The Argentinean cacao farmer relinquished his harvest for a meager sum. Pods dried on rafters in the heat of the sun and shelled. They are shipped across the equator by freight in burlap sacks. Pressed. Centrifuged. Coco liquor separated to be reintroduced later. Mixed with subsidized corn syrup and milk products, artificial flavors and preservatives. Congealed and formed by steel mechanizations, coated with cornstarch, gum Arabic, and less than 1% of Blue, Red, and Yellow ones, twos and threes – colors sourced from beetle shells, chlorophyll, synthesis, and alchemy. Machine vision aids a robotic stamp in pressing an ‘m’ on each individual shell. Layered in packing and moved through shipping lines. Now, purchased by me to be consumed in ignorance.
Here I am, munching on these artificial berries and waxing of my one self-sustaining camping trip I took earlier this year, as if a weekend of playing forager brings me any closer to paralleling a true hunter-gatherer society like the Kung. These are bushmen whom breathe the petrichor caused by the sweat of their brow hitting the dry earth of the Kalahari, seen as a foreboding and desolate place through the lens of the first-world. They live as humans had lived before we sowed fields, when the earth itself swelled with tubers, nuts, and berries hidden from lackadaisical gazes. Despite common beliefs, their diet can be as, if not more, nutritious and varied as any super market shopper’s. With the staple of the mongongo nut having vast amounts of necessary nutritional value and variance, even in times of scarcity there is little chance of malnourishment. While meat is an occasional treat due to inefficient methods, it still plays an important role in displaying worth amongst the men of the tribe. However, if a man were to bring game back, he must humble himself to his people. It is only this way – with tight binds of nuanced culture – that such a society can exist without explicit leadership.
The very essence of their interactions are imbued with gathering and consuming food, the manner of which it is done, and the positions of esteem one holds within the tribe from it. However, even in the modern environment of obfuscation, where a microchip and a potato chip may have near equal number of steps and hands involved in production, there still must be similarities for those who live freely from the land and us within our self-built institutions.
* * *
Through the Navy I found a ticket out of what felt like a death spiral in Florida. My ASVAB was an almost perfect score and with it came a good rate offer – I signed a contract to become a Nuclear Electronics Technician. Boot camp was a sterile, godless place were the only reprieve was the mess hall. We had three meals a day of non-distinct, nutritionally-complete proto-food whose perfection could only be sought from government contractors with committee decreed nutriment plans. Three times a day I was able to sit down, shovel something into my face and taste a flavor besides sweat; all without getting screamed at. Pure bliss.
Because of my rating, I spent a good chunk of my Navy career in training, seeing a large portion of both the east and the west coast. Combined with a decent expendable income and bachelorhood, I became a gourmand and learned that food can be an appreciable art form. I’ve tried everything from down-home southern cooking and Thai street foods to two and three Michelin star avant-garde restaurants. I feel that my passion for cuisine stemmed from these travels, but due to limitations on having a kitchen of my own, I couldn’t express the inspiration that the duplicity of cultures and flavors I had witnessed impressed on me.
With training complete, I was assigned to the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) as a Reactor Operator. There are few places I have ever witnessed food as bad and curious as I did at times there. Add one part Alpo-like beefy chunks, two parts old spaghetti, and call it sukiyaki. Most of us subsisted by getting instant ramen or oatmeal delivered to the ship by post and storing it where we could. Occasionally, there was a good meal, but this often meant bad news. Lobster and steak? I guess we’re getting forward deployed for another two months.
When I came to Norfolk, Virginia, and left the ship, I was fortunate enough to meet the love of my life. Much of the courting period was spent with me cooking for her in her tiny studio-sized kitchen, replicating the cuisines I had sampled throughout the years. When we moved in together, I started accumulating more equipment. I taught myself how to bake bread and even make croissants. I began experimenting with ‘modernist’ cooking techniques, such a sous-vide baths and pressure infusions – going so far as to understand the chemical reactions that occur in these processes and utilizing them for startling effect.
These days, while I still enjoy an occasional experimental meal, I find myself returning to the basics. My partner, Sherri, bought me a large Dutch oven for camping, and since then I have gone to the wilderness at every opportunity we can muster. Recently, Sherri has been researching mycology and mushroom foraging, which when combined with my fishing and a few key ingredients, can often mean enough food to feed the camp.
* * *
The sun yawns wide by the horizon in the west, stretching in wavelength, casting the sky in layers of rust and bruise. As evening approaches, fires are started and stomachs growl. There – women return with mongongo nuts by the satchel, their impervious shells to be cracked with mewling children in arm. Here – Sherri returns from the path with armfuls of foraged maitake, their delicate shelves to be preened and cleaned of insects.
Poking hot coals, we men sit idle. In my case, the hunt was unsuccessful; maybe, this time, for them as well. We seek game by different mediums with different tools; for them, by the land with spears hewed and honed, and for me, by water with hooks and pole. Pots boil and stews render regardless. We stand bivouacked to the land, there by the swelter and bush of the Kalahari – here, the amber glow and chill of autumn in the Shenandoah Valley. Here and there, faces are framed with flickering light and laughter as the outside world dims beyond the luminescence of the circle. We eat.
Navy veteran Wade Hunter is an undergraduate student at Old Dominion University pursuing degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.