“Now, Forager”: Food for Thought
Earlier this month, I jumped on a chance to attend the Austin Film Society’s “Now, Forager” Dinner with filmmakers Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin. AFS put on a great evening in the back yard of Butterfly Bar, complete with a gorgeous meal inspired by the film, sourced from Farmhouse Delivery and prepared by Sonya Coté, executive chef of East Side Show Room and Hillside Farmacy. It was big fun that combined some of the best of Austin, and I hope AFS holds more of these events.
"Now, Forager” follows a couple through a year of foraging wild mushrooms to sell to New York restaurants. At the AFS event, clips chosen by the filmmakers showed us haunting and atmospheric scenes of foraging deep in the woods, beautiful close-ups of the mushrooms themselves and the quiet pleasure Julien derives from preparing such fresh, gorgeous food in his own kitchen.
What was most interesting to me, though, was getting a close look at the lives of these two foragers. Their work is seasonal, unpredictable and highly dependent on the weather, so we see them struggle both with their finances and occasionally each other as they cobble together a subsistence living from foraging, hunting and working part-time kitchen jobs to make it through the year.
Part of their story takes place in the bustling chrome and tile kitchen of an exclusive Manhattan restaurant. It’s the kind of place where you know foraged food will be treated with downright reverence. But there’s also a brilliant scene where Regina moves to Rhode Island for a chance to cook at a Basque restaurant, only to discover that this particular kitchen missed out on the “fresh and local” aspect of Basque food culture.
“Out here we have the freezer. Here’s the hamburger, sausage, chicken parts and fish blanks.”
“You know, for the Bacalao.”
“You don’t use salt cod?”
“Oh, let’s see. There’s the salt and…um….” The cook squints and runs his thumb down the long list of ingredients on the back of the package. “Yeah, there’s some cod.”
I took all this in while eating a glorious meal at a table full of people all directly involved in growing Austin’s food. It was a pretty striking reminder of how lucky we are to live in a town with such a strong local food movement, a generous film culture to showcase it and so many great restaurants to make the most of what we harvest. And it reminded me that getting a great local meal really boils down to who’s making the choices, not only in the field but in the kitchen. It’s the difference between fresh-caught striped bass or fish blanks.
So what does that mean for someone who wants to be part of creating a local food culture? I make a point of choosing restaurants that offer local produce and pastured eggs and meat – and a great many Austin restaurants do. If the menu doesn’t tell me where my food is coming from, I generally ask the server. And that’s great. But “Now, Forager” jarred me into seeing that I need to be just as focused on choosing restaurants where the staff earns a decent living by bringing that local food to my plate. I feel more than a little dumb for needing to hear that, because I work side by side in the field with people who also work at grocery stores and restaurants in order to put together a – yes, you guessed it – sustainable living.
Mark Bittman wrote a piece in the New York Times the other day that made this very point:
“Help wanted: Salary: $19,000 (some may be withheld or stolen). No health insurance, paid sick days or paid vacation. Opportunity for advancement: nearly nil.
This job, or something much like it, is held by nearly 20 million people, 10 million of whom work in restaurants. They are the workers employed in producing, processing and delivering our food, who have been portrayed in vivid and often dispiriting detail in a new report called The Hands That Feed Us.”
He included a link to a National Diner’s Guide that rates restaurants based on how they treat their employees.
Filmmaker Julia Halperin said that they became really aware during this project that film crews and kitchen crews are the same kind of people, willing to work “crazy 16-hour days all the time” in order to make something they love, even though there are easier jobs with better hours. Both Julia and Jason wanted to show the passion and commitment that both these groups show for their work. In "Now, Forager", they succeeded. It’s a point I won’t forget the next time I go out for a meal.
Austin Connections in “Now, Forager”
Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund divide their time between Austin and New York and have both worked as caterers, servers and cooks. They had some pretty striking chef consultants help with the film, at least two of whom are from Austin. Chef Tien Ho worked his way up through Longhorn Poboys, Mother’s Cafe, The Belgian Restaurant and the Driskill before moving to New York to work in Daniel Boulud’s kitchen at Café Boulud, then with David Chang at Momufuku Ssäm Bar before becoming head chef at Momofuku Má Pêche in Midtown Manhattan. Chef Joaquin Baca also worked at Mother’s before helping to start the original Momufuku and opening his own ranch-style restaurant, Brooklyn Star.
Foraging in Central Texas
As Jason Cortlund pointed out, we’re surprisingly lucky on the foraging front here in Central Texas. We get two morel seasons: spring and sometimes fall if we get enough rain. There are also dewberries, mulberries, loquats, Mexican plums, pecans, wild lettuce, dandelion, wood sorrel and purslane, just to name a few.
If you’re interested in learning more about foraging, keep your eyes on the EcoCalendar for foraging classes and workshops in the spring and fall, and canning classes in the summer and winter to help you preserve your harvest. Our local farmers and foragers also are happy to teach you what they know. Just don’t ask for directions to their favorite dewberry- or morel-picking spots: they could tell you, but then they’d have to kill you.
Here are just a few links to Austin’s foraging experts: