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Upper Connecticut River Valley
northwestern and central Vermont
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The Les & Nova Show
by Stephen Morris
On the food trail with Vermont's best-known 'wildcrafters'
The day starts early, but not too early, for Leslie Hook and Nova Kim, Vermont's best-known "wildcrafters," as wild food foragers are known these days. They rolled in just after midnight last night after delivering their wares to Pauline's Café and Bistro Sauce, two of Burlington's tonier eateries. Somehow their deliveries have a tendency to turn into extended conversations about the state of the planet. Then they made the 90-mile trek back to tiny Albany in the Northeast Kingdom.
Now, early this next morning, they have a simple breakfast of cereal and water ("Brings out the flavor of the grain better than milk," says Les), then Nova heads to her computer and Les goes off to feed the animals.
It would be logical to presume that Les, 63, and Nova, one year his senior ("But we're the same age for one month of the year," inserts Les), are technological Luddites. They live in an off-the-grid homestead where a small windmill and single solar panel provide power. But having a light footprint is not to be confused with being technologically backward. Nova keeps meticulous records of their edible discoveries on the computer. She also has a bank of digital photos, destined someday for a book. A cell phone, a talking GPS system, and two-way radios are also part of the arsenal of the modern day wildcrafter.
While Nova tends to e-mail, Les tends to what can only be called a menagerie: two Appaloosa horses, two ponies, an ox standing over six feet, guinea hens, goats, a pot-bellied pig, and a squabbling gaggle of roosters and hens.
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"Most people kill their roosters, because they interfere with egg production, but we don't kill anything," says Les. "Not any more. We don't kill our chickens when they stop laying. Our hens die of old age."
There's plenty of carnage in Les's background. For many years he was a deer hunter, a hog slaughterer and professional trapper. But one incident changed his life:
"I was trapping foxes, which paid pretty good, about $125 per pelt, but one day I snagged a coyote by his foot. I knew he'd have to be put down, but he just sat there, very calmly, with his foot in the trap, looking right at me. I raised my rifle, but then he looked up. I put my rifle down, and we both watched a chevron of geese pass over head. When they had passed, he looked back at me as if to say, 'OK, let's get on with it.'"
The dignity with which that coyote faced death gave Les Hook a new appreciation of life. From that point forward his life has been dedicated to the responsible stewardship of nature.
Nova Kim has faced death, too. She's a survivor of three heart attacks (not to mention three husbands). Les witnessed the third, and as she lay in intensive care, he hitchhiked more than an hour each way to be with her every day. When she left the hospital to begin what was to be a convalescence of more than a year and a half, she was surprised to find that he had moved in to her house. This had to be cleared with her priest. She might be 50 percent Osage, but she was still a good Catholic girl. The priest said it was OK. She can count on one hand the number of times that she and Les have been separated since. That was 28 years ago. They have never married.
There's a manic quality to Les. He's always in motion. He talks fast. Vermont is thick in his voice. He could give diction lessons to Rusty DeWees. Nova refers to him as a "swirling dervish." Nova, by contrast, is more soft-spoken and deliberate. She's a river to his bubbling brook. She says:
"We told about not killing roosters to a woman we met at Terra Madre," an event in Turin, Italy, staged by Slow Food International for the protection of endangered food traditions. Les and Nova were invited presenters. They've also given presentations on Vermont Public Television, National Public Radio, and the Smithsonian Institute. For two people who spend most of their time in the solitude of the backwoods, they're pretty famous. "She kept saying 'Oh, thank you for not killing the roosters.' Every time we'd see her she would say 'Thank you for not killing the roosters.'"
Sometimes it's not clear if the speaker is Les or Nova, because they speak simultaneously. The words are different, but the meaning is the same. They are two very different instruments, perhaps a trumpet and a cello, playing the same tune, but with different notes. The result is a syncopated verbal harmony.
Welcome to the Les and Nova Show.
By 9:30 they are ready to hit the road. They load their Subaru Legacy with the tools of the wildcrafter: a shoulder-mounted ash or English creel that is rigid (to protect the contents) while allowing both hands to be free for gathering, small paper bags (each type of mushroom is bagged separately), plastic bags (for greens like watercress), walking sticks, a scale, delivery boxes.
