Irreplaceably Delicious: The Flavor of America Has Always Been Wild

I first tasted mallard duck in Gillett, Arkansas. Stuffed with cream cheese and diced jalapeno, wrapped in bacon, and broiled to a perfect medium, the mallard breast was smoky, peppery, and absolutely delicious. It was also very much a thing of its place, having been cooked by local hunters near the rice fields of Gillett, where duck hunting is both culturally and economically vital.

In Arkansas, I had to ask what kind of duck I was eating; but until a century ago, diners -- even urban diners -- could distinguish between canvasback and mallard ducks as readily as we now do between tuna, swordfish, and cod. Still, though many wild foods have vanished from our restaurant tables, those that remain are joyous parts of what make American places distinct. New England lobster, California Dungeness crab, and Gulf oysters do more than feed us: they help to weave the natural and social fabric of our shorelines and coastal communities. Preserving our wild foods is a dietary, culinary, and environmental necessity, but also an essential way of protecting and celebrating the inherent richness of American life.

For a pure, crazed variety of immediately recognizable wild foods, there's probably never been a better place than New Orleans. In 1885, William Coleman Head wrote in a guidebook that the city's culinary glory sprang from the "fresh and salt water fish in its immediate neighborhood, oysters at its very doors...and game in abundance in its encircling swamps," which, when coupled with good cooking, made "the cuisine of New Orleans the finest in America." Moreover, since 1744 Acadians living in the "encircling swamps" far to the southwest had been developing the Cajun cooking that would one day attain the stature of the city's Creole dishes. Shrimp, oysters, duck, and dozens of species of fish have remained the foundation of the state's ebullient cuisines ever since.

That's the proper context for considering the damage-control public relations campaign waged by British Petroleum after the beginning of their Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Having spilled millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf, having added hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersant, the company declared on television and in print that "we will make this right" (CEO Tony Hayward repeated the line before congress). Here, the company sought to present itself as a generally responsible neighbor, if one who had made a regrettable (and correctable) mistake.

But the Gulf and the wetlands hemming its coast have sustained humans for thousands of years. Millions of people delight in its foods, which innumerable families make a living providing to them. Obviously BP should be liable for every dime of economic damages that can be wrung from them for the support of those most directly affected by the spill. But as we witness what may be a sharp, irreversible break in the region's cultural and environmental history, a devastating wound to already-struggling coastal communities, a possible end to beloved traditions, the question becomes what sum, exactly, Hayward believes could ever make this right. Today's fishermen are only the first to be harmed; this disaster may last for generations. It's impossible to write a check to cover that.

In some ways, though, it may be too easy to lay all the blame on BP. The sad truth is that even before the spill, Louisiana's wetlands were disappearing at a flatly terrifying rate -- the equivalent of Manhattan every ten months. The oyster beds of the Chesapeake are at a crisis point; the water allocated to California salmon is only barely enough to sustain them. Our willingness to tolerate the disappearance of wild foods, and the pleasures they bring, is deeply sobering. It's distressingly easy to imagine a future in which the flavor of wild fish is as rare as that of wild game birds is today.

Still, the very intensity of debates over fisheries gives reason to hope. When people debate the wisdom of closing the Southern Massachusetts lobster fishery while stocks rebound, or how much water to allow through Northwestern dams during salmon spawning season, they're also debating the fundamental nature of their homes. What's at stake is the texture of life, the thousand savory variations that can make a place special, recognizable as being its own thing and like nothing else in the world.

Eating a wild food means experience, whether it's prying an abalone from a cold, anemone-encrusted rock, choosing a perfectly fresh fillet of halibut, or biting into a soft-shell crab on a Maryland picnic table. These are the things we grow up with, and cherish, and remember throughout our lives. How we protect them will say a lot about our priorities, and whether we perceive the true value of the lands and waters of our country.