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Essay: A Weird, Wild Ride

Randy King scours the Idaho landscape for eclectic edibles

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The water was distorting my vision, making the 6-inch crayfish look much larger and much more menacing as he backed himself into a rocky corner and lifted his pincers menacingly. I slowly reached in behind his pincers and grabbed the river lobster from the depths. I flipped a few more round river rocks and felt my breath getting short. I shot to the surface, exhaling water from my snorkel, and stood in the Boise River near the Broadway Bridge.

From my right, in the main current, I heard a frat boy yell, "What ya doin'?"

"Grocery shopping," I replied, thrusting out the crayfish in my hand and patting the full sack tied to my waist. Some in the group chuckled, some smiled and some nodded in approval.

I peeled off the snorkel mask and basked in the July heat of the Treasure Valley. I watched group after group float by, not knowing about the forgotten feast that exists below their feet and all around them. But that is my life: finding the odd food that most don't think about, let alone eat.

My obsession with weird, wild food started in childhood. I vividly remember filling a pillowcase with freshwater mussels from a creek near New Meadows. I crawled over rocks and into sand banks, plucking them out of the water for hours. With great effort, I proudly toted them back to camp. Then I fed them—with the help of my father, garlic and butter—to my family. The smiles around camp fed my soul. They created an addict who eventually became a chef. And that chef eventually found a calling in the wild food he loved as a child.

My passion for wild food also led to my forthcoming cookbook, Chef in the Wild. In the book, I chronicle my many adventures with wild food, providing recipes for everything from wild hogs to caribou.

Even though we've evolved past needing to hunt and forage our own food as a society—supermarkets burst at the seams with things our ancestors never knew existed but we can't live without—the original supermarket, the Paleo-Mart as it were, is still all around us, and I'm constantly on the lookout for less sought-after forms of food and interesting ways to prepare them.

I've discovered that rockchucks are great slow cooked in duck fat and garlic. Red fox tree squirrels make excellent cacciatori. Rattlesnakes make an awesome stir-fry with a sweet lime and garlic sauce. Grass carp are fantastic smoked over apple wood from the hills around Marsing. Jackrabbit braised with white wine and mustard is a personal favorite, not to mention a French classic. The variety of wild meat options in Idaho makes for an incredibly diverse dinner table that moves beyond the grocery store pork-chicken-beef routine.

Want giant snails for French-inspired escargot? I found a spot near Middleton. Turtle soup, another classic, can be made with most any invasive wild turtle in the Treasure Valley. Speaking of invasive species, I have an annual frog leg fry since bullfrogs are displacing native frog and toad populations. The foundation of Western cuisine is not pork, beef and chicken, it's an assortment of wild game and oddball creatures. I do my best to honor that heritage.

Additionally, as a grown-ass man, I still think it's fun to play in the muck. Hip waders and knee-deep mud make for an awesome way to spend an evening with my sons. I like to keep alive the sense of adventure and wonder that can be lost with age. Basically, I want to forever be that kid crawling over rocks looking for freshwater mussels to feed my family.

Randy King is a longtime, occasional contributor to Boise Weekly, where his outdoors and food writing have won numerous Idaho Press Club Awards. He is author of the forthcoming cookbook, Chef in the Wild. More info at chefrandyking.com.