By Christa Weil
When making soup requires scaling a cliff, and grabbing a few olives involves avoiding gunfire, it's time to find some comfort food that's a little more comfortable.
The annals of Arctic exploration are filled with accounts of frostbitten limbs and near starvation. In fact, many adventurers have reported being so hungry that they've scraped papery-crisp lichen off rocks and boiled it into passably edible food. One outdoorsman even claimed that if braised shoe leather was in a taste-test with lichen, the shoe leather would come out on top. And yet, this very same survival food is considered a delicacy in Japan. There, iwatake (iwa meaning rock, and take meaning mushroom) is so highly sought-after that harvesters are willing to rappel down cliff faces for the precious growths. (It takes about a century for the lichen to get to a worthwhile size.) Needless to say, this is specialty work. As if the rappelling isn't tricky enough, iwatake is best harvested in wet weather, because the moisture reduces the chance that the lichen will crumble as it's pried off with a sharp knife. In its preferred preparation, the black and slimy raw material is transformed into a delicate tempura. And while iwatake in any form doesn't taste like much, it's esteemed for its associations with longevity. As for the harvesters? Their longevity's more questionable. "Never give lodging to an iwatake hunter," goes an old Japanese adage, "for he doesn't always survive to pay rent."
2. Bird's Nest Soup
Cantilevered high off cave walls and cliffs along the seas of Southeast Asia are the nests of the white-nest swiftlet—a bird that's managed to turn an embarrassing drool problem into a useful D.I.Y. project. The nests, sturdy constructions no bigger than the palm of your hand, are made from the birds' spit. Yup, these swiftlets have specialized saliva glands powerful enough to turn their tongues into avian glue guns.You'd think being stuck in caves high above the ground, and the fact that they're birds' nests, would protect them against humans—but no. Ever since sailors first brought the nests home for the Chinese emperor and his family in the first century CE, bird's nest soup has been a favorite among the country's elite. Never mind that it's virtually tasteless; the dish is revered for health reasons. Of course, acquiring the main ingredient is less healthy. Nest harvesters must stand on rickety bamboo scaffolding hundreds of feet off the ground in pitch darkness. They must also endure unbelievable heat and humidity as they try to avoid all the insects, birds, and bats that live in the caves. In addition, the extraordinary value of the nests means the zones are patrolled by machine-gun toting guards. Harvesting rights are multiyear, multimillion-dollar deals arranged with national governments, and poaching is ruthlessly prohibited. Unarmed fishermen have been shot dead after accidentally beaching in swiftlet territory, and local tour group operators pay exorbitant fees to avoid rifle-assisted leaks springing in their kayaks. It all underscores the fact that being a nest harvester is less of a career choice and more of a life sentence—especially considering that the skill is almost exclusively passed on from father to son.
3. West Bank Olives
Come the November harvest season each year, Palestinian landowners on the far side of the Green Line (which bounds the pre-1967 border between Jordan and Israel) cope with the standard hazards of olive picking. They deal with raw fingertips, accidental falls from the upper boughs of the trees, and backaches from stooping to gather fallen fruit. All that effort to glean olive oil, which has fueled the local economy for centuries. But the latter-day olive harvest involves a much more deadly threat. Some Israeli settlers are intent on driving the farmers away from the groves, and they've armed themselves with rocks and scope rifles to block the Palestinian landowners from their livelihood. In recent years, Israeli police and Jewish peace activists have worked alongside the pickers to curb harassment, but the year-round tending of these ancient groves remains a life-threatening pursuit. Humans aren't the sole targets, either. According to the Jerusalem Post, vandals burned or otherwise destroyed more than 1,000 olive trees in the West Bank in 2005. Sadly, it will require plenty of time and hard work on the part of the governing bodies before the farmers' only concerns are workaday aches and pains.
4. Snapping Turtle
Turtle soup was a staple of 19th-century gourmets, usually ladled out of huge tureens for the first course. And no wonder; turtle meat is tasty, fibrous, and chewy—kind of like barbecued pork. But getting the meat in the quantities Grover Cleveland and his ilk demanded meant getting the biggest turtles around, and in most of the United States, that meant going after snapping turtles. The traditional means of capturing the giant creatures (which grow up to 180 lbs.) is called noodling, which involves brave souls trawling along the banks of rivers, lakes, and ponds, and occasionally wading neck-deep to stick a boot into the turtles' lairs. If a noodler hits shell, next in are the hands, which try to haul the critter out while avoiding its famously strong jaws.
On-the-job accidents come with the territory. According to outdoor expert Keith Sutton, author of Hunting Arkansas, "noodlers are nicknamed "˜nubbins' as the result of unfortunate encounters with snappers." Amazingly, the job isn't over once the turtle is captured, either. Turns out, killing the animal is another exercise in raw nerve. We'll spare you the details, except to say that it's ill-advised to handle the animal's head until at least a day after its execution. Even decapitated, the snapping turtle has a long memory.
5. Gooseneck Barnacle
You've probably never seen gooseneck barnacles on a menu in the States, but it's only a matter of time. Besides being a popular Christmastime appetizer in Spain and Portugal (where it's known as percebes), it's gaining ground in America and being harvested off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. But harvesting this rock-dwelling crustacean is no simple matter. Barnacle fishers typically tie themselves to the rocks in a surge zone along the ocean and pry the creatures off between waves. To do this, they have to use a crowbar to break the animals' self-adhesive, which is so resistant to tampering that scientists were long mystified by its chemical makeup. In other words, removing a barnacle takes lots of traction, which, given the waves, can be tricky. A poorly maintained tether, or a harvester too impatient to tie in, can easily end with a call to the Coast Guard. Of those brave enough to harvest gooseneck barnacles, one Coast Guard official said, "The best we can do is retrieve the bodies."
Editor's Note: Christa Weil is the author of Fierce Food: The Intrepid Diner's Guide to the Unusual, Exotic, and Downright Bizarre (Plume, 2006), available in bookstores nationwide.