Are We What We Eat?

Introduction: Are we what we eat?
(excerpt from the book)

Laying on the couch after a long day of school, a cerulean and silver sea of glistening wrappers scattered below me. Snap, Crackle and Pop were my afternoon pals. The big box store down the street had conveniently packaged enough for two days of television fuel – 40 pieces, now with 20 percent more! More what? More puffed rice? More high fructose corn syrup? More boiled cow hooves and horns?

Hoof and horn, hoof and horn. All that dies shall be reborn. (Chant it with me)

I had no idea at the time but the gelatin, made of boiled bones, hooves and horns was definitely the most nutritious ingredient in that absolutely addicting rice crispy square. This is how I spent my teen years. Since the age of eight, I’d been a latch key kid. My older sister could barely fry an egg and she was too busy anyway being boy crazy or working towards that sports car of her dreams to slow down and cook a meal for us. My parents worked. Long, and hard they worked to push themselves from the position of poor immigrants to two-car garage house owning American suburbanites.

In 1988 my family finally got the OK to pack their lives up into several suit cases and embark on a journey whose trek had been worn well by countless Eastern European Jews before them. The Soviet Union had been receiving pressure from Israel, the US, protest movements and NGO’s to allow Jews to emigrate out. According to my family, it wasn’t pleasant. The colleges and institutes where many Jewish families hoped their children would graduate from would not accept them simply because of their last name. There was still hostility against Jews for causing WWII. The dreams of an egalitarian society under Communism were cracking to rubble and someone had to be blamed. Enough Western media had been leaked through the underpants-smuggled records and magazines to give Russians a new dream. My family wanted me to wear Levi’s! And so we packed up and left, along with many others, to the land of milk and honey. (Which, subsequently, turned out to be unknowingly hormone-filled and pesticide laden, but we’ll get to that).

Life wasn’t all bad in the USSR. We didn’t know how lucky we were, yeah, at least when it came to quality of food. Though we weren’t too far from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, we weren’t that close, either. What we were close to were traditions of food growing and gathering that were indigenous to place. On the weekends we’d leave the city and head out to the datchya, a cabin in the woods that every Soviet had a natural born right to. Thanks to our regular food-focused outings, at three years old, I was already able to identify several edible and poisonous mushrooms. I scouted the ground for wild strawberries. I knew which fish swam in the lakes and rivers. Being a forester, my grandfather would point to various trees and shrubs, animals and insects and give me their names. The act of giving name to our wild relatives allowed for the forest to become my family. I began to know them personally.

The thought of the smell of a pike stew (Ooha) simmering on a simple fire at the shore of the lake still gets my salivary glands working. The threads holding various dried mushroom slices still hang in my mind. The forest was our farm, our larder, our kitchen. Regardless of how long my ancestors had interacted with their landscape, we were certainly recreating the patterns that were set by humans who first wandered into the recently hospitable meadows and forests of the Dnieper watershed after the glacial melts of the last ice age. They watched what the bears and squirrels ate and followed suit. They collected tender greens, trapped furred brothers, followed herds, and waited til the late summer rains awakened invisible fungi communities underfoot to collect prized boletes and chanterelles. They warred with their neighbors over the best hunting and foraging grounds. They healed their wounds with the medicines that grew all around them. And through all that, they developed ceremonies and rituals to pay tribute to the abundance. My Eastern European features are tempered by Mongolian ones, which bring serious doubt to the family story that not a single ancestor married a non-Jew, and so I explore the culture of the Eastern and Central Asian peoples.


Our faces are molded by places. Does hearing this tale make you yearn to connect with the ancients of your past? Good. This is an incredibly important step to cooking with medicinal plants, fungi and lichen. With the internet’s ability to track down your ancestry, embark to do so. Look at traditional and pre-colonial recipes from these region(s). Find yourself a piece of clothing that resembles something your ancestors would have worn or make something yourself. Learn an ancient tale from the area(s). The only reason the wisdom contained herein exists is because people like you and me were willing to sit and listen and then retell the stories of our indigenous experiences.


Traveling across oceans and cultures, my family arrived with little more than a few established relatives in Chicago and a few hundred dollars in our pockets and the smell of McDonalds french fries in the airport. We breathed in deeply. Liberty! Freedom! The American Way! My mother’s parents had lived in the Windy City since the 70’s with her sister who soon following her parents. My father’s parents joined us in the culture shift. My grandmother recalls how she and I were the most reluctant to leave our old life behind. As she walked me to pre-school in the early morning, I’d look up at the moon and announce that my sister, Luna, was joining us on our stroll. One day, I looked up at my grandma with a worried expression. Would Luna find me on the other side of the world? She squeezed my hand and said, of course Luna would find me. She was very good at those kinds of things. A feeling of relief came over me. Maybe life wouldn’t be so different after all.

Our first apartment was provided by the Jewish United Fund. We’d forage the alleys of the immigrant neighborhood for furnishings and toys. We’d walk the parks for critters, trees and shrubs we could recognize. That was the last year that I’d live with my grandparents. I’m not sure why they didn’t move in with us, but my parents worked their tails off and bought a duplex in the slightly less immigrant-rich suburbs. My grandparents were given an apartment right on Lake Shore Drive. We’d still fish, but this time it was off the docks of Lake Michigan or Sarasota, Florida on family vacations. We’d take forest walks looking for mushrooms but the lack of established forests that stretched for miles was out of reach and so were the necessary mycelial networks that produced our beloved mushrooms. The plants we ate were not harvested from neighboring yards for fear of what the neighborhood would think of us. Occasionally we’d head up north to the extremely manufactured wilderness experiences of Wisconsin Dells. The real wildness that I had known intimately was curling up inside me for a long hibernation.

Television became my babysitter and best friend as my parents worked long hours to attain their newfound American dreams. Once a week, my dad and I took time to share a meal together. We’d find coupons and go out for fast food. My mother would prepare a week’s worth of meals on Saturday or Sunday. We got together with relatives frequently and shared in lavish feasts. I’d usually overeat and pass out. When I’d get sick, my parents would call off names of herbs that I should take for this or that, or ramble off some folk remedy of boiled onion skins, potato peels or cabbage leaves. Meanwhile, the TV would show me how pharmaceuticals would pretty much relieve any symptom I could imagine while fast-talking down a list of side effects. Upset stomach? Take the pink stuff. Stuffy nose? Take the blue spray. Sleeplessness? Take the purple pill. After high school, my parents convinced me to get a job as pharmacy technician. It paid well and I had been a foolish teen but wise enough to keep my record clean and so I was deemed capable of counting, bottling and distributing a stunning array of capsules filled with the latest technological advances to the masses. An elderly lady would approach me and at first I’d ask their name and begin looking for their perscription; one package, two packages, three, four, six, ten! Anymore more and I’d have to get a cart for them. Their medicare or insurance would cover a portion and they’d be responsible for the rest. Some would tell me that they had to choose between eating and the medicine.

I had no idea how powerful that statement would become in my life.

I quit that job and decided to pursue my passion, to the incredible lament of my family. “A chef? But why?! We came to this country so that you could be successful! Instead you want to work in a hot, sweaty kitchen being someone’s servant?” All those years of latchkey afternoons cultivated a deep curiosity for food. It was empowering to make myself porridge, just like Grandma. The cooking channel was new and the Chefs I’d watch had the spark of life in their eyes and the light of life in their bellies. They closed their eyes passionately when they’d smell the ingredients. There was an authenticity in their mannerisms that I could not compare to anything else I witnessed in suburbia. I yearned to experience and know intimately the exciting spices I had smelled wafting from the Southeast Asian homes before my family had moved out even further into the culture vacuum of the Northwest Suburbs. One evening, I confided in my parents that my wish was to travel to France and work my way up the culinary ladder. All the great Chefs had done it. Why not nineteen year-old me? They stared at me with embers in their eyes, as if I had just told them I was going to go jump off a cliff. We fought about it but finally came to a place of compromise. I would go to culinary school.

