Stone-Age Nostalgia

The deep history of fashionable foraging.

Nostalgia for Deep History

Nostalgia fixes its gaze on a place or the past, but its homelands and epochs are distant, even irrevocably lost. Without an “it” to recover from, specters of “it” and “there” and “then” all become equally capable of prolonging your pain. As mourning whose potency becomes untethered from any particular object of loss, nostalgia, like Freudian melancholy, is nearly impossible to cure. Somewhere along the way, longing takes over and there’s no way back.

A video on the website of the highly acclaimed Brooklyn restaurant Aska was filmed with nostalgia in mind. The opening shots flicker in blotchy black and white, hazily framed by shadow, like photographs in the 19th century: a doe in a forest, the restaurant’s name, a wobbly pan of trees, a muddy forest floor, ferns. The restaurant’s young Swedish chef, Fredrik Berselius, wanders through what looks like a recently razed field in skinny black jeans, gazing downward. He stoops, and the film switches to color as he snaps off asparagus close to the ground. Next, we see him scampering along a fallen log in bare feet, his hands full of the rigid yellow waves of shelf-mushrooms. A smattering of red berries, and we’re back in New York. In the restaurant, the film jumps from contemporary high-def, to that grainy early film-effect again, to a washed out 1970s Polaroid palate. Plates feature leaves and fronds, circles of roots, sauces the color of pureed chlorophyll. The kitchen staff is young, svelte, bearded. The retro gloss means to make you long for a time and place you may have never known well, one that, anyway, real time can’t deliver.

Recent fascination with “ancient” ways of eating—from the revitalization of heirloom grains for home bakers to the “Paleo” diet to the trendiness of foraged foods at high-end restaurants—all indicate a widespread cultural nostalgia for what some interdisciplinary scholars call “deep history,” the study of the development of early humans at a geologic scale, the time required for rocks to form, mountains to rise, gullies to be riven. Just as proclamations of the closing of the frontier in an earlier era prompted “wilderness” nostalgia resulting in the national parks, so our gazing at the oil wars and rising sea levels of today have provoked collective sighs for deep, and distant, ecological histories. Within the Anthropocene—our current geological era, which some scientists believe commenced with the first smoke stacks of the industrial revolution—humans have become, for the first time in the Earth’s history, geologic agents akin to volcanic eruptions and asteroids.


Local, Seasonal

Among the current expressions of Stone Age nostalgia, fashionable foraging seems perhaps most confused about its ecological longings. Relying on precapitalist hunting and gathering practices to construct exorbitantly priced meals (in the hundreds of dollars per person), the contradictions between the rhetoric surrounding such dining experiences and the economic realities supporting them invites investigation. Restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen and Fäviken in the northern Jütland region of Sweden — both leaders of “New Nordic” cuisine and considered among the best restaurants in the world — have built their reputations on serving foraged foods. The chefs who run these restaurants—René Redzepi at Noma and Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken—describe their approach in terms reminiscent of the local and seasonal imperatives that defined the “delicious revolution” Alice Waters spearheaded in the 1970s.

Unlike Waters’s New California cuisine, however, the New Nordic cuisine sees food as not only an expression of season and locality, but also the cultural traditions that defined or define particular peoples’ connection to a particular place.

When Waters looked to the fields, backyards, forests, and waters surrounding Berkeley, California, to bring ingredients at the height of freshness to her tables at Chez Panisse, she wasn’t interested in preparing what she found based on the food traditions of the local Miwok Indians or the waves of Spanish and American settlers that followed them. Instead she built on forebears like Julia Child, reinvigorating European food traditions in the New World. Recent Chez Panisse menus combine French stand-bys with locally sourced ingredients: “Gigot à la ficelle: James Ranch lamb leg cooked on a string.”

By contrast, Noma’s first book was subtitled Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The restaurant’s home page elaborates: “we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.” The Fäviken website also draws attention to its use of methods of food preparation (drying, salting, pickling, bottling) “rediscovered from rich traditions.” “We do things as they have always been done at Jämtland mountain farms,” declares text set against a bone smoldering over dusky-hot coals.

The margins of that “always” are hazy, pointing forward or back, just as nostalgia can’t decide if it wants a time, a place, or both. We’ve always done it this way and we always will. The rediscovery of food traditions that have “always” been practiced in particular regions by particular people invokes the depth of deep history while also suggesting that such history remains available today. Under the sway of always, history isn’t history at all.


Fancy Foraging

In Paleofantasy (2013), Marlene Zuk investigates Stone Age nostalgia from another perspective, considering phenomena like barefoot running, co-sleeping with infants, and the Paleo diet as practices that lead people to believe they are living more like “our ancestors.” These pursuits, she argues, rely on a “paleofantasy” that long ago, humans were better adapted to their environments until the slow time of evolution and the rapid buzz of Modern life turned our brains and bodies into anachronisms within the environments we are most responsible for creating.

