now found on bookshelves—albeit with some bumps along the way. Brooklyn-based forager Marie Viljoen of the blog 66 Square Feet is about to publish a cookbook called Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild-Inspired Cuisine. Ava Chin is well-respected within the insular community for her book, Eating Wildly. Johanna Holmgren published a new book on foraging this year, Tales from a Forager’s Kitchen, but it was recently recalled by publisher Rodale Books over concerns about the potential risks of eating uncooked foraged foods.
The Unpredictable Challenges of For-Profit Foraging For All
Irrespective of gender, foraging comes with inherent challenges and it’s hard to make a profit: nature is unpredictable, competition is rife, and many consumers still don’t understand the appeal, or don’t want to pay the price for wild-farmed foods.
Foragers are at the mercy of the restaurants they supply to and the natural conditions that affect that supply. “Right now, there is a drought happening in our area,” says Olga Tzogas of Rochester, New York-based Smugtown Mushrooms. “It’s not really even a big one, but there are still restaurant owners who pester me to supply the same stuff I’ve been supplying.”
Though she doesn’t consider herself a commercial forager—she calls herself an educator on “nature literacy,” specifically with mushroom identification—Tzogas supplies to many restaurants in the upstate New York area. Some days you may go out and find a bounty, other days you may come up empty-handed (or find a bounty but have no one to sell it to). “There’s a lack of understanding that weather changes all of that. And I have lost some clients that way because they can go to distributors who can undercut me,” she says.
Tama Matsuoka Wong co-wrote the James Beard-award-nominated cookbook Scraps, Wilt and Weeds and forages for major New York City clients including Dinex Restaurant Group and popular restaurants including Gramercy Tavern, ABCV, Dirt Candy, and Agern in New York’s Grand Central Station. “I just take the view that over the long run and with reputable clients, these chefs (and their management) are looking for reliable, high-quality, careful foragers,” she says. “If you build a trusted relationship, your clients will stay with you.”
Gender Dynamics in Foraging
Victoria James trained as a commercial forager under Evan The Forager (who supplies to restaurants like New York City’s Momofuku), eventually finding herself on the other side, soliciting foraged ingredients for New York sister restaurants Cote and Piora, where she is the beverage director. Asked whether she ever experienced sexism in the restaurant world, she says, “Abso-fucking-lutely. But in the woods and in foraging, never ever. [Foraging] has been a healthy escape for me, and I have actually found the opposite to be true. Instead it has proven to be empowering.”
While this response was echoed by a number of female foragers—particularly more longtime gatherers who said they felt putting gender into the conversation could unravel the hard work they’d done—there are, in fact, serious challenges for female foragers that others did attest to. These range from sexual harassment to the fear of sexual assault.
Tzogas tells the story of a client interaction that happened early in her career. “I was out on a trip once, and on a fallen log I spotted a mushroom that I thought was a Pluteus, characterized by its pink gills,” she says. “This male client I was with said, ‘pink gills, oh you mean the pink gills between your legs?’”
“There’s a luxury—I don’t think male foragers are ever thinking about the vulnerability, of the real fear of sexual assault for being a woman alone in the woods,” she adds. “I almost never go foraging completely alone.”
In a foraging Facebook group called Survival Guide, which boasts more than 17,000 members, Jim Christenson, who is one of the group’s administrators, posts a photo of a woman tied up in his trunk wearing a Hooters shirt, with her mouth duct taped shut. In comments, members of the group joke about the woman being “a good forest find.” It is unclear if the woman is in on the joke or truly in grave danger, but in any case, the climate suggests a need for acknowledgment and reckoning of this behavior within the foraging community.
Another member of the Facebook group is Linda Black Elk, an ethnobotanist, educator, and forager from the Catawba Nation in South Carolina who currently lives on Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. She witnesses this right-wing sector of the foraging community in her area (which has become especially contentious during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest). In her words, these members of the foraging community “are trying to get ready for the fall of the government and a time of martial law when everyone needs lots of foraging skills and lots of ammunition. It’s fear.”
As the awareness and popularity of foraged food grows, helped along by widely watched programs like Netflix’s Chef’s Table, which bring forage-forward chefs into living rooms, a desire for flavor diversity also must apply to the labor behind the plate. New resources like the Equity at The Table database give the opportunity for the food world to find and connect with those who aren’t typically given a platform. Women In Hospitality United has emerged in response to the outpour of public accounts of sexism in food and are working on developing a task force for each sector of the industry.