An American woman sets out on a journey of food and self-discovery. She travels the world – Europe, Africa, Asia- finding love, loss and dietary fulfilment. This isn’t Eat, Pray, Love but Feasting Wild, Gina Rae La Cerva’s striking investigation into wild food and the practices of hunting and gathering, and by extension, humanity’s whole relationship with nature. It’s an urgent topic, and it turns out that old saying is true, the best way to our hearts might be through our stomachs.
Feasting Wild is a much stranger book than it first seems. La Cerva starts her investigation in Denmark, at Noma, the world’s top-ranked restaurant for several years in the 2010s, where chef René Redzepi has developed a project based on hunted and foraged Nordic ingredients. Over a seemingly never-ending lunch of quail eggs, reindeer moss, ants, mushroom ice cream, sloe berries, La Cerva grows uncomfortably full, and begins to wonder at the the sort of world that turns wild food into a A$500-a-head luxury degustation. In other parts of history, and still in other parts of the world, people have turned to such foods for survival. Noma represents, she writes, “the fetishisation of need”; “even if you have never experience famine, Noma is happy to invent this memory for you”.
It is an uncompromising argument, but as Feasting Wild delves deeper into humanity’s relationship to food, it becomes extremely compelling. Noma is just the pinnacle of a movement (or, less generously, a trend) that seems to be gripping well-off people throughout of the world. Once upon a time people used perhaps 30,000 types of plants for food. We now depend primarily on just 30. Our hunger for wild food now sits at two poles – those who need, and those who desire. La Cerva argues that it our estrangement from the wild – and our grief at the loss of wild things – that is driving our desire for foraged plants and fungi, and hunted wild meat
After stalking European bison in Poland, lobster in Maine, and turkey in Connecticut, Feasting Wild takes a radical swerve into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as La Cerva follows the bushmeat trade from the rainforest, down the river to the cities, and onto the African diaspora in Europe. It is here she meets a Swedish conservationist known only as the Hunter, with whom she begins a passionate love affair. Her desire for the Hunter becomes increasingly intertwined with her own hunt for wild foods, particularly as she seeks the edible nests of swiftlets in the caves of south east Asia. I can imagine some people’s patience may be stretched by this romantic aspect of the book, but I loved it.
La Cerva is absolutely scrupulous in documenting the contradictions and potential hypocrisies of her travels, and in doing so challenges us to reflect on our own desires. “We are all tourists here,” she writes, “We consume the pleasures of the earth for a brief moment and leave behind only our recollections and refuse.” She has a gonzo approach to journalism, scrupulously documenting who gives her information and how those people are compensated. In one extraordinary passage she traipses the markets of Kinshasa, interviewing the women who are the custodians of the bushmeat trade. “When I eat it,” they tell her, “I think about my ancestors”.
Feasting Wild is littered with extraordinary and appalling facts and ideas about our relationship with nature – and our own history. I learned of the turtle harvest in the Caribbean and its link to the slave trade, the decimation of America’s wild birds as its Indigenous peoples were dispossessed, and that some managed landscapes contain more biodiversity than those without people. Throughout, La Cerva uncovers the perspectives of those who have neglected by official history, namely Indigenous people and women. Women, La Cerva writes, have been the primary food producers throughout our species’ lifetime, and probably gathered most of the calories in hunter-gatherer societies, yet it is men that dominate the written history of food.
I was intrigued by La Cerva’s argument that written knowledge is “dead knowledge stored in dusty libraries with the rest of forgotten texts”, and her advocacy for knowledge based on practice. While she has more questions than answers to resolving the conflict between humans and nature, those questions push the conversation in new and refreshing directions. People and nature are more codependent than we might think. “Every act is an ecological act,” La Cerva writes, “We are capable of creating the conditions for abundance.”
It’s an interesting time to be reading this, when people are looking for the thing that unleashed COVID-19 upon the world, many looking at consumption of wild meat, particularly bats, in China. But as La Cerva describes with Ebola, eating wild meat is rarely the direct pathway for new diseases into humans. Unfortunately for those who seek simple answers, disease spillover is more usually due to more difficult, more insidious problems like habitat destruction and climate change.
A book like Feasting Wild lives or dies by its ability to tingle the senses, and it has been a while since I have read descriptions of food and land as evocative as La Cerva’s. Here she is, entering the primary rainforest in the Borneo highlands:
The canopy trees refract the splendour of light. A living library of unruly forms. A symphony of biodiversity. An enumeration of what is essentially unlimited… The rainforest has layers of density and depth. Each step is like entering a new room.
Her writing is similarly evocative whether on the cities of the Congo, the boreal forests of Sweden, or the many, many scrumptious flavours she samples. While La Cerva laments that she cannot access “an objective reality … outside my perception” of what she writes, her own subjective experience proves extremely compelling.
Gay rating: not gay.