Kendall College was Hogwarts to me. The fish and sauce Chef-instructor was as uptight as McGonagall. The dean was as grey-bearded and wise as Dumbledore. My first Chef-Instructor was a sweet, grandfatherly man who took us little cheflets by the hand and guided our wands…er… knives to brunoise, batonette and tournet like Escoffier and Ferdinand Point. While I had been cooking professionally for a little while before going to school, I was able to work with some of the best Chefs around doing various events all throughout school. This immersed cooking experience taught me to utilize herbs and spices boldly, respect the ingredients through appropriate techniques, combine flavors bravely. At the time, Carlos Petrini, a founder of Slow Food, was making the rounds and was invited to my school to present. As I sat in the audience, everything he spoke to, from the rage he felt at the McDonalds that popped up in the middle of Rome’s square to the support needed to preserve quickly disappearing land-based food traditions against the tide of globalism. This moment stirred the wildness inside.

Unlike most culinary schools, I graduated with an Associates Degree in the Science of Culinary Arts and also with the wherewithal to begin and operate a successful restaurant. I left with a newfound respect for ingredients and the way in which culture and food so seamlessly intertwined. After a year or two of saving money with my then partner, we decided to take a journey around the world. The idea of learning traditional cooking methods from grandmas throughout the different lands that we’d visit, building a repertoire of new ingredients and recipes, having my mouth go “YOWZA” from some fruit not available in my typical American grocery store is what allowed me to work 14 hour long days until we’d each saved ten thousand dollars and gotten our tickets to escape.

We sailed down from San Diego with a lovely crew of men who had the nicest boat in the regata. The reason we were able to crew on their boat was because after finding out that I was a Chef, the owner of the boat challenged me to a test. For $40 I had to prepare a meal for six out in the choppy waters of the San Francisco bay. Had I ever cooked in a galley before? No. Had I any idea of whether or not I got seasick? No, but I was going to find out very quickly. I selected some high quality yet simple ingredients from the local grocery store. It being Marin County, even the local grocery store stocked some amazing international items. San Marzano canned tomatoes served as sauce for some lovely lamb sausage, some high-end parmesan, a fresh, crusty baguette and brussel sprouts. “Brussel sprouts!” The captain remarked. “Oh goodness, I hate brussel sprouts!” My heart skipped a beat and went right on ticking. I bet him the job that he’d like mine. I peeled them lightly and kept on cutting their little leaves off, blanched them lightly in ocean-brine like water and tossed them with toasted pecans and a preserved lemon vinaigrette. As we sat down to eat, he took a bite and warned me that he really hated brussel sprouts. Then his mouth turned upwards toward a smile. “You’ve got the job”.

After making our way down the Baja peninsula and crossing the little sea between Baja and the mainland, we bussed down from San Blas all the way to Costa Rica. It was an epic five day ride but to be honest, there’s only a few parts I remember as I had contacted some kind of tropical bug and refused food and water for the first 3 days of it and simply slept. When I awoke with a ravenous hunger, we had stopped at a gas station with a cafe inside. I got into line and picked up a cafeteria tray. Slowly, we shuffled our trays down the line. A piece of chicken, some potatoes, yes, some salad, eh, I think I’ll pass on that, but I’d take the bun. “Oh and could I please get some butter for my bun?” I’d asked in my kitchen Spanish. Ask any cook from Chicago whether they speak Spanish and they’ll look at you funny. It’s a prerequisite to working in kitchens. The frail-looking young girl on the other side of the cafeteria line glared at me. Not just glared, but burned her look deep into my soul and said “No”. Stubbornly, I said “please, just a little butter.”
“No” she said resolutely. I boarded the bus without the butter and sat still for a minute. Then in a sudden wave of compassionate consciousness I could feel the anger with which she served me. I could see the military juntas and banana republics that my country had installed in hers. The death of family, of culture, of land access all flooded my heart and I sat there dumbfounded in remorse for being a part of the culture that had destroyed hers. Never again, I promised myself. Never again would I unconsciously work for that world.

A chance meeting in a tiny town put me in the middle of a group of four girlfriends who ran a little hostel in Solinas, Columbia. After they found out that I was a Chef, they grabbed my hand, asked my partner to excuse us all, and pulled me along to the mercado so that we may all cook together. Walking down the aisles, they pointed at all the exotic fruits and vegetables, explaining how they did this of that function in the body. After surveying the offerings, I grabbed some beets, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and crema for borscht. They grabbed panela, dics of compressed cane juice and took me back where we began to cook together. A kitchen full of powerful women enchanted me. They brewed the panela with chocolate and explained to me the power of the elixir. They showed me how adding simple herbs or vegetables like celery could create daily tonics. I showed them how to make a proper Ukranian borscht. The medicines were beginning to show themselves.

