Wild and Outside: Hitting the Dirt with Chef/Forager Chris Vergara
Imagine that you’re walking on a crowded street and you see a dollar bill lying on the sidewalk. You look both ways and go to pick it up. But, as you bend, your eyes catch a five lying further on. More steps, more dollars, and now you’re thinking it’s completely insane that no one else sees this money. You count what’s in your hand—you’ve got $15—but there’s more lying on the street. Where were you going? Doesn’t matter. Now you’re hunting dollars.
This is what it feels like to forage for morels.
Here, in the cool green shade, oblivious suburbanites jog and walk their dogs—for them, these woods are just a park. Vergara, kitted with a pocket knife and a cross-body canvas bag, drops off the path, peering up at the canopy and then down at the earth. He’s scanning for the elms and tulip poplars whose shade most predictably shelters morels.
The spring of 2017 happens to have the perfect storm of climatic conditions for morels; it’s reputed (among foragers) to be the biggest crop in five years. Vergara has already pulled 15 pounds of morels from these woods and there’s still time for more.
Morel season is cruelly short. The Hobbity-looking mushrooms appear in spring when the air temperature reaches the 60s and the soil temperature touches the 50s. In late May, when the air temperature rises above 70°, the morels scorch, shrivel and then disappear. If all of the factors are in place—and that’s a big if—you’re only looking at three weeks of morels.
And they’re expensive. A few clicks reveals that, were they not sold out, you could order fresh morels delivered to your door from Earthy Delight for $59 a pound, plus shipping. At a local farmers’ market, morels will set you back $10 for an insultingly inadequate quarter pound. Wholesale to restaurants isn’t much cheaper, with prices starting at $30 per pound for black, and $40 per pound for yellow. Morels don’t age well, either: The thin walls of their honeycombed caps are prone to breakage.
In the parking lot, before we set out, Vergara hands me a brown shopping bag half full of morels that he’s already picked. “Look at these,” he says. “It sounds crazy, but just stare at these for, like, a minute—let your eyes get used to them. It’ll make them easier to see.” Unlike ramps—the Kardashians of spring foraged foods (which practically Tweet their presence)—morels do not want to be found. They’re short, and their yellows, browns and greys mimic the leaf debris where they grow. Morels like to hide under the arc of fern fronds and in the crevices where rotting logs meet the soil.
We reach a spot that looks just like every other (likely tick-infested) glade that we’ve already walked through. Vergara scans the ground and, satisfied, looks back at me, eyes wide in expectation. I’m clearly supposed to do something. I squint. I crouch. I lean down, cheek close to the ground. This has become annoying.
And then it’s there. Big as life. Yellowy brown and robust—but so camouflaged that I nearly step on it. I pull my knife and get down on my knees. Needless to say, this interview has ended; I am hunting dollars. I’m getting to some, but there are more that I can only spot when Vergara reaches for them. He is way better at the pattern recognition; he’s dialed in.
Vergara’s obsession with foraging did not start locally. “The first time I knew this was something that I needed to get into, I was actually in Jamaica. We’d hired this driver, and one of the touristy things he suggested was to take us on a tour of a ganja farm. We get to the farm and on the street, it’s just a fruit stand. And then you walk behind that, and way back in the hills is the actual ganja farm. We tour the thing, but while we’re walking back to the car this Rasta is pointing out all this wild basil, and turmeric, and these vegetables and herbs that I’d never seen before. And there were spices, like pimento wood, that are delicious and exotic. And it’s all fresh—that’s the thing.
“I see this tree and it’s literally covered halfway up with snails. These snails are eating tropical fruit all day, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ll bet those things are delicious.’ They were big, they looked just like escargot snails … And the guy goes, ‘Yeah, there was this French guy here last week and he grabbed all the snails and took them back to his hotel room. I think he ate them.’”
“At this point, the least interesting thing to me on this trip was the ganja.”
We see field garlic and verdant fields of ramps, but Vergara stops at a plant that grows rampant in my neglected backyard. It’s about a foot tall, with floppy, serrated-edge leaves and clusters of tiny white flowers like baby’s breath. In my life, it’s a weed.
“This is garlic mustard. It’s everywhere. It’s a little late in the season, but go ahead and eat the flowers.” Actually, this is clearly food. “There’s a bit of sweetness from the nectar, but on the back end it tastes like broccoli rabe that’s already been sautéed with garlic. At the restaurants, we chiffonade this and finish pastas with it. And, obviously, there are pestos.” He sighs. “I can’t understand why everyone isn’t eating this.”
Beyond yielding specific flavors (or even dishes), foraging for native plants in season raises broader ideas about culture.
It’s harder, for instance, to define the regional cuisine of the Hudson Valley than it is to define the regional cuisine of Tuscany, and the regions are comparable in size. This is because, here, we are an ever-changing population of immigrant cultures who impose our foodways onto the land, rather than the reverse: adapting to it. Had we all been sitting on this land for, oh, say, a couple of millennia like the Tuscans, we might have thousands of recipes for garlic mustard; it could be our rosemary.
Says Vergara, “If you’re eating wild native plants, it goes, to a large degree, toward defining the cuisine of a region. Seasonality. Locality. That’s a big deal.”
“I was in Italy, and they made me this dish from greens that they harvest from the sides of the rocks. I mean, these people were really excited about this hyper-seasonal green, and they made this dish every year. All of the adults at the table remembered eating it as kids. And I think that, when you get into a cuisine of a region and cooking and families, this is all really important: You’re creating memories. This goes a long way toward teaching people about food, because their experience of food is richer. It goes beyond the dish into land, season and cultural memory.”
For a time, Vergara supported himself on his wins in illegal poker games (and he still plays for fun); he’s also a fisherman. Those pursuits share a similar characteristic with foraging: The result is either zilch or a bonanza. Random rewards make action exciting, even addicting: Think of a slot machine. There’s also the idea that walking in the woods is a meditation.
“A lot of this shit is just me taking a break, too, you know?” He laughs. “Like, I can tell the powers that be in my restaurants that I’m going out for morels—but I’m really just going to clear my head in the woods. You can imagine that running three restaurants can be stressful—and, if I didn’t do this once or twice a week, I might lose my mind.” This doesn’t land like a joke.
Periodically, deep in the shady woods, Vergara fields calls from his restaurants. A one point, he engages in a lively analysis of a high-stakes real estate opportunity involving a restaurant and a multi-million-dollar development. He stands, holding the phone to his ear with his left hand while squinting hard against the smoke from a cigarette between his lips—and elegantly dips down to scythe a fat morel with his right hand. He’s still at work.