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"People's experiences are so bad," Seattle nutritionist and seaweed advocate Jennifer Adler says with a sigh, adding that people think of seaweed as "the compost pile of the ocean."
Few beachcombers can identify Turkish Towel's textured blades, or recognize the near-black strands of Witch's Hair. They can't pick out the bright green leaves of sea lettuce, or distinguish swollen fingers of puce-colored bladderwrack from the bloomy spread of sea cauliflower. All they see are limp mounds of what eaters unschooled in seaweed invariably call kelp.
There's also the issue of scarcity. Mike Easton, chef and owner of Pike Place pasta den Il Corvo, doesn't shy from experimentation. But he's never cooked with seaweed, largely because restaurants can't obtain it through standard distribution channels.
"It's readily available in the ocean, but you can't get it anywhere," Easton says. "Off the top of my head, I'm sure it could be made into a fantastic pasta. Send me some and I'll play with it."
Each summer, Adler conducts a series of workshops showcasing more robust seaweeds. On a recent Lopez Island harvesting expedition, she taught students how to sustainably pluck bladderwrack from craggy outcroppings at low tide, and led them by kayak to an underwater kelp jungle.
Adler, who considers seaweed "magical," says the plants rank among the globe's most underutilized edible resources. Although it's commonly used as a thickener for industrial products, such as toothpaste, most eaters only encounter recognizable seaweed at Japanese restaurants, where it's wrapped around sushi rolls or set afloat in miso soup.
Many of the other coastal cultures which once incorporated seaweed into their diets now consider the plant fit only for animal feed.
Their rejection of seaweed confounds Adler. "Seaweed is salty, it's crunchy, it tastes good, and there are no side effects," she says. "It seems like such a perfect match for our bodies."
Mineral-rich seaweed has been credited with strengthening bones, detoxifying organs, and combating radiation, which is why Japanese groceries couldn't keep it in stock after the Fukushima disaster. According to Adler, seaweed can make your skin clear and your hair shiny. Participants in her seminars often have a host of physical problems they hope to lick with seaweed. Gatherers with family histories of thyroid problems eagerly snip bladderwrack, and back-pain sufferers fill their Ziploc bags with wakame.
Seaweed is so abundant in the Pacific Northwest that a collector of bladderwrack, known to scientists as fucus, can bag a year's supply in fewer than five minutes. So long as the harvester just trims the seaweed's blades--Adler calls it a "haircut"--the practice is highly sustainable. Bullwhip kelp grows nearly 18 inches a day, or nearly twice as fast as kudzu. A harvester armed with scissors is unlikely to harm seaweed.
The reverse is true, too: Every seaweed variety is edible, so foragers don't risk the serious consequences that have befallen uninformed mushroom and berry gatherers. "Some aren't that great-tasting, but the worst you can get is an upset stomach," Adler says. "Some of the seaweeds we come across are really tough, but they're still edible."
Adler stresses the tastier seaweeds at her workshops, where dinners include rainbow chard and arame salad, French green lentils simmered with kombu, and wild halibut marinated with ground kelp.
"It's not so much about having a seaweed salad," says Adler, who had to calm one participant's boyfriend who was sure they'd spend the weekend snacking on pizzas topped with seaweed leaves. "It's about learning how to incorporate seaweed into oatmeal, eggs, brownies, anything you eat. It's about integrating seaweed into your everyday life."