Review: Tales from a Forager's Kitchen: The Ultimate Field Guide to Evoke Curiosity and Wonderment with More Than 80 Recipes and Foraging Tips

Tales from a Forager's Kitchen: The Ultimate Field Guide to Evoke Curiosity and Wonderment with More Than 80 Recipes and Foraging Tips by Johnna Holmgren
My rating:

I have been wanting to review this book for a while, but due to the circumstances surrounding its publication and pulling it off the shelves I wanted to truly take time to absorb its contents and research its legitimacy.

First, I would like to preface this with my own credentials: I have been reviewing books since 2013, I am a librarian, a closet writer, an herbalist, a forager, and teach foraging classes to families. I am NOT a medical doctor, health practitioner, or health professional that obtains the right to diagnose, treat, or act as a nutritionist.

After months of observing the build up and unfortunate downfall of this title, I've sat on the outside of its structure and watched it burn not from the inside out, but the outside in. It was set ablaze by some ruthless reviewers, and sadly the publisher made a drastic move to erase it from history. I am appalled at the way some of these reviews had been drafted. If you are a seasoned reviewer, you understand the general rule is to respectfully and professionally conduct your reviews in a way that does not damage the author's reputation, or in this case, their life. Not to mention reviewing a book in all caps lock is messy, amateur, and shouldn't be taken seriously. Because of the carelessness of these reviews, an author's life and the life of their family (including young children) was horribly affected. However, the entire fiasco raises a very important question: Should foraging books be treated the same as cookbooks?

The major claim about this book is that it is unsafe and could even be deadly for users. Here's the thing: ALL foraging books contain toxic components. Yes, even books by rockstar herbalists like Rosemary Gladstar, David Winston, Dina Falconi, and Michael Moore. Any field guide you pick up will have deadly or toxic plants and will not always list precautions. To prove my point further, I went through some of my other books and looked up the same plants people were upset about, and was provided the same amount of information found in Ms. Holmgren's book. In many books, you will not find the proper way to prepare elderberry to remove the toxic coating before consumption. In fact, I only found this information in one book, and that was the curriculum I use to teach foraging to children.

Why the lack of vital life-or-death information in all these books, you may ask? Because the number one rule of herbalism is that it is the forager's responsibility to research and understand their plants so they may be safely consumed. No one else is responsible for what you put in your mouth. There are thousands of cookbooks on the market filled with ingredients that will slowly kill you by clogging your arteries, and people still continue to purchase and use them. If you buy a foraging book and blindly start whipping up recipes from ingredients you picked from outdoors without truly understanding what you are using, how you are using it, and why, then you are being irresponsible and negligent. Foraging requires a lot of background work that is absolutely required for your own safety. That is why foragers, including Johnna Holmgren herself, come with a disclaimer. Holmgren's disclaimer states on her website, "While I strive to be 100% accurate, it is solely up to the reader to ensure proper plant identification. Some wild plants are poisonous or can have serious adverse health effects. I am not a health professional, medical doctor, nor a nutritionist. It is up to the reader to verify nutritional information and health benefits with qualified professionals for all edible plants listed in this web site and any published content."

Some reviews I have read make some pretty blind claims as to the plants they are considering "deadly." For instance, morels. This claim screams "inexperience" in some of the reviews I have read. Herbalists will tell you time and time again, DO NOT eat plants unless you are 1000% sure you have it properly identified or know how to prepare it. That being said, plants come in many species and genus (families) with both edible and poisonous family members, morels being one of them. In the wild, you may encounter True Morels (members of the genus Morchella) and False Morels (members of the genus Helvellaceae). The two may be confused by someone who has never set eyes on morels before, but true morels are a very common edible fungi used for cooking. Very much like elderberry (another plant that caused uproar due to a smoothie recipe in the book), if I were to eat it raw in large amounts I could get ill. Should you eat morels raw? I would not advise it, especially because raw mushrooms contain mild toxins that can build up in the system over time or give you digestive issues within hours, but it's no different than consuming a raw potato, apple seeds, or too many cloves. As for the recipe that called for raw elderberries, the small amount required is not dangerous. To be safe, cook the berries. Most recipes I've seen in books will not tell you this. The recipe requires the elderberries to be frozen, thus I would hope you would've taken care of this part before you stick them in your freezer.

I will say it louder so you can hear me in the back: it is solely YOUR responsibility to know how to prepare and consume the food you put in your mouth.

Next, let's talk about the publisher, Rodale Books. Was the publisher right in pulling the book from the shelves? I don't know all the elements that went into recalling the book, so I can't make a fair assessment. However, I believe a big part of the problem began with the editing process. I understand editors are not going to be educated on every topic they are given, but back to what I mentioned in the beginning, I would hope with a book like this some foundational rules would be set in place. If the readers are responsible for researching their ingredients, editors should be as well. I also don't know how many galleys went out or to whom galleys were delivered to, but this would be an opportunity to fill in those unknown gaps by allowing readers a sneak peak before the final edits. In my own opinion, I believe the recall was hasty.

Aside from all of the uproar, I think this is a beautiful book with some awesome recipes. It has some great tips, and Holmgren includes a lot of the health benefits within a small narrative accompanying each recipe. As with any other foraging book, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the world of herbalism. Grab a journal, and get to know the plants before you begin using them. Research every plant in a recipe before you make that recipe. Understand the benefits, side effects, preparation, precautions, and even how those plants mix with any medications you are taking. Foraging books are not in the same league as cookbooks. I believe this is the biggest misguided assumption that was made about this book. Should Johnna Holmgren be held responsible for withholding safety information in her recipes? Sure, but so should the reader be held responsible for knowing what they are consuming. So should the editor be responsible for understanding what it is they are editing.

I would love to see the publisher give this book a second chance with an updated, well-edited edition. There is nothing like it on the market that I have seen, but unfortunately, you will simply have to take my word for it.
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