It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It: Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter-Gatherer

by Bill Heavey

(Grove/Atlantic, $25, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Alabama-born Bill Heavey has put in 20 years as an editor-at-large for Field & Stream magazine and writes its back-page column, called “A Sportsman’s Life.” Heavey’s work also can be found in Men’s Journal, Outside, the Washington Post,  Los Angeles Times, and the Best American Magazine Writing. He says he’s not sure what an “editor-at-large” actually is, but  is sure it’s “better than an editor-behind-bars.”

What is this book about?

Heavey’s niche in the world of outdoorsy writing is channeling sportsmen whose skills don’t quite match up to their love of hunting, fishing and the like. Interested in the growing numbers of locavores, who try to eat only those things grown or found close to home, and foragers, who roam the land looking for wild edibles, he set out to write a book about how well he could feed himself and his young daughter for a year from food he hunted, fished, grew or plucked from nature.  This was tougher than it sounds, as he lives in a northern Virginia suburb and was a novice forager, prone to gaffes: too bad for him, delicious for his readers. He meets women who teach him plenty, and not all of it about hunting/gathering, hunts frogs and caribou with Cajuns and Alaskans, and discovers that wild and edible doesn’t necessarily equate to yummy and satisfying. Beware: there are descriptions of hunting that are truthful, which means bloody and brutal, though Heavey hunts for food, not for thrills.

Why you’ll like it:

Heavey has a lightly sarcastic style that fits this book well. Not shy about mocking his own failures as a latter-day Euell Gibbons or Nimrod, he describes his exploits with humor and a refreshing self-deprecation. He also gives plenty of sensible advice and shares knowledge of use to anyone seriously considering adding foraging to their weekly food-acquiring. Here are some of his musings:

“Few things so lift a man’s spirit as heading down the road on a spring morning to rent a powerful machine with which he will destroy something.”

“The first chapter of a foraging book includes a list of 90 poisonous plants. Like an Old West Gunfighter notching his kills, there were asterisks by each plant with a known fatality to its credit. Of the 90 plants, 24 had asterisks.”

“If you go frog-grabbing in the Atchafalaya Basin at night with a powerful spotlight strapped to your head, you will find yourself looking down at frogs the size of rotisserie chickens. And you don’t want to grab anything that has red eyes. Because that’s a gator.

“If you’re trying to get a group of Native Americans to accept and like you, adopting a forced and extroverted cordiality is not the way to go. Trust me on this.”

What others are saying:

“Locavores can be tiresome with their insistence on sourcing (and discussing) everything they put in their precious little mouths. Bill Heavey ran the risk of being a bore in his account of attempting to hunt, fish, grow or forage as much of his food as possible, It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It, but escaped thanks to good humor, poking fun at hard-core foodies and himself while still finding merit in the movement. . . . Mr. Heavey takes us back to the joys—and occasional pitfalls—of the humble edibles around us, and his conclusions ring true.. . . Mr. Heavey reaffirms the value of things small and common that were once treasured but that we now walk by without a passing glance: persimmons, cattails, giant mushrooms, squirrels, morels, dandelions, wild cherries, frogs, crawfish and the whitetail deer that occasionally wander through backyards—at their peril, if it’s Mr. Heavey’s lawn.”—Wall Street Journal

Publishers Weekly says: “Longtime Field & Stream contributor Heavey leads a delightful romp through the backwoods and front yards of the D.C. Beltway area as he tries to eat wild. He notes that his adventure “was anything but radical. For most of our history, eating wild was what people did.” Heavey’s no expert, and reading about his stumbles through harvesting a salad from his lawn or learning to gut perch (“It looked like the bedroom scene from Macbeth”) is surprisingly both amusing and touching. Perhaps this is because Heavey has a gift for capturing the people around him: his skeptical young daughter; his extremely competent foodie girlfriend; and especially his friend Paula, a live-off-the-land expert and “about as eccentric as you could get and still be on the right side of crazy,” who takes him to harvest sour cherries right in the middle of the nation’s capital. Heavey doesn’t shy away from the potentially off-putting extremes of locavore living: he hunts, fishes, and even catches frogs, and his book is engaging, thoughtful, and truly funny.”

Says Library Journal:  “Claiming that he’s made a career of writing for Field and Stream and other similarly outdoorsy publications out of “ignorance and incompetence…my forte,” Heavey spins a yarn of how, armed mainly with enthusiasm and a refusal to admit when he was licked, he took up hunting and foraging in the Beltway. A chatty tale of all the plants, animals, and people he encountered, this book is mostly set in and around the Washington, DC, area but also chronicles trips made hither and yon: fishing for smelt in San Francisco, frog grabbing in the Louisiana swampland, and hunting caribou above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Although each chapter ends with a recipe of sorts, Heavey is mostly cooking up an engaging autobiography/ersatz primer on how to (or not to) undertake subsistence living in an urban environment. While this title is chock-full of facts about nature and industrialized foodways, it’s also a story about friendship and falling in love. VERDICT Laced with tart humor and spiked with moments of sentimentality, this work makes for a compelling read.”

“In which an inside-the-Beltway type goes all Euell Gibbons on us–and doesn’t starve to death and even finds true love in the bargain. Granted, Heavey isn’t your typical D.C. commuter: A freelance writer, he hunts, fishes and contributes columns and pieces to magazines . . . Here, he describes, as both literary project and life hacking, his efforts to live closer to the land, lessening his reliance on grocery stores and big carbon footprints in favor of heading out into the world to gather baskets full of goodies. His travels, sad to say, require big carbon footprints, as he jets off to the Arctic and the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. What he brings back, apart from mushrooms, serviceberries and wild rice, are stories of how people of all sorts have gone back to the land, some out of necessity and custom, others by choice. One neighbor, for instance, is a combat veteran who has mastered the flora of the region, a solid candidate for survival come the apocalypse. (And apocalypse, meltdown and the end of civilization are never far from some of these back-to-the-landers’ thoughts),” says Kirkus Reviews.

“This is a tale of a leap into the deep-end of extreme foodieism—clumsy, bold, courageous, hilarious, honest, and touching. Bill wrote an onion. The first layer is a funny, witty adventure story. Peel it back, and we’ll find leaf upon leaf of how-to, coming-of-age, consumerist criticism, cultural discovery, plights real and imagined, and ultimately, a love story. Bill has given us all permission to not only discover a new facet of our edible lives, but to enjoy it,” says Duff Goldman, star of the TV show “Ace of Cakes.”

When is it available?

You can forage for this book on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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