John Kallas approaches the cold muck of Netarts Bay with fervor. His dozen or so students are less eager, but Kallas persists.
“If any of you think you’re gonna’ be neat and tidy about this, just forget it right now,” barks Kallas.
Those joining Kallas had done so willingly, signing up for what was advertised as a wild foods adventure. The goal? To learn how to gather and prepare a meal using only roots, weeds, plants and shellfish that can be harvested from the wild.
But in the frosty breeze of a spring morning on the coast, Kallas’ attempt to motivate the crew rang hollow: “Embrace the cold!”
Participants gingerly wade into the sub-60 degree water to reach the smooth, sandy flats poking up above the water in the middle of the bay at low tide. Soon, tiny holes in the sand reveal themselves, signaling a smorgasbord of shellfish below. Hands began digging with vigor. It was, to Kallas, the moment he’d been waiting for: the transformation of reluctant faces into beaming grins as the cast of weekend warriors drew into the chase, frantically racing the gaper clams, mahogany clams and coquelles making a retreat deeper beneath the wet sand.
“There’s something primal in all of us, you know. We all started out on our own gathering food from the wild. Now we just go to a grocery store and buy everything. It’s just totally available,” Kallas says. “But when you’re actually gathering from the wild it’s a totally different experience.”
Kallas started Wild Food Adventures in 1993. Since then, his calendar has exploded into a year-round schedule of classes, workshops and multi-day events he calls “rendezvous” that have seduced a steady stream of businessmen, families and everyday adventurers into exploring the wild from a culinary perspective.
Clams are the easy sell. Weeds? Not everyone sees the attraction at first. But then comes what Kallas calls the familiar aha moment.
Stu, a middle-aged participant on one of his first adventures, looks out the van window en route to what Kallas promised was a wild food hot spot and pondered the passing fields. “My guess is that 95 percent of the people driving by see green everywhere and that’s about it. It’s actually one of the pleasures of learning about nature is that you see it with a whole different set of eyes. You see details instead of general things,” Stu says.
Kallas pulls off to the side of the road as if to punctuate the point. He rushes into a head-high green thicket.
“This is Japanese knotweed,” Kallas says above the noise of passing traffic. “With this you always want to be looking for the young stuff. And over here we have lady ferns. This is the one with the fiddleheads.”
Kallas makes it clear that what he is teaching is not new, or even novel.
“All wild foods are traditional foods. We’ve just lost touch with them. Modern agriculture has us sort of limiting our diet,” he says. Kallas bemoans the American supermarkets’ reputation for abundance when, in fact, the aisles offer only the illusion of real-food diversity, “I don’t consider wild foods as weird or unusual.” he says. “For me, it’s just a matter of rediscovering the traditional and showing people how that can be reincorporated.”
As trucks pass by the handfuls of people chopping at green thickets along the road, I ask Kallas he ever gets hassled. He smiles, “The biggest looks I get are when I go to someone’s house and I ask if I can pick their weeds.”
By evening, Kallas and his students throw it all on a big table and sort the cow parsnip from the chickweed, the blackberry stems from dandelions, the coquelles from the gaper clams. An entire feast lies in front of them, enough to feed twice as many people as there are in the room. All of it harvested in the span of an afternoon.
The skeptics of the early morning are gone, transformed into believers as bowls fill with starter courses, main courses and salads.
“The great advantage that I have is that people have such low expectations,” Kallas says, “People think there’s nothing out there. It’s so easy to please people because there’s so much to find.”