JUSTIN RASHID has gone back to the land, not as a dirt farmer in the vogue of the '60s counterculture, but as an entrepreneur, in his words as a "wild food forager." He ships 1,000 pounds of fresh wild foods a week around the country to restaurants that seek the rare and exquisite and he produces the extraordinary American Spoon preserves and honeys that are sold in America's fanciest food stores.
Rashid's specialty when he returned to the earth five years ago was mushrooms--morels in the spring, but particularly fall mushrooms--and it still is. Last year he shipped 2,000 pounds of mushrooms, and with fresh morels at $13.50 a pound they alone are a substantial base for a business. He has had inquiries about morels from as far as Hong Kong.
Rashid's return to a simpler life in Indian River, Mich., began on the stage in New York when his acting career was sailing along but his body was sending signals of distress with colitis. So he took his family to Maine for eight months to restructure, then moved back to Michigan, his home state. He opened a "gourmet natural foods produce market" under a striped awning attached to a decaying log building, a business that "flourished summer and died winter."
What turned Rashid a professional forager--and national businessman--is one of those simple but crucial stories: A customer-friend went to New York and got a job at Brooklyn's River Cafe. When chef Larry Forgione was seeking morels, those most epicurean of wild mushrooms, she got in touch with Rashid. Rashid found mushrooms for Forgione, who then asked if he might be able to find any other wild foods.
That was 1979. Rashid contacted an acquaintance who had a wild blackberry patch. Next he found an 80-year-old blind blueberry picker. He went on to other fruits, started growing baby vegetables, and even made hay with weeds once he realized that those weeds the farmer was pulling were purslane and lamb's quarters--wild greens that would bring good money on the New York market. Chickweed. Watercress. Wood sorrel. What were pests to others were paydirt to Rashid.
By 1980 Rashid was shipping across the country a variety of fresh seasonal foods--nuts, berries, wild vegetables, game and buffalo--and had formed a partnership with Forgione, calling their company American Spoon Foods. By now more than 50 people pick, grow and hunt seasonal Michigan foods for them, some regularly and some rarely. Forgione alone uses in his restaurant 200 bunches a week of miniature vegetables such as carrots, beets, onions and zucchini, often with the flowers still on them.
Most of the customers of American Spoon Foods started with the morels. Once word got around, people took their fantasies to Rashid. Hickory nuts, butternuts and black walnuts, fresh untreated ones, were but a memory in American markets. Black walnuts are a tough nut to crack commercially; not only are their shells very hard, they are subject to rancidity. In order to be commercially saleable the shelled nuts had to be chemically sterilized and pasteurized, and that affected their flavor. Rashid didn't find a satisfactory way to ship shelled black walnuts, so he settled for selling them only in the shell, which, he notes, is "a good sturdy wrapper."
If black walnuts were only half successful, other attempts were downright failures. Wild strawberries: too difficult to hull. Cattail spears: the velvety green cobs tended to blossom in the shipping containers. Pawpaws: "I thought they were like an insipid banana." Juneberries: only good eaten right off the tree. Leccinum mushrooms: turned black and gelatinous in the cooking. No search was such a losing proposition as beechnuts, though. He commissioned a woman to spend a month gathering beechnuts, after which she had accumulated only eight cups, which thus cost him, at minimum wage, $20 a cup (before shipping).
On the successful side has been American Spoon's preserving operation. The wild berries Rashid's troops were gathering tended to have more intense flavor than cultivated and irrigated berries, which have a higher water content, and in 1980 he and Forgione set out to make them into preserves "like people used to make on farms before they had pectins." The purpose of pectin, explained Rashid, is to stiffen the water that berries release.
But American Spoon began to experiment with those unirrigated wild berries and added no water, then "instead of jelling the water, we boil the water out," said Rashid. Stirred by hand in copper kettles, the preserves are over 60 percent Michigan fruit, less than 40 percent sugar--the least sweetness they could get by with--and are flavored with only lemon juice. The balance of acid, sugar and natural pectin needs to be constantly watched to get a preserve with a firm texture that is neither overcooked nor oversweet.
The fruit is hand picked and hand pitted, often by high school students; it is tedious to rely on wild fruit because the supply varies, said Rashid, but nevertheless worth it. Rashid and five local women do the actual cooking, in batches of about 32 pounds. "This is the kind of technology I had to begin with," said Rashid: "Shake berries on a new wool blanket and the blanket will hold the chaff. Or find a hill on a windy day and let the wind separate the chaff." The result is spoonable rather than gelatin-firm jams. And since every fruit is different, like wine each bottle of jam is different and over time changes in the jar.
From jams he went to honey, but again that came about by accident. Beehives had been brought into the raspberry fields to pollinate the blossoms, and Rashid asked the farmer to keep that honey separate as an experiment. Before that it had been cooked and mixed with other honeys for a large commercial producer. The honey turned out to have a delicate and luscious raspberry fragrance, which Rashid protected, along with its pale gold color, by heating it just to 140 degrees (higher temperatures turn honey darker, he explained) and filtering the honey through a very light cloth, allowing the raspberry blossom pollen to remain in the honey.
Now Rashid is on the trail of nut oils and is trying to get a greater variety of mushrooms (a labor-intensive product to market because Rashid himself has to look at every mushroom). He is experimenting with pear cider jelly and vinegar, with maple vinegar and with preserving wild mushrooms by marinating or pickling them.
He likes to wax philosophical. "Food often is a means of celebrating the wonderful connection between our bodies and the earthly body," he might declaim in a soft and serious voice. But living off the land is his business, so he adds, "Sadly, in Indian River people wanted to feel that connection for less than 98 cents a pound."
And the once-quiet little business has pushed him back into town to a new store in Petoskey, Mich. "I'm a businessman now," said Rashid; "I have to be near UPS." Rashid has printed a retail catalog for his preserves, honey, maple syrup and sugar, dried red tart cherries, dried morels, nuts, wild rice, smoked buffalo sausage and fresh venison. He also produces typed lists of the seasonal wild foods he sends to restaurants. One of the hard parts of the job, he maintains, is getting people to realize that these foods are seasonal, not always available.
"It's impractical," said Rashid of his wild seasonal produce. This is the kind of food only for "a chef who is inspired (enough) to deal with the inconvenience of going to the airport to pick it up." And of course it is expensive. A few other entrepreneurs are foraging-for-hire in other parts of the country--a Maine family that gathers fiddleheads, beet greens and dandelion greens; Oregon mushroom gatherers. Each part of the country has its own specialties, and Rashid emphasises that he is a Michigan boy who knows only the Michigan wilds.
As he said this, during a break in a conference on food innovation in Newport, R.I., he knelt on the rocks near a pier on Narragansett Bay, as barren a spot as any wild foods novice could imagine. Not for Rashid, though. He found dandelion greens and clover, and carrot tops whose gnarled roots would be eminently edible. There were plantain roots ("great for wounds"), burdock ("cooking greens"), seaweed--and, added Rashid, "you can always chew the ends of grass."
The world is Justin Rashid's salad bowl.