Story and Illustration by Jenny Lee Fowler
This past year, the chanterelles were unstoppable. Every day, I walked into the woods behind our house and plucked another basketful, and every day I marveled at the taste of our forest. I haven’t inherited many objects from my family, but in this gleaning, I feel close to the ones who came before me.
I was talking once with an older friend about my grandpa’s foraging habits. Grandpa fished avidly and smoked salmon in a little shack he built behind his house, gathered huckleberries that he stewed into sauce for ice cream, dug clams, hunted deer and elk and gathered mushrooms to sauté. For years after his death, family members hoarded the last jars he had given them, breaking them out ceremoniously for reunions and holidays. My friend remarked how the kind of knowledge he had must have been born from deep need. I’d never thought of it from that angle before, but it fits with what I understood about the family.
In an episode of Chef’s Table, the Korean nun Jeong Kwan shares a saying her father used to repeat: “A woman should be able to make seven dishes with straw. Only then does she deserve a good husband.” She wasn’t interested in husbands and was already dreaming of living alone in a small shack in the mountains surrounded by nature, but the spirit of using your own creativity, and the least of what you have, to provide for others is relatable for many of us. I think of how slowly and lovingly my parents made simple potatoes and flour something we relished, something for us to feast on.
In high school I worked at a natural-foods bakery with a sweeping shelf of reference cookbooks, each with its own stories and flavors. My coworkers were generous in teaching me techniques for everything we served there—from hand-building a sourdough loaf to sautéing vegetables for a soup base. I left with a fresh sense of who I wanted to be as an eater and a maker of food.
I picked up a handful of vegetarian staple cookbooks over the years. Then, when I was pregnant with my son, I started eating meat again after almost a decade. When my son was born, a friend gifted us a bag of groceries, which included a whole raw chicken. I called my boss in a panic to ask how to prepare it!
I started tapping the local libraries for cookbooks. Since then, the pile of cookbooks on the table has been inverse to my ability to get in the kitchen and make food happen. I nursed for hours while reading stacks and stacks of cookbooks. And years later, during three months of chemo that saddled the dead of winter, the stacks reappeared. I called up cookbooks from celebrity chefs and far-flung places while friends brought a bounty of dishes to feed our family through my most difficult days—roasted duck with green beans, chicken and saffron rice, fish chowder.
As Grandpa was dying, I remember my father pining for some revelatory conversation to happen between them. Dad was frustrated that all Grandpa seemed to want to do was watch cooking shows. I love those talks that shift how we see each other and take us deeper into a relationship with someone. But at my lowest low, what I also wanted was to just sit beside my daughter on the couch and cheer for the Great British Baking Show contestants, to imagine the fantastic smells and flavors and learn something from someone—especially someone who’s been down that road of how to make something from nothing. █