It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It
by Bill Heavey
2013, Atlantic Monthly Press
It would be somewhat disingenuous to take Bill Heavey at his word when reading the subtitle of his debut full-length book of immersive journalism. That subtitle, “Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter-Gatherer,” suggests that there were more mistakes made than ordinarily occur in the simple-yet-heroic pursuit of living life. “Misadventure” also implies a kind of breezy and carefree situation, something markedly lacking when one is tasked with differentiating poisonous plants from edible ones.
While the phrase “death by misadventure” comes to mind, Heavey’s forays into the essence of eating are most definitely adventures. A longtime contributor to Field & Stream magazine, Heavey came to the realization that he wanted to find out how much of the food he ate on a daily basis was something that he could catch or find or kill himself. It was the ache for an understanding of himself that came about after one long and arduous hunt of a deer using only a bow and arrow. That yearning was something that led him all over the world, experiencing the “euphoria” of rototilling as he tore up his yard to plant his own vegetables, catching crawfish with the oil-company-fighting Cajuns in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, soldiering out into the wild with the wisdom offered by Peterson’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants (“Do not let the fear of being poisoned deter you from experimenting with wild edible plants.”) After all, even though fallen fruit — the slowest of all possible food — doesn’t lash out like a man-eating plant when you bite into it, that doesn’t mean it can’t still hurt you.
What separates It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It from other books on cuisine culture is that it is, at its root, concerned with survival. Hunter-gatherers were the evolutionary engine that drove civilization from the dawn of man, and Heavey makes a brilliant and incisive point by showing how much humanity has missed by losing touch with these skills. He also observes, not quite so baldly, that those who continue to cultivate the age-old skills of hunting and gathering have been marginalized to the extreme.
Popular food culture is exceptionally good at demonstrating, on countless television series, that those who pursue the gospel of the omnivorous are either extreme characters like Anthony Bourdain or borderline savages living on the filthy fringes. Through that prism, the basic aspect of humanity that is hunting-gathering becomes part of the spectacle — a matter of concern rather than a matter of course. That he learns to appreciate the subtle flavors of a caribou eyeball in the Arctic Circle is quite literally cold comfort — in the stark and barren wastes inhabited by mankind, one holds on tightly to one’s own humanity by making the best of what meager food one can catch.
It’s also a book about connection, about the relation humanity has with the world that it, in increasing numbers and myriad ways, consumes at every turn. It’s about Heavey’s connection to the world of the most basic of all possible foodstuffs, and all the other connections that emerge in turn from his pursuit of that knowledge. It leads him to fall in love with a woman named Michelle in Rock Creek Park in Washington D.C., during a semi-illicit hunt for exotic edible mushrooms. It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It is gently thrilling and endlessly emblematic of the fractured, chaotic way people evolved to become what they are now. The thing about life is that on your way to the hunt, you never know what you’ll gather.