While traveling in Costa Rica, at another hostel, I had struck up a conversation with a couple of rag-tag hippies. Being in the punk rock subculture as a youth, I had avoided “those people” like the plague. Yet here I was, tens of thousands of miles from the corner of Belmont and Clark, feeling a little guilt about it, yet having an incredibly deep conversation about politics, food and the state of the world. My partner, I thought, was playing devil’s advocate for a bit until l realized that he wasn’t playing. There was no way to ignore the alignment that I felt with this dready lady and her puffy panted man and the misalignment I noticed between my partner and I. This awareness grew more and more as time went on until finally we reached the shore and it was time to decide wether to continue out for another few months at sea or head back to get my career back on track. I booked a flight back to Chicago. He sailed on.

After a month, the promise I had made to myself after the butter incident was coming close to breaking. I had landed a job at the only “local, organic” restaurant in the suburbs of Chicago and yet I felt like I was compromising everything I had learned. In a moment of desperation I wrote to the farmers I had met; both Canadian, the hippie couple in BC and the other hippie couple in Quebec. To my surprise, the BC couple, who had shown me the disparity between my partner and I, invited me to their cooperative farm for a WWOOF stint. I got on the next flight to Seattle and from there, bussed it the sixteen hours to their little town. After that five day bus ride, sixteen hours seemed like a trip to the mall. The bus pulled in at two AM and I was greeted by a handsome billowing white-shirted farmer in a tiny Japanese snub-nosed, right-side driving truck. He set me up with massage table for a bed in the basement and let me know that tomorrow they’d find a place for me. I awoke to a rooster crowing above my head, in the window outside the basement. Navigating my way to the kitchen, the handsome farmer handed me a raw oat green smoothie. I chewed it thoughtfully and held back my yuck face. He walked me around the farm. My eyes hadn’t seen so many shades of green since I’d left the jungles of Panama. I was home.

In the time at Golden Ears, I began building my skill set as a food security and sovereignty organizer in the midst of Native communities who were fighting to maintain their connection to culture and land. I continued working in the culinary field and also farmed daily, beginning my first foray into growing and processing medicinal herbs. I began seeing in systems. Moving on to Left Fields the breadth of mentors widened as I worked side by side with some of the wisest people I’ve yet to meet. The seamlessness with which they blended food, life and livelihood was incredibly inspiring.

Upon returning to the States, I decided to see why Portland was so successful at food security as compared to the rest of North America. To my surprise, the food network that had established itself in Portland had worked its way out of a job (and into many new jobs as maintainers). There was little for me to organize food-wise and so I began focusing on the bioregional story to develop a cultural cohesion that I felt was needed to build a larger movement in response to the devastating effects of greed-fueled globalism and crony capitalism. Cascadia, one of many names used to describe the network of west coastal salmon-filled watersheds, was the term I adopted to begin to tell this story. Cascadia not only has a very significant population of Native communities who still live in their traditional territories and practice the cultural traditions of their ancestors while fighting against the genocide of their peoples that colonization has brought. It also has has a long history of organizing through Bioregional Gatherings and Congresses. It already has a symbol, the Doug Flag, and it has many passionate groups who really identify with and fight for the story of a land where ecologically-oriented, culturally rich and cooperative communities  are held close to the heart and actively being worked towards. It was time to offer this story as an alternative.

After several years of organizing, I found myself yearning to escape the bustle of the city and return to land tending. My friend chanced upon me and invited me to help him out on his urban farm acres. His wide grasp of healing plants and ways of integrating them into cooking (though not always deliciously) fully captivated me and I agreed to be his farm partner for the following season. The hunger with which I approached this new way of relating to food and medicine, the potential to heal ourselves and our world in a wild way fully awoke the slumbering giant inside me.

The vision, skills and potential that was unleashed by my Native and Cascadian brothers and sisters I will forever be grateful for. It is these qualities that I bring to every project that I endeavor and hope some of their lessons come across within these pages so that you may carry them forward.


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