Florida: what do you think of? Your grandma in Boca? Bikinis in South Beach? The wild chickens of Key West? I didn't know what I was missing until I fell in love with a native Floridean who was determined to show me what she loved about her home state. Sure, we walked along the white Atlantic-side sands of Cocoa Beach and Delray Beach, and picked up shells from the Gulf of Mexico on the panhandle side. But mostly, we went inland, to explore the swampy, cypress-y, egret-y beauties of Central Florida, from the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge to Wakulla Springs (not to mention the Weeki Wachee mermaids, of course, but that's another story).
I'd read The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean, but I didn't realize how spot-on her reporting was until I watched a couple of sandhill cranes cavorting in a ditch alongside the highway. Lush nature was everywhere, creeping in between suburban developments and strip malls. Huge bushes of hibiscus and poinsetta. Stubby sabal palms. Anahingas perched on telephone wires, drying their wings. Alligators sunning themselves like piles of old tires.
I still hold an appreciation in my heart for the hidden treasures of this quirky, complicated state down at the bottom of the country, which meant I was instantly intrigued upon hearing about Hayley Downs' film Swamp Cabbage: A Dark and Sweaty Survival Guide, made with Bay Area artist Julie Kahn. Downs is a self-described "half-cracker," born and bred in central Florida, taught to hunt and fish alongside her dad in a place where hearts of palm don't come in a can and wild boar and venison are what's for dinner. "Spooky, dark, weird, unpredictable, beautiful," she calls it.
So what better way to raise completion money for such a film than to get help from the Bay Area's own huntin', fishin', and foragin' culture? This Saturday, you can support the film while grazing on unique eats you won't find elsewhere, at the 2nd benefit party hosted by Kahn and chef Ali Ghiorse of Savory Thymes, to be held in a private garden tumbling down a hillside in one of the posher bits of Marin. Part of the fun is in the discovery of different stations are set up throughout the garden for your nibbling pleasure.
Think Fatted Calf's beef jerky is the ne plus ultra of chewy dried meat? Well, the Jerk-Off Jerky Tasting might change your mind, offering everything from Maria Finn's salmon (the defending champion of last year's jerk-off) to Keith and Damon's Headlands caribou and Gator Bob's smoked alligator, all dried to a savory tooth-pulling chew. Prefer pickles? You can prattle about pickling with Sandor Katz, the father of the wild-fermentation movement, presiding over at the Pickle Party Smack-Down.
The menu, like anything based on wild foods, tends to shift until the food's actually on the table. (Last year, for example, wild boar was promised, except that the Sonoma hunting expedition to source it came up empty-handed; grilled lamb took its place.) But so far, meats promised include Devil's Gulch rabbit; Mendocino wild boar proscuitto; wild-caught raccoon stew; and Rocky Mountain elk chili; and Ryan Farr's puffy, crackly chicharrones. No shortage of vegetables, either, from wild mushroom soup and wild nettle pasta to Tierra Vegetables' purple Rio Zape beans and corn bread made (appropriately enough) from Bloody Butcher corn. And on the desserts table, I'll be offering up my own foraged-fruit turnovers. (Which reminds me: if any readers have extra backyard or farm fruit to offer, I'll be happy to come around and turn it into a donation to the arts.)
Of course, the real fun comes from the unexpected. Last year, after sunset, word went round the campfire that honest-to-Pete Tennessee moonshine was on offer in one of the darker corners of the garden. A perfectly respectable-looking couple, a doctor and his wife, had smuggled, inside their luggage, the product of a friend's backyard still. Now they were pouring tots of white lightning for any curious takers. It was surprisingly smooth, potent but definitely more Woodford Reserve than Copperhead Road. What will happen this time? Come and find out!
Wild Game & Foraged Feast, Sat., May 21st, 6-9pm. Tickets $75 and up.