Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Hungry just looking at it

Last week I caught Metro Bus 271 from just west of Bellevue Square into the U District to check out The Burke Museum's new exhibit Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, in which a photography team chose ten families around the world and documented a snapshot of their food life, including the signature photo of the family, surrounded by "a week's worth of groceries." The corner of the museum was crowded with preschoolers, teachers, and a few curious foodies like me. As I expected, the American family sat amidst a cornucopia of processed food, the sheer volume of which made me doubt whether I could trust the whole project. Surely the photographers asked them to empty out their pantry cabinets as well..? Second to the Americans in processed food products was the Japanese family. The family with the fewest? The Quechuans, from high in the Andes, in Ecuador.

A woman next to me, eyeballing their potatoes and other tubers, murmured, "How healthy!"

When her friend wondered, "But no protein..?"--I couldn't help but jump in.

"My husband spent a week in the Andes with a Quechuan village," I said. "The only protein they had was guinea pigs."

"Oh!" exclaimed How-Healthy. "Vermin."

The exhibit listed the average weekly grocery bill in dollars, but unfortunately didn't correlate that to percentage of income. In straight dollars, however, the German family topped the list at $500.07(!). At the bottom was the Mali family, at $26.39. The Americans fell second at $341.98, closely followed by the Japanese. The Chinese family grew the most food on the side. While the data was interesting, it's impossible for one family to represent a whole nation's eating habits. I imagine the urban/rural disparities in each country are huge, as are the class divisions.

What shouldn't be missed, I think, is the side exhibit entitled Salish Bounty: Traditional Native American Foods of Puget Sound. According to Elise Krohn of Northwest Indian College, the native Salish tribes enjoyed a diet of over 300 foraged and hunted foods before white encroachment and settlement. And nowadays? "Most Americans eat fewer than twelve foods on a regular basis. In this very short period of a couple of generations, we've gone from an incredibly complex diet, eating with the seasons, eating many types of foods, to eating just a few." Lost cultures and food traditions are always sad things, but I confess my mind got hung up on the 300 foods. 300? Foods in the Puget Sound just lying there or swimming around or stuck to rocks or otherwise there for the taking?

(Please forgive the Italics after this point. I CANNOT get Blogger to turn them off. Curses.)

At the Bellevue Farmers Market we've frequently enjoyed the offerings of Foraged and Found Edibles, from their tiny huckleberries and various fungi, to their more exotic "sea beans," but I never thought of them as carriers-on, in a way, of a longtime Puget Sound food tradition. Nor did it occur to me that ordinary, failed farmers such as myself, could--with a little know-how and effort--also take advantage of the 300 Free Foods lying around the region.

Since we still have a few weeks till the Market opens, I picked up a copy of Northwest Foraging at the museum gift store. Everyone I mention this to is sure I'll poison myself, but I figure I can at least identify dandelions, for Pete's sake. I'll keep you posted. If this blog ceases to exist, you'll know it's because I mistook Death Camas for the edible Camas, and all in the name of free food.

Stay tuned.

I know you can't read it, but you get the idea: BOUNTY!