The dashboard of their car is a still life of organized disorganization. Dried seed pods share the space with a plump, toy canary that chirps when you squeeze it, an old tin full of holes for Les's worms when he goes fishing ("When you're digging wild leeks and coming up with more worms than leeks, then it's time to go fishin'."), a notebook tabbed with Post-its with Nova's meticulous notes and Les's observations ("It's not Homeland Security, it's Homeland Stupidity"), a head lamp for foraging in the dark, a loaf of bread that has had chunks ripped from it, a purple calculator with little hands sticking out its side.
"We live in our car," says Nova. It's an understatement.
In addition to talking simultaneously, Nova and Les dress alike, today in matching tan, short-sleeved shirts with generous breast pockets. Both wear Native American medicine pouches around the neck. Both have braided pony tails. Central Casting couldn't have done better.
Their voices delineate them. Nova's is soft and broad, evoking the Wyoming ranch where she was raised. Les's is staccato, filled with twists, stumps and boulders, much like the 320-acre hillside farm in Chelsea where he was raised.
With the car packed for the day, they load their dog, Kentucky, into the backseat and they're off. Depending on the season and conditions, their destination might be anywhere in Vermont. Today, they are heading to Tunbridge to forage familiar turf to fill an order for the New England Culinary Institute.
After a cup of soup at Tunbridge's newly revitalized general store, they head to "Tykie's Woods." To get there, take Route 110 towards South Royalton. In a mile or so cross over the Howe covered bridge and go up the dirt road a ways.
Animals occupy a mythic position in the world of Les Hook and Nova Kim. When they discuss the unpredictable nature of their lives, one of them invariably says: "We're not concerned for ourselves; the only concern is for the animals."
Kentucky is the latest in a series of pet canines that have been central to their world. He's hardly a candidate for Westminster – overweight, gray around the muzzle, stubborn, of indeterminate breed (mostly Beagle), and with a few remaining teeth that stick out sideways. He bays the moment he is left alone in the car.
He is also perhaps the planet's most beloved dog. Les and Nova gear much of their day around Kentucky's needs and desires. Their vehicle is half dog nest and has been specially adapted so that they can leave the tailgate open for his comfort. His special indulgence? After a full day of foraging and making their deliveries in Burlington, they always stop at the gas station convenience store just off I-89 in Waterbury so they can buy Kentucky a hot dog.
"Sometimes two," admits Les.
Kentucky was preceded by Ducky, who was preceded by Tyke, for whom the woods they will forage today is informally named. Nova tells how for a year and a half, when Tyke became old and feeble, they carried him on their rounds in a front pack baby carrier. Her eyes well with tears as she tells the story.
Chickens in the basket, Blue Cohosh and Leeks, Lobster under brush
This has been a horrible year for mushroom foraging. In the past a good day might yield up to 65 pounds; this year they are averaging fewer than five. As with so many things, Les and Nova say, the reasons are both local and global. There's the dry summer weather, a manifestation of global warming, but also the bad land management practices resulting in loss of habitat. Les becomes particularly animated when he describes the mowing practices of the local road crews.
"They just cut, and with the machines they have now they cut way too much. That lets in more light and completely changes the habitat."
Les and Nova approach the forest differently. He goes from point to point, from stump to stump, from patch to patch. Once he has found an edible treasure, he never forgets the place. Nova meanders and explores. The first find of the day is a lobster mushroom, a bright orange carbuncle of solid flesh that weighs about a pound. Nova digs softly around the base to carefully harvest it. Several others are spotted as small bulges in the forest floor. "Mostly we look for habitat," she says, "then we're looking for something out of place." Some are harvested; some left for another day; others left for future years.
Lobsters are interesting, says Nova, because of the 150 or so edible mushrooms, they are the only ones without a known medicinal benefit. Maybe, she muses, it just has not been discovered yet. Nova is encyclopedic in her knowledge of the taxonomy of mushrooms, but makes no claims to be a professional nutritionist or medical practitioner. But she sure knows a lot.
With Nova's Osage heritage, it would be convenient to connect her persona with her blood line, but it wouldn't be true. "An entire generation has lost its connection to the earth. This is just as true for Native Americans as everyone else. Most of my formal knowledge about wild plants comes from books."
