‘Now, Forager,’ a feature film focusing on the lives of a husband and wife who eke out a living foraging in the wilds around New York City, has its NYC big screen debut this weekend at the New Directors/New Films Festival.
We spoke with filmmaker Jason Cortlund about the film, the magic of mushrooms, and the right way to forage.
So Jason, tell us about the film. What’s it about?
It’s a narrative, a fiction film, about a husband and wife named Lucien and Regina who hunt mushrooms across several seasons, and the struggles that come from that life – the struggles of making an unstable living operating behind the scenes, foraging food for restaurants in New York.
So it’s kind of the opposite of the typical food movies that have come before. It’s not a romantic vision of eating and enjoying food. It’s more about the beauty of the natural world and the work, the labor, that goes into sourcing and preparing that food that eventually gets eaten and enjoyed.
Where was it shot?
The foraging scenes were shot on location in northern New Jersey and the Hudson Valley, in the woods, at a few different times of year. I’m an active member of the New York Mycological Society, so mushroom foraging is something that I’ve been doing and studying for a long time. It’s a big part of my life. So there was never really any way we were going to do anything other than shoot in the woods when and where the mushrooms really do come up.
On the restaurant side of it, we shot in all five boroughs. We worked with a number of chefs. In Brooklyn, Joaquin Baca at Brooklyn Star let us use his kitchen for a couple of days. 1 or 8 is a fabulous restaurant in Williamsburg. It’s one of the main locations we used for the front of the house – it’s a beautiful Japanese place. I love that restaurant.
Another one of our locations was Chestnut, in Carroll Gardens. I had some really good conversations about foraging with the chef there, Danial Eardley. It’s something he’s really passionate about, and something he does on his time off from the kitchen. That’s part of the reason he was so welcoming to us, letting us into his kitchen.
In terms of getting the lay of the land in New York, and starting to understand how the New York restaurant world works with foragers, Tien Ho, who used to be the head chef at Ma Peche, was really a huge help to us.
Do you think working with foragers and wild foods is something that’s becoming more popular among New York chefs? Are anyone other than the chefs at the highest end doing it?
I think it’s growing quickly in popularity, particularly over the past few years. When I first started writing the Now, Forager story about six years ago, it was based mostly on my experience of growing up on the west coast, where mushrooms and wild edibles are really much more commonly harvested and used than they were on the east coast at that time. The commercial harvesting of wild foods that happens out there is really of a different scope and scale than it is here even to this day.
On the east coast, I think you find more of a curatorial experience between chefs and foragers. Chefs here are more likely to have personal relationships with individual foragers who they might even have on staff, who are really knowledgeable, and who know exactly what to pick, where to find it, and how to do it sustainably.
Sustainability is an important part of the foraging conversation that doesn’t get as much play these days as it probably should. New York has a lot of wild areas around the city, but nowhere near as much as out west. If you find a patch of ramps in a field here, you don’t want to pick all of them. That might be great for this year, but next year when you come back wanting more, there won’t be any.
The best foragers understand that. They’re very careful about how and what they pick, and they do it in a way that ensures that the mushrooms, nettles, ramps or whatever they’re picking won’t be depleted over time, and that they’ll come back in the same place to harvest again the following year.
Good foragers are people who’ve been doing it their whole lives. It’s not something for amateurs. It’s not something you just decide to pick up as a new gig. The amount of information and knowledge you need to forage well is pretty incredible. It’s not just identifying plants, it’s knowing where to find them, when to find them, how to harvest them sustainably, and understanding all the environmental factors in play.
Take morels for example. Morels flourish in apple orchards in the New York region. They’re really plentiful in orchards. But orchards were sprayed for over a hundred years with lead arsenic, and mushrooms are very good at picking up heavy metals from the soil. So you don’t want to forage morels from orchards, or even areas that used to be orchards. Foraging is not something you want to mess around with because you think there’s a quick buck to be made.
Any sense of how many people make a living foraging in this area?
I don’t think it’s something anyone could do full time here. It’s a little different on the west coast, but in this area they’d have to be living hand-to-mouth, literally and figuratively, in order to make that work. The winters here are tough – there’s not really much to forage after December.
And that’s really what the ‘Now, Forager’ story is about. One of the main characters, Lucien, is really longing to become a full-time itinerant forager, following the harvest to the south and west as the season changes, because the Northeast is not one of those places where you can make a living doing it year-round. His wife Regina, is not really interested in taking it that far.
Is foraging hot among amateurs? It seems like there’s growing interest beyond restaurant kitchens. Any concerns in the foraging community about that?
There definitely has been an increase in interest in foraging. There’s been a surge in membership at the New York Mycological Society, for example. There are definitely people who are worried about the growing interest, but only in the sense that if somebody isn’t really dedicated to putting the time in and becoming a kind of humble student of it, somebody could get hurt.
But for the most part most of our membership at the Mycological Society are excited that people are interested in mushrooms. The interest might start with edibles, but mushrooms are pretty fascinating. Once you start looking at spores under a microscope or looking at the very first varieties of jelly fungus that come out in spring and are the first sign that morels will be coming soon…those kinds of things get a lot of people interested in getting a better understanding of this whole different kingdom that’s all around us, but really easy to miss.
One of my best food memories is foraging for mushrooms in France. I lived there for a year and we’d go out in the woods all day on fall weekends, find mushrooms, go home, light a fire in the fireplace, sauté them with butter and garlic…and there was nothing better than that.
You know, there’s a totally different infrastructure for foraging over there. You can bring whatever mushrooms you find to a pharmacist and they’re trained to be able to tell you which ones you should eat and which ones you shouldn’t. It’s kind of amazing.
Over here, we have clubs. We have a nationwide network of old-time foragers who’ve been doing it a long time and some serious mycologists who help newcomers learn to identify things correctly.
How has the film been received?
This is a tiny little movie that was made for very little money with no stars, and people are really excited about it. Our audiences in Rotterdam, where we had the world premiere at the International Film Festival, were great. We had sold-out screenings and the film was voted by the audience into the top fifty of the five hundred movies shown, which included things like Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ and a lot of other much higher profile productions. So we’re doing really well – we’re totally over-performing for a little movie about food, about mushrooms, that doesn’t have Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts in it.
I’m really excited to bring the film to New York because people love food here.
Anything else about Now, Forager you’d like to mention?
If you’re expecting Like Water For Chocolate, you might be disappointed. It’s not that kind of movie. It’s a movie geared to a Slow Food audience, people who know how to hold a knife and who might enjoy seeing mushrooms in the wild. It’s not a fast-paced romantic movie, but I think it’s the right movie at the right time for people who are interested in something that feels real.
‘Now, Forager’ will be screening twice this weekend as part of the New Directors/New Films Festival: on Friday, March 30th at 9pm at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and on Sunday, April 1st at 4:30pm at the Museum of Modern Art. Tickets are available for both showings. For more detail or to purchase tickets see the Now, Forager website.