Gina Rae La Cerva is a geographer, environmental anthropologist, and award-winning writer who has traveled extensively to research a variety of environmental and food-related topics. A National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, La Cerva holds a Master of Environmental Science from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a Master of Philosophy from the University of Cambridge. She splits her time between New York and New Mexico.
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What drove you to search for “the last untamed food”?
It really began as simple curiosity. I love to eat, and a few years ago I began noticing that the price of wild-caught fish was much higher than farmed fish. At the same time, there seemed to be this trend in fancy restaurants where menus increasingly served foraged foods and gamey flesh. As I began to dig a bit deeper, it seemed that all sorts of “wild foods”—from mushrooms to seafood to meat—were becoming incredibly expensive, even those that used to be eaten precisely because they were abundant and inexpensive.
It seemed like such an odd shift and I wanted to know more: how had foods that had been associated with subsistence and poverty for most of human history suddenly become luxuries? And why was this happening at the exact same moment that our environment is increasingly threatened by human impact? Some scientists believe there is no such thing as “wild” nature left—our land management practices have basically domesticated the entire planet. I wanted to find out why we were suddenly valuing untamed foods so highly, right at the brink of them winking out. More importantly, what did this say about our psychology, appetites, and love for a threatened wild planet? I thought it would be an easy quest—it became a rowdy adventure!
How has the commodification of “wild” foods made them less accessible?
The commodification of wild foods has meant that they have gone from being something that were often free to gather and hunt, to becoming highly sought after. This high demand has created an incredible amount of violence, black-market trade, and counterfeit products. Ironically, the desire for such foods has, in many cases, made them too expensive to eat for the people who are actually procuring them. This is particularly true in the Congo, where people who used to subsist on wild meat now sell it for cash or trade it for industrial items brought from the cities. Game meat it too valuable to be eaten so they now rely on domesticated meat or sometimes go without protein.
In the case of bird’s nests, it was always a very expensive wild food, but the domestication of the birds—and subsequent commodification of the nests—has actually lowered the price and made it more accessible. But because you now have a farmed version, the wild cave-based variety is even more expensive in contrast. Kind of like with seafood. As we have more and more farmed fish on the market, and as our oceans are increasingly overfished and polluted with plastic, wild fish are becoming a rare commodity. The desire for this rarity—and the associated purity and superior taste—has meant the demand and price have gone up. So overall, commodification of the “wild” means it is primarily available to global consumers, while becoming too expensive for the local population. It’s almost like a kind of gentrification.
You write that we “yearn for the taste of the wild,” and that the standardization of agriculture is making us sick. How so?
I am a huge fan of human psychology, so a lot of this book was actually motivated by trying to understand our relationship to wild nature. Most of us live in a terribly disconnected place from nature, from the seasons, from the other creatures with whom we share the planet. And yet, we are wild nature! Studies have shown that exposure to nature can lower cancer rates, reduce stress, increase happiness, and lower ADHD and anxiety. It’s called biophilia—we feel our best when we are engaging with this primal source. Even though we think of ourselves as so modern and evolved, in the deepest, oldest parts of our brain, we remain gatherer-hunters. Our brain’s reward system is based on having to go look for food every day. We feel best when we find a signal in the noise of stimulus. When we inhabit flow states like those that occur during hunting and gathering.
In terms of food, our stomachs contain a ridiculous number of neurons—it’s like a second brain!—so if we think about what we are feeding ourselves, it makes sense that we might feel healthiest when we are eating an ever-changing variety of wild plants and animals. On purely a taste level, we crave flavors that are sweet or fatty because these were limiting factors in our diets for the majority of human history. We like complex flavors because they signify micronutrients that are necessary to our cells, and while we might naturally be averse to bitterness, we learn to enjoy it because many of our most-beloved medicines and stimulants are bitter, which signifies potency.
But mostly we like variety—and that is sorely missing in the modern diet. Go to any grocery store, and the astounding options of processed foods are overwhelming, yet they pale in comparison to the biodiversity of flavors we once ate. Nearly thirty-thousand plant species have been used at some point for food or medicine, but today we now rely primarily on just thirty! That’s a huge reduction. Sixty percent of our diet is made up of just three annual crops: rice, wheat, and corn—two of which are only edible when cooked. Eighty percent of our agricultural crops are annuals that must be ripped up and replanted each year. Almost all of them are heavily inbred and generally less flavorful or nutritious than their wild counterparts, which tend to contain higher concentrations of essential nutrients such as vitamins A and C, thiamine, riboflavin, iron, and trace minerals. Eating a diversity of wild foods is associated with higher rates of gut flora diversity, which correlates to better measures of health and happiness. The increasing homogenization and standardization of agriculture is making us sick. Our psyches, palates, and physiques were not made for such uniform food.
How does our perception of food and where it comes from impact our relationship with nature?
When we sit down for a meal, it’s very easy to forget that this food comes from the earth. It requires soil, microorganisms, pollinators, sunlight, and water. It requires the processes of entire ecosystems—whether that is the carbon cycle, the nutrient cycle, or the water cycle. But modern agriculture is basically taking oil and turning it into food. It’s estimated that we have less than 60 harvests left before we have completely depleted the world’s topsoil. These industrial practices not only exhaust the planet—and lead to climate change and mass extinctions—but also produce food that is less nutritionally dense, full of toxins, and engineered in ways that adversely affect our health. When we see perfectly round, ripe tomatoes in December, it’s very hard to imagine the ecosystem where they came from. And that’s because it’s a domesticated, industrial, monoculture. Wild food, on the other hand, is irregular. It’s odd looking because it comes from places that are not standardized and uniform. It is embedded within a web of relations between plants and animals, rocks and air. It’s very hard to eat something wild and not think of it as an independent living organism that was once connected to a much larger ecological community.