In fact, as Zuk explains, evolution is continuous and progresses at varying rates, sometimes rapid (as in the relatively short few thousand years it took some herding groups to acquire the ability to digest lactose), sometimes mind-blowingly slow (as the development of the eye must have been—a biological wonder Darwin had trouble accounting for within his theory of evolution). The idea that we were ever more biologically in synch with our environment is a fantasy.

Is there something equally delusional in the disconnection of high-end foraging between subsistence practices and price tag? Or are the illusions such meals create redeemable if they redraw attention to the world in new ways?

Both Noma and Fäviken have published works with Phaidon, best known for printing giant, glossy, books on art. In a promotional video for Noma’s most recent publication, Work in Progress (2013), René Redzepi says that keeping a journal as part of the book project helped him “to tame our creativity or figure out where it comes from.” Creativity does indeed appear both tamed and evocatively mysterious in the composition of Noma dishes, which more often than not resemble fairy wonderlands: beds of foggy moss, speckled eggs, profusions of flowers and vines.

In these compositions, foraged foods, many of which might not be recognized by diners as food in other contexts, rely on their own impressions of improbability for effect. A recent menu, for example, offered moss alongside porcini mushrooms and ants with beef tartar. In an era when high-end restaurants play hard and fast with their adjectives, Noma’s understated food descriptions are whittled down for ultimate poetic impact: “flatbread and roses,” “cod liver and caramelized milk,” “radish and yeast,” “black currant leaves and barley.” Breaking from this rhythm, desserts pop in metrical spondee: “Three treats.” Noma’s aesthetic is dominated by fantasy, dreams for sale.

While also featuring foraged foods, the aesthetic of Fäviken is more obviously driven by a desire for ethical engagement with nature and community than with creativity, tamed or otherwise. In the promotional video for his Phaidon book, Magnus Nilsson hopes his restaurant might help diners “establish a connection with nature” that he believes many of them have lost. “It doesn’t have to be wild nature,” he says. “It can also be the nature that is more close to man.”

This idea that “nature” can be experienced equally in a fist of miner’s lettuce or a garden carrot kept in sand all winter recalls what the environmental historian William Cronon described as “wrong nature”: a nature not of wildernesses and frontiers but of backyards and city blocks. Cronon argued that as long as we think we need to go far away to experience wilderness, it’s far less likely that we’ll develop the consciousness that will allow us to respond ecologically to our most immediate surroundings. No amount of family vacations to crags in the Sierras is going to detoxify the Los Angeles River. Ecological living starts at home.

High-end foraging indulges a delusional fantasy that eating beautifully prepared and very expensive moss solidifies a connection to nature. Yet the practice of foraging is worth wresting from these trappings of global capitalism. Foraging can’t sustain human populations the way, at present, agriculture does. But foraging has the potential to alleviate nostalgia’s dizziness about where and what it wants. Rather than longing for past times and places, it recognizes that seasons are cycles rather than lines and that places are bottomless depths of interlocking history, culture, geology and biological life. Foraging demands attention to what is immediately available; and such attention connects us not only to our most proximate environments but also to humans who, in the past, may have looked at these same spaces with an equally purposeful gaze.

Henry David Thoreau was drawn to foraging for precisely this reason. In his first published book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack River (1848), Thoreau invokes deep history when he fancies that his “genius dates from an older era than the agricultural.” Gliding by boat past “a soft and cultivated” New England village, he drifts toward the metaphorical: “Every one finds by his own experience, as well as in history, that the era in which men cultivate the apple, and the amenities of the garden, is essentially different from that of the hunter and forest life, and neither can displace the other without loss.”

For Thoreau, foraging was a metaphor for experience within the present and a practice with a deep history. His understanding of that history was limited; Native Americans in New England were not only hunters and gatherers but also gardeners on a grand scale. Recent anthropological studies suggest that what European settlers assumed to be untouched wilderness was in fact a vast and highly orchestrated “garden.” Still, Thoreau learned more about Native Americans than most of his Anglo-American contemporaries, who recalled the “disappearing Indian” with a nostalgia that threw the violence of colonization into soft focus. Furthermore, Thoreau didn’t view the deep history of New England, both human and natural, as finished. When he took to the woods, in search of berries, he was hunting for both food and a different kind of connection between humans and land than what he could find in town.

The cattails along the creek behind the local school, or the dandelions that will grow despite your neighbor’s commitment to mowing her lawn, might be, and have been, sources of nourishment. Knowing this transforms landscapes into present, available, spaces, rather than reflections of cultural nostalgia. You don’t have to fly to Sweden, or New York, or anywhere, to experience the kinds of fancies restaurants like Noma promise but can’t actually deliver. All you need is a patch of green, the edge of a river, an abandoned lot.