"People who eat seaweed eat imported seaweed. They never realize they could eat it here."
Jen Lighty is something of a rarity. In a culinary landscape that's increasingly artisan-everything, her cottage industry has remained a tiny niche on American soil. When she began selling foraged seaweed on Block Island, Rhode Island, four years ago, "people were absolutely revolted." Seaweed has an image problem, and no matter how much nori-wrapped sushi Americans relish eating, the plant on its own was a tough sell.
But that's begun to change, especially in the last year. People are buying more seaweed than ever, and are increasingly fascinated by Lighty's work, so much so that she's been asked to give tours of her harvests.
Her product lies at the crossroads of foraging, small batch artisan food trendiness, and a newfound locavoraciousness that's sweeping the country. But she feels her success isn't limited to a faddish subculture; "the public at large is catching on" to just how good seaweed can be.
Life As a Seaweed Harvester
Lighty harvests and sells three types of seaweed: bladderwrack, also known as rock weed, which is very common but rarely eaten (though "kids really like it"); laver, which is what nori sheets are made of; and sea lettuce, which can be eaten fresh in salads. Sea lettuce has been especially popular of late; Lighty sells a sea lettuce salad dressed with rice vinegar, olive oil, tamari, sesame oil, and honey.
Each seaweed variety is found in different parts of the ecosystem. While bladderwrack can be picked off low-lying rocks at low tide, sea lettuce must be dived for. The deeper you go, the less the sun bleaches the leaves, and the more flavorful and nutritious the end result.
Lighty collects 50 pounds of seaweed at a time, taking care to avoid damaged leaves and roots that could inhibit future plant growth. The bladderwrack and laver are hung to dry before getting roasted with a light oil rub, sometimes with the addition of black pepper and garlic. Seasoning, though, is all-natural—the beauty of seaweed is that it's self-salting, and those natural sea salts contribute subtle flavors to the finished product.
That product, when not sold fresh, takes the form of a crispy, vegetal snack that makes potato chips (almost) a distant memory. Seaweed is ridiculously nutritious and naturally rich in savory, meaty flavors, which are enhanced considerably after roasting. Unlike commercially roasted seaweed, slick with oils and added salts, Lighty's bladderwrack tastes of the ocean itself: briny and intensely vegetal. It's free of excess grease, a popcorn alternative you can munch without guilt or slippery fingers.
The work to make that habit-forming snack is exhausting. Wet seaweed must be hauled from the ocean, carried to a kitchen, washed of sediment, hung to dry, and roasted. Think about moving your wet laundry to the dryer. Then consider hauling 50 pounds of that laundry across the beach, washing it again by hand, then hanging it out on clotheslines.
Though Lighty is forced to be a one-woman assembly line, with markets and the weather dictating her schedule, she "absolutely loves it." Worth a detailed read is her blog, full of meditations on the beauty and difficulty of the foraging life. She relishes the tranquility of the outdoors, calling the rocks where she harvests bladderwrack her office.
That said, she cautions other would-be seaweed fans from diving into the lifestyle. "If people saw how hard this was, they wouldn't do it." Foraging has a reputation for ambling about woods, collecting a handful of delicate mushrooms, and making a light dinner for one.
Lighty shows just how wrong that is: she's the farmer, chef, prep cook, cashier, accountant, and manager of her own culinary enterprise.
"Ambassador of the Plants"
Lighty doesn't take foraging lightly. She feels a sense of responsibility for the ecosystem she profits from, and as a rule only forages from plants that won't suffer from cultivation. Her products are ultimately subject to what the earth allows her to take.
Despite an increased public interest in the behind-the-scenes life of her work, she's reluctant to lead tours for fear that groups disturb the plants. "I'm an ambassador of the plants and the island," she says. As a forager, stewarding her territory comes before profit or pleasure.
All that considered, she's delighted to see more people foraging, even for plants that would have been considered "gross" to harvest in the wild a few years ago. Foraging "creates a sense of wonder and delight" in people, a constant reminder that the food we eat actually comes from somewhere that matters to us.
The newfound interest in foraging has some modern tensions, which highlight one of the greatest challenges for the local food movement: if we limit ourselves to eating local, how do we acclimate to fewer foods and less variety in our diet?
For now, American demand for seaweed is still fairly low, and Lighty remains one of a small handful of harvesters and producers nationwide—a far cry from a supply and demand crisis. So Lighty chooses to be a strictly local producer, unwilling to grow her business much beyond what she has now. She views her work as a contribution to the tightly knit community of Block Island. As a de facto educator and ambassador of foraging and curious eating, she certainly seems to succeed.