Billy Manson and the Martha’s Vineyard Local Wild Food Challenge

Chef Dan Sauer's entry last year: Island Style Pho, a dish of Vietnamese origin.
Photo courtesy of Bill Manson

Chef Dan Sauer's entry last year: Island Style Pho, a dish of Vietnamese origin.

Since its inception in New Zealand back in 2009, the Local Wild Food Challenge has gone global: in addition to the annual Martha’s Vineyard event, competitions are now held yearly in Finland, the French Alps, and Hawaii beginning this year.

This year’s Vineyard event, at the M.V. Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown, is this Monday, Oct. 14, from 3 until approximately 6 pm (the last call for entries). The challenge, to create the best dish with at least one wild ingredient, is open to anyone, both amateur and professional. “Entries may be hot, cold, liquid, frozen, any form you feel like creating. Make enough for the three judges –Dan Athearn, last year’s Vineyard winner; Albert Lattanzi; and Simo Saarimaa, winner of this year’s Finland Challenge – to taste, and more for the tasting table if you like,” according to a press release. “All dishes must be pre-prepared, but there is a refrigerator, hotplate, oven, grills, prep tables, and boards to finish off dishes. Judging will be based on ingredient, taste, presentation, and effort. Each of these categories is worth the same amount of points so please bring a description/story of your dish with you.” Currently there is more than $9,000 worth in prizes, awarded from 40 sponsors.

Spectators can taste the creations from the tasting table, buy beer and wine during the event, and also tee-shirts, hats, and calendars.

New this year is a Kid’s Challenge, from 3 to 5 pm. Interested children should contact Nicole Cabot of Island Grown Schools at cabotmv@gmail.com. For more information about the event, visit localwildfoodchallenge.com or email info@localwildfoodchallenge.

The Times recently spoke with event founder Billy Manson, who spends part of the year in Edgartown and the rest in the Wellington, New Zealand, area, along with his wife, Sarah, and nine-year-old daughter, Grace.

MV Times: Where did the idea for the Local Wild Food Challenge come from?

Billy Manson: It came from being in New Zealand. I’ve grown up with a lot of people that hunt and gather and fish. For the longest time, people would give away things they’ve gathered, kind of like a barter. Abalone [a New Zealand shellfish] for rock lobsters, garden lettuce for wild pig, just a lot of interesting and yummy wild food that would be swapped around the community. If anyone gets a really good bag or someone gets a big king fish or snapper, there was always kudos to who got that. I thought we’d put together a really fun, casual, mellow contest, showing how people use wild food in everyday life.

MVT: What’s one dish that stands out in your mind throughout all of the challenges?

BM: I’ve gotta say Chris Fischer’s squirrel stood out pretty well [Martha's Vineyard 2011 winner for Wildest Ingredient]. We also had a guy who did a caramelized cicada [in New Zealand]; he went and foraged his own blackberries and made blackberry ice cream with cream from a local farm, then went around catching cicadas. He caramelized them and sprinkled them over the ice cream. That was really cool.

Then another person went flyfishing for salmon and canned it, and then made the label on the salmon can with photographs of his entire salmon fishing trip. It was so interesting, and a huge amount of effort went into it.

Every time we do them they get more and more outstanding. I could tell you about 100 more astonishing dishes.

MVT: What do you predict will be a popular wild ingredient used in this year’s Vineyard challenge?

BM: I saw acorns featured a lot last year, I thought was great, going back to the old recipes of the Wampanoags making flour out of acorns.

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Russian olives — or autumn berry, their official name. They’re particularly good this year.

Meanwhile, I’ve been promoting the kousa dogwood berry, the tree you see in everyone’s garden with the red spiky fruit. The inside of those is this custardy, apricoty pulp.

MVT: Do you cook at home? What’s one of your favorite, simple dishes to cook?

BM: I cook a lot, all the time. Any fin fish that anyone happens to be catching. Definitely abalone at home. At the moment here on the Vineyard, albacore or bonito.

MVT: Anything else you would like to add?

BM: We’re trying to say this isn’t really a freak show. We’re trying to say to people, ‘Get into your wild food in everyday life. Understand your space and environment, use your resources, be respectful, and have fun.’

And, we advise to stay ingredient safe. If foraging, go with someone who knows local ingredients! It’s a great way to learn about your island.