The idea that humans are a vital part of keeping nature wild is a very old one that must be remembered. We are capable of creating the conditions for abundance, for the mutual thriving of the infinitely diverse creatures that share our home, the Earth. Of loving the wild back into existence. And I think a lot of that begins with our diets. Saving wild foods might actually be the key to environmental conservation.
You talk about how women—particularly Indigenous women—whose roles as primary food producers, and as those who hold coveted knowledge about the medicinal and healing properties of various foods, have been silenced or written out of our food history. How do you think this silencing has affected our perception of food production and “traditional” women’s roles?
I think we are at this really inspiring—and frankly quite fun!—cultural moment when we are finally recognizing the contributions of half of humanity. In most places around the world, and for most of human history, women have been the primary food producers. And yet we have taken that labor for granted. We’ve made it so mundane that it is rendered invisible and thus ordinary.
There’s been this resurgent interest in herbalism because people have found that Western medicine—for all its incredible and lifesaving contributions—isn’t great at treating lots of ailments, particularly chronic illnesses. And yet we have these wild plants that can help us sleep, treat anxiety, or manage pain. Because women were silenced throughout history, we lost a lot of this knowledge. It’s exciting that we are beginning to rediscover this.
But we have to go about this carefully. Just like we are reevaluating gender roles—even the idea of gender as something that is socially constructed—I think “traditional” is a really slippery slope. Tradition is always, always changing, especially in food culture where techniques, ingredients and ideas are borrowed or adapted. There is nothing static about it. And yet cultural appropriation with regards to food is both real and destructive—and it is how numerous culinary inventions were made. So I’m interested in how we can remember this lost, silent knowledge carried by Indigenous women, but also how we can honor their experiences and traditions in a way that is not appropriative or exploitive. These are not my stories to tell. They belong to the women who hold this knowledge. I merely wanted to point out the gaps in our western food history. To call attention to the silences so that they can be made loud enough that we begin paying attention to the people who have quietly held on to this information through centuries of oppression and devaluation.
There are also preliminary studies that find when we give women decision making power over the harvest of wild ingredients, they choose to invest more time and resources into sustainable management than men. So I think there is an inherent connection with nature that we’ve lost as we’ve devalued women’s roles in producing food. Cooking dinner every night is one of the most exquisite art forms. It’s an improvisation with the ingredients themselves. As we remember and celebrate this silenced knowledge, we are not only discovering the deliciousness of lost foods, but we are also recreating a relationship with our own wildness.
Your section on the black-market meat trade in Europe was really eye-opening to read. What surprised you most when you learned about how extensive it is?
It is estimated that nearly 270 tons of wild meat are smuggled through airports each year! So beyond just the shocking quantity, I think what surprised me the most was the disconnect between the people transporting the wild meat to Europe in their suitcases and those tasked with cracking down on the trade. They had completely opposite beliefs about wild meat. For many African expats living in Europe, wild meat is a taste of home and is associated with health, celebration and family. For white Europeans in law enforcement, they are concerned with wildlife trafficking, endangered species, and disease agents such as Ebola. For one group, wild meat is a glorious dinner. For another, it is a terrorism from the forest and an illegal food. The fact that the same dead animal or piece of meat can symbolize such drastically different things says a lot about how cultures interact—especially in the context of racism, persistent colonial perceptions, and globalization. That a forest-village food source could become a symbol of both nostalgia and fear on a rapidly urbanizing planet is an incredible representation of the inherent contradictions at the center of our appetites. We crave the flavors of the wild, but we feel comfortable with the familiarity of the domesticated.
I also found it so surprising how the current black-market trade is related to the history of hunting in Europe, going all the way back to medieval kings. The ideas they established in the 12th and 13th century about poaching, the privilege of hunting, private property and forest landscapes, still form the basis of a lot of our environmental conservation laws today. So we can’t separate out what is happening now from the long history of hunting in Western culture.
It feels like you circumnavigated the globe writing this book. What was one of the highlights for you while researching for Feasting Wild?
It’s a bit cliché to say it, but traveling always makes you think about home. I think one of the highlights of this book for me was that it unexpectedly pushed me towards reflecting on the place where I came from. New Mexico is a magical, mystical land and yet most young adults can’t wait to leave—and I was the same. But during my research for Feasting Wild, I would be off in the far jungles of Borneo or Congo, landscapes of lush forests, and I would find myself thinking about the wild high desert mountains where I grew up. I had never realized how much my childhood of roaming around the dry arroyos, gathering prickly pear fruits and sucking on sweet Indian paintbrush flowers, led me to this path of wanting to travel around the world finding wild things to eat. So in many ways, circumnavigating the globe really just brought me back to an appreciation of my home.
Additionally, one of the most surprising and beautiful highlights was falling in love with a man that I just call “the Hunter”—a conservationist who I met in the Congo rainforest. I really didn’t expect to find romance or feel so strongly about one of my research informants. I won’t give away the ending, but I think having this unexpected encounter with a kindred spirit gave me a much deeper appreciation for how wild food is really about wild love and a connection to this untamed planet that is our home—free and full of grace. It was a deep recognition of something already inside me.
Read more about Feasting Wild here!