Originally published in Mission [email protected], February 2010
In the same way that you can find the party by heading for the kitchen, the best way to find snails is to look for what they like to eat. Iso Rabins has only just caught sight of the field of wild mallow greens, and he’s already whipped a plastic to-go container out of his messenger bag and is stabbing air holes in the top with his pocketknife.
By the time I catch up to him, he is addressing the underside of a tangle of leaves. “Hey buddy,” he says to the gumball-sized snail clinging the bottom.
The snail is silent. It looks like it doesn’t even suspect that its destiny is now to be the amuse-bouche at the $100 a plate wild-foraged Valentine’s Day dinner that Rabins is cooking. In fact, it appears completely oblivious to the fact that it is being addressed at all.
Rabins takes the snail between thumb and forefinger, plucks it off the leaf, drops it into the to-go container, and closes the lid. “You have to make sure you put the lid on tight,” he says, “or they’ll pop it off and escape. They’re surprisingly strong…” He moves on another leaf, “Hey buddy…” I hear him say, faintly.
In the Pleistocene era, if you were a resident of the Mission you would hunt sabercats, dire wolves, sloths, mastodons, bears, mammoths, and prehistoric camels. If you were a resident of the Mission before the Spanish showed up, in the mid- 1700s, you would have fished, or hunted deer. After that, options narrow. You would still have fished, maybe rustled someone’s cattle. Today, if you are looking to catch a wild animal in the Mission and eat it, you’re down to squirrel, pigeon, raccoon, possum, and snail. It might be theoretically possible to catch a fish in Mission Creek, but you wouldn’t want to eat it.
And so it is snail – the slowest, and most readily huntable of the bunch. It’s not even native snail. California has more than 200 native snail species, but the vast majority of the Mission District snails are the invasive species Helix aspersa, closely related to the escargot. It was imported as food during the Gold Rush era and dumped after it failed to sell. Helix aspersa thrived, possibly for the same reason that it was thrown out in the first place: not many people in the Mission are especially excited about eating it.
Except for Rabins. The Mission District resident and ex-film student has built a business out of figuring out what in the neighborhood is consumable, and then using that information in different ways. He leads foraging tours. He has a list of subscribers that he delivers a box of wild food to. He throws underground dinner parties where the food is made from foraged ingredients. And so, eating the snail is more than just eating a snail – it’s linking people to the neighborhood in a new way. “You think about them as a pest, but then you find out that you can eat them,” says Rabins. “It’s just really exciting.”
Before Rabins started eating nature, he didn’t spend much time with it. In Vermont, where he grew up, wilderness was as he puts it “a place to get drunk with friends.” But when he moved to Eureka, he fell in with a group of professional mushroom foragers, and found a vocation. “I learned a little through books,” he says, “I read my Euell Gibbons – he’s pretty much the grandfather of modern foraging. But it never looks quite the same in a book as it does out in the real world. And so I mostly learned from other people.”
Among the things learned outside of the world of books was how little the foragers were being paid compared to the price the mushrooms they gathered ultimately sold for. Rabins began to work as a middleman – cold-calling chefs, knocking on the back doors of restaurants, brokering deals.
There was a learning curve involved. “My original plan was to organize the foragers,” he says. “But it doesn’t really work that way. A forager doesn’t work the same way that a restaurant does.”
Instead, a forager might break an appointment one week, then call unexpectedly with a huge haul because they’d been up in the woods for two days on methamphetamine, a drug that, for all its faults, enables incredible bursts of compulsive searching behavior. “It does makes them amazing foragers. They’ll be out looking for black trumpet mushrooms at night – you can hardly even see those during the day – and then come back with this huge bag of them,” says Rabins. This cycle failed, however, to enable reliable business or social relationships.
So that was the first hitch. The second was when Rabins lost almost $2000 shipping a load of mushrooms cross-country. The mushrooms got stuck in transit in a hot warehouse on a hot weekend and essentially cooked from the inside. That was around the same time he decided it was time to branch out.
“I can’t believe how many snails are out right now,” Rabins says happily. “I feel bad taking all these little ones” he continues. “I guess it’s just like “the fire that burns twice as bright for half as long.”
Rabins cuts off a tangle of radish greens and stuffs them into his bag. He’ll feed them to the snails later. Dusk is falling, and the snails are indeed suddenly abundant – oozing and munching their way across the greenery of the park. During the day, they’re hard to find – the sun dries them out, and so snails hide in shady areas, pull back into their shells and secrete a membrane doorway that keeps them moist and away from the elements. “We would probably find as many if we went out at dawn,” adds Rabins. “But I don’t roll like that.”
Last year the SF Weekly ran a story about Rabins that got him banned from the Presidio. Since then, he’s asked reporters not to say where he forages. I will say this. We are in a park. In the Mission. Among the other things you can find in the Mission and eat: miner’s lettuce, chickweed, wild fennel, yerba buena, mushrooms (especially shaggy mane), oxalis, blood orange and meyer lemon trees, figs. Among the things that you might get from eating such things: leptospiriosis and/or that creepy feeling that you get when eating something that a dog might have peed on.
The first time I ever knowingly ate Mission-foraged food was years ago, when a video game programmer served a huge bowl of salad at a dinner party that she later revealed was full of miner’s lettuce gathered from the tiny wedge of park at Coso and Precita. As I set down my fork into my empty salad bowl, my mind drifted to my only memory of that park: escorting my roommate’s dog there so that said dog could do its business all over the foliage.
But I had already eaten the salad. It was delicious. I didn’t die. Leptospiriosis is rare – between 100-200 cases a year, according to the Center for Disease Control. And buying greens at the supermarket carries its risks too. I am still relieved to note that we forage in areas of the Mission that are off the well-trodden dog walking circuit, and far from industrial areas that may have heavy metals lingering in the soil.
Now that it’s almost pitch black, there’s a snail under nearly every leaf. In the indigo of nightfall, all that is visible is the beam of Rabins’ flashlight skittering along the undersides of the greenery. The only sound is that of the plastic container being peeled open, and snapped shut, the light briefly flashing through the shimmering web of snail mucus streaking the sides.
The darkness, plus the flashlight, is making us conspicuous. Time to go. “Heh,” says Rabins, as we walk past a stern-looking parks worker. “We’re leaving with a bag full of snails. And no one is the wiser.”
The next time I catch up with the snails, they’re diced and stuffed into mushroom caps. They taste like butter and garlic and something chewy – you’d never know that they were caught just a few minutes from here, or even that they’re snails. A crew of volunteers plates them up and carries them out to the center of a Mission District warehouse, where couples clasp hands across candlelit tablecloths.
The mood in the dining room is boozy, convivial, intermittently mutinous. The necessity of washing dishes in between most courses creates lag in the 10-course menu. At one point supplies run low. Panicked on-site foraging reveals leftovers from a dinner party hosted the prior evening by a different chef. Problem solved.
A tipsy group gathers at the front of the building, where the owner of the building is explaining how when the warehouse was first built over a hundred years ago, boats would float past what is now the front door, and tie up at a dock outside. The creek, buried under Caesar Chavez street for decades now, is still running underneath us. Another fragment of the natural world folded into the city – running parallel to our own lives, largely unnoticed. A moment of quiet falls, then passes. The group returns to its wine and romancing, and in the kitchen one of the volunteers downs the last snail-stuffed mushroom.