As we amble along, she points out thistle and Queen Anne's lace, both edible, but not on today's menu. She shows how to tell the difference between raspberry and blackberry from their leaves (the raspberry has a silvery underside). She demonstrates the use of her most important tool, her thumbnail, as she harvests the top four leaves of wild mint. She picks a leaf of colt's foot and shows how Native Americans would fold it and burn it as source of salt.
Les and Kentucky walk farther ahead. There is a constant verbal volley. He ends most every statement with "Babe" while hers are punctuated by "Hon."
"Squirrels had their way with this one, Babe."
"You missed a lobster, Hon."
"Can you believe the lack of mushrooms this year, Babe?"
"Did you check that log over there, Hon?"
"Of course, Babe."
"Well, why didn't you tell me before I walked over here, Hon?"
"We need a new occupation, Babe."
"But who would hire us, Hon?"
Luckily for Les and Nova, their repertoire is not limited to mushrooms. Greens, berries and tubers are more predictably available if you know when and where to look. Throughout the day I sample Mayflower berry, false Solomon's seal, spikenard. Words are inadequate to describe the panorama of new taste sensations and aromas. Smell is as important as sight in making positive identification.
Even with their extensive experience in the woods, Les and Nova routinely find new species of mushrooms that they cannot identify. With more than 26,000 known species in North America, that's not surprising. Only a tiny percentage of these mushrooms are actually poisonous, but the vast majority, says Les, "just don't taste good." Therefore, they stick to the species they can positively identify and their clientele will buy.
Their favorite species is a small, firm white blob that they have deemed "snow shrimp." "The technical name would scare people," says Nova. She is delighted to see their nickname now finding its way onto fancy menus.
Les shows me a white matsutake that "everyone has had its way with – deer, squirrel, and slugs. This is a $30-a-pound mushroom here, but in Japan it's a $600-a-pound mushroom."
It's not about money for Les and Nova, however, it's about responsible collecting. If they come across a bounteous supply of anything, they take only what they need to fill current orders. Their guiding principle is a third-third-third. Take one third to sell, keep one third for their own use, and one third to share or preserve for future use. Not all collectors share their view. Many species (such as ginseng, Les's one-time specialty) have been over-harvested and are now endangered. Unscrupulous, short-sighted collectors have also given wild foraging a bad name. For this reason Les and Nova, among others, are taking a leadership role in creating a trade association (The Wild Food Gatherers Guild) to establish quality standards and ethical practices for wildcrafters.
In the afternoon Les and Nova turn from mushrooms to more predictable fare. They dig daylily tubers and wild ginger root. Next, they drive to Les's home turf of Chelsea to cut watercress and to pick spikenard berries. They take only small amounts from each spot, and leave much more than they take. They'll be back next week. Timing is everything in wildcrafting.
Their pace is as deliberate as the leaves that drift down slowly on the late summer afternoon. They visit specific trees to see if they are producing any chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms. There is plenty of time for stories.
Les points out his family homestead, ridges he has run in search of ginseng, a good trout stream, and talks about how he used to butcher pigs for $7.50 apiece. "Didn't matter is if was 50 pounds or 600, you'd get $7.50. Can you imagine slaughtering, dressing out and butchering a 600-pound hog for $7.50?" He's still incredulous about what he did when he was young and dumb.
In addition to stories, opinions come non-stop. You know where Les and Nova stand on any given subject, and you can rest assured they stand united. Their outspokenness often gets them into trouble:
Les on Chelsea townsfolk: "Half the people in this town like me, and the other half would just as soon never see me again. That's about the way I feel about them, too."
Les on maple sugaring in Vermont: "I hate sugar bushes. They take a balanced ecosystem and turn it into a monocrop. They leave plastic tubing up all year, which interferes with movement of deer and moose. They've made the woods into a factory."
Nova on spiritual hypocrisy: "Some people expect me to say a prayer when I harvest something. Our ancestors did that because they were dependent on what the forest gave them. No one is dependent on what we provide them. Most are just after culinary novelty."
Les on chefs who beat them up for lower prices: "We need to get the chefs to think of our foods like they think about fine wines. We're not delivering commodity products. We're delivering what the forest gives us. I always tell them, 'You ain't paying me for what I'm delivering. You're paying me for what I left in the woods.'"
