In Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Untamed Food, Santa Fe native Gina Rae La Cerva weaves together complex narratives of history, economics and memoir to delve into our complicated relationships with food and the natural environment. A geographer, an environmental anthropologist and award-winning writer, she chronicles the dramatic shift in our view of “wild food,” noting the resurgence of foraged plants and fungi, and our interest in wild game. La Cerva explores how this has intriguing shift has come about and the damaging effects it can have. She takes readers on an adventure around the world — from Europe and the United States to Borneo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo — exploring the meaning in meals.
Your book recounts your personal journeys, both literal and emotional, as well as your research. Why did you decide on a partially memoir form?
Everything is entangled. It was hard to find a straightforward approach that would be organic. We all have our own personal relationships to food and to nature, and we all have internal contradictions. That experience seemed like a good entry point for the complex economic, environmental and political web of wild food.
That overlap between the personal and political recalls Carol Hanisch’s famous late-1960s feminist adage “The personal is political.” Can you address the relationship between gender, nature and food that you discuss in the book?
So much knowledge about plants as food or medicine was held by women and passed down through oral traditions. The history of nature being organized for mass food production is a history of silencing women and discrediting their knowledge, which is especially true for Indigenous and Black women.
There are weird, conceptual associations between “the feminine” and nature. Think of American pioneering and metaphors about virginal lands waiting to be tamed and owned. As we approach a post-gender world, we need to ask what this means. I think you can find a constructive connection in intangibility: how can nature and women be understood on its/our own terms? We’ve historically been hunters and gatherers. To gather is to forage in the shadows — to accept and cultivate what’s there rather than to overpower it.
How did being an American woman influence your experiences and research around the world?
It came with a lot of privilege. I thought deeply about what it would mean to share some of the stories in the book. Many are not mine to tell. On the other hand, some of the people I spoke with aren’t in a position to tell us their stories — many women in the Congo, for example. I wrestled with this by interviewing as many people as I could and trying to share their perspectives in their own voices.
In the introduction to the book, you suggest it can be read as a story of loss or one of hope. What do you mean?
This is a time of maybe not yet “awakening,” but let’s say “reckoning.” Local farms have been thriving during the pandemic. There’s a surge of interest in local food. I hope we use this time to reflect on what systems are resilient and nourishing, and that we find ways to protect and fortify them.
Tamara Johnson is a writer, educator and dancer living in Santa Fe. She grew up in New York and moved to New Mexico five years ago after a decade working in South America and Asia.