High school date nights found my boyfriend and I parked at the edge of Puget Sound, where daytime low tides enticed dozens of clam diggers to the tide flats. We called our sessions by the unintentionally indecent name “clam digging.”
High school was the last time I’d made out clamming until a recent outing with author Langdon Cook. This time, the clam dig was entirely literal, and chaste: we each bagged our limit of littleneck clams on a Key Peninsula beach.
The essays in Cook’s “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager” describe expeditions in search of sometimes more challenging catches than the clams we scratched from that gravelly beach. While plucking 40 littlenecks each from the sand in under 5 minutes might not have had the suspense of wresting steelhead from a river, the simple, delightful meal Cook prepared from our catch (recipe below) could compete with any of the enticing recipes he presents at the end of each of the book’s adventures. As we enjoyed our clams with a cold beer, the tide rolled in under a warm sun and we watched an osprey carry food to its young. I felt blessed to live among such beauty and bounty.
Cook offers his search for fish, shellfish, mushrooms, and berries as a way into understanding this place he’s come to call home. As he told me on our dig, “It’s a love letter to Seattle.” And part of the book’s appeal is that it is so place-specific. Like Timothy Egan’s “The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest,” to which “Fat of the Land” owes a debt of gratitude, Cook’s essays explore what is quintessentially Northwest: its rivers and salmon, mountains and clearcuts. Both books address the region’s human and natural history and its present ecology, and ponder how we change its geography and how its geography changes us.
“Foraging at the dawn of the 21st century is a weird mix of opportunity and regret,” writes Cook. “On the one hand, you can go just about anywhere with a decent road map and a sense of adventure. On the other, these places reveal glimpses into a long-gone past that was surely a forager’s paradise.”
Food gives the book an appeal beyond the Northwest. Like the immigrant foragers Cook describes, readers may find different species here than in their home places, but the pursuit is familiar. Those who’ve never dived for ling cod, but who grow their own kale or buy beef from farmers they’ve befriended, will respond to Cook’s endeavors to nourish himself by his own efforts, feeding his family with good food from places he knows.
His skill as a storyteller in part lies in his ability simultaneously to teach and entertain. As a guide to foraging, “Fat of the Land” is inspirational more than instructional. But Cook does offer facts about overfishing, toxins, flavor, nutrition — even a dash of politics and jurisprudence — woven into his literary allusions and anecdotes about diving with his buddies.
Cook shows up in his tales as a character, a sometimes-bumbling, sometimes-expert outdoorsman who doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is salty, punny, and occasionally moving, a cross between the ferry captain and the fisherman he once finds himself between on a bar stool in Ballard. He’s Cliff Clavin with his facts straight.
Cook is talented at drawing a character sketch, whether of himself or his companions — the friends who encourage and teach him or figure things out alongside him. I laughed out loud reading about his oversized buddy Ivar in an undersized wetsuit fumbling with a crab, man and crustacean both waving their limbs like mad. But he doesn’t always get it right. His implication that a fellow squid jigger might be a gang member because of his Raiders jacket seemed unfounded and did little to illuminate the man’s character. Other distractions arise from poor editing. Several times, something or someone appears in the text without explanation, only to be introduced as though for the first time paragraphs or pages later. The reader is left with the idea that Cook or his editor cut and pasted paragraphs without subsequently smoothing over the holes and patches.
But overall, “Fat of the Land” is an entertaining and informative read that suffers little from these flaws. Though it is neither fiction nor field guide, travelogue nor cookbook, the book offers elements of each. Above all, it is a testament to the power of food to root a person in the context of family, friends, season, and region.
Steamed Clams with Sausage, Tomato & Garlic
courtesy of Langdon Cook
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 lb Italian sausage
1 small onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup vermouth
1 small can diced tomatoes
1 tsp fresh thyme
1 tsp fresh oregano
pinch red pepper flakes
1-2 lbs littleneck clams, scrubbed
good bread for sopping
Heat olive oil in heavy pot over medium-high heat. Crumble sausage into pot and cook until lightly browned. Add onions and garlic and saute until translucent. De-glaze with vermouth. Add tomatoes and spices, stir, and cook a few more minutes. Raise heat, dump clams into pot, and cover. After a few minutes, give clams a stir, and continue cooking with lid on until all clams are open. Stir in a handful of chopped parsley. Ladle clams into bowls with liquid and eat with bread.
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