Nova on their carbon footprint: "We were shocked when we did our own carbon footprint. Even living off-the-grid on renewable energy we came out no better than average because we drive so much. We drive over 60,000 miles a year. We're no saints."
Les on roadside buffers: "I'm not saying the roadsides are pristine, but pollution is everywhere, even in the backwoods. If you don't believe that, then why are some of the most remote lakes in the Adirondacks biologically dead from the influence of acid rain?"
Nova on RAFT (a Slow Food initiative to Renew American Food Traditions): "Some of the people involved are well-intentioned but not really knowledgeable about biodiversity. They'll taste an apple variety that is valuable for it's preservability, and say 'Ooo-o, this one deserves to be extinct.'"
"The best apple in September isn't necessarily the best one in March after five months of cold storage," adds Les.
In addition to overzealous road crews and gluttonous competitors, other occupational hazards for Les and Nova are backwoods dope growers who might think they are encroaching on their illicit crops and the federal government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration who think that they, better than a self-policed trade guide could better define ethical stewardship practices.
"It took me a while to learn how to do it their way," says Tom Bivens, executive chef at The New England Culinary Institute, who sometimes pairs with Les and Nova on culinary demonstrations on wild edibles. "So much of what they do is counter-intuitive. They have a knack of showing up at the restaurant at 9 o'clock on a Friday night with the products that you wish you had to serve at 7.
"Sometimes I groan when they show up, but even when we're busy, I find time to spend at least an hour with them, and it's always the best hour of my day."
Les and Nova have a policy that if a restaurant buys from them, they buy from no other wildcrafter. The point is not to eliminate competition, but rather to insure quality and stewardship.
"I always have people show up at the back door with fiddleheads, ramps or mushrooms," says Bivens, "but I don't know where they're from, how they've been handled, or whether the place they came from has been properly stewarded. With Les and Nova I can feel confident."
Younger chefs, says Bivens, have been programmed to pay attention to the bottom line and struggle with Les and Nova's "take what the forest gives you" philosophy. "If they want fiddleheads on the menu, they want 20 pounds in the kitchen at 4 p.m. Les and Nova don't work that way. I've come to accept what they deliver in the same spirit that they accept what the forest gives them. Once you do it their way, it works a lot better," he says with a laugh.
With more than 80 years combined experience as wildcrafters, Les and Nova have seen more than their share of change. Whereas harvesting from the forest was once something that was done by poor folk without liquid financial resources, it is now something that commands a premium from well-heeled clientele who are eager to rediscover what has been forgotten.
At an age when most people are thinking about Social Security, Medicare and Florida, Les Hook and Nova Kim are thinking about where in the Northeast Kingdom the chanterelles might be popping out. They are not in denial about the passage of time and recognize that the winters are getting harder as they get older and the habitat keeps shrinking. Les has a sense that they are in the midst of a transition just as Nova can sense a lobster mushroom under a small bulge in the forest floor. "But I have no idea what we are transitioning to," he admits. "There is no plan."
"But when it happens," adds Nova, "We'll be prepared."
Sidebar on Fall Forage Festival
"Your food is your medicine; your medicine is your food," intones Nova Kim frequently. Following is the menu at a "Fall Forage Festival," a celebration of wild edibles at which Les and Nova were the featured guests:
spring roll with dipping sauces
salmonberries, wild mushroom assortment
pan-seared ravioli with Jerusalem artichoke sauce
scented coral mushrooms, yellowfoot chanterelles, wild chervil, jerusalem artichokes
wild ginger sorbet
mushroom risotto topper with venison medallion with wild herb salad
vegetarian selection: mushroom risotto topped with white bean and flint corn cake
lobster mushrooms, daylily tubers, native flint corn, wild watercress, chervil and sorrel
apple streusel cake with wild apple and sweet mushroom compote, peppermint creme anglaise
wild apples, apricot jelly mushrooms, flat-top coral mushrooms, wild peppermint, spikenard berries
It's a far cry from Euell Gibbons's "wild hickory nuts."
from Our Outdoor Pantry and Warehouse by Les Hook and Nova Kim, published by Wild Food Gourmet, Box 277 Albany VT 05820 wildgourmetfood.com
Published October 7, 2007 in Vermont Today
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