Eater SF critic Rachel Levin isn’t a biologist, a zoologist, or even a pet-owner. She is, however, a dweller of the urban jungle that is San Francisco, where humans and animals rendezvous daily in many unexpected ways. In her new book, Look Big: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds, Levin has written a field guide with tips and tales to help navigate encounters with 50 different creatures, including a handful from fellow local writers like cookbook author Samin Nosrat, who battled a mouse that moved into her Subaru and ate all her apricots for jam.
The idea for the book came to be during a cross country ski expedition in Colorado, when Levin encountered a moose. When she returned home, her husband informed her that a charging moose is more dangerous than a grizzly. “I’m more outdoorsy than most,” says Levin. “If I didn’t know that, how are other people going to know that?”
Closer to home, San Franciscans are well acquainted with troops of racoons with uncannily strong human characteristics, the clouds of fruit flies that hover over every countertop compost bucket each summer, and rodents, including the one who managed to snack on Nosrat’s apricots that were destined to be jam. The book’s encounters run the gamut, from wrestling pizza away from seagulls, to fighting the scourge of lice that finds its way into the homes of schoolchildren (including Levin’s own) and the army of ants that is constantly invading her SF kitchen.
So what’s the connection to food in a book written by a restaurant critic? “The clear overlap is that cities have become all-you-can-eat buffets, and we’re feeding these animals unintentionally,” says Levin. “Just by living in a city with an abundance of food and trash cans.”
The book is laid out alphabetically, starting with alligators and ending with woodpeckers, a somewhat unlikely foe. Each animal has a brief description including nicknames and general size. Without realizing it, Levin says, many animals’ size descriptions are related to food: Mice are butterball potatoes with tails, bunnies are the size of pineapples, “but softer,” and pigeons are the size of gravy boats, with feet.
Here are a few more fun facts from Look Big:
- Fans of uni, the gonads of sea urchins, will perhaps be interested to know that in the wild these luxury ingredients are a major ocean hazard, known for making surfers cry. Also, they have no actual face: just a mouth and an anus.
- Seagulls have a significant place in the pantheon of urban animal aggression, once stealing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich right from Levin’s hand, and hovering above AT&T Park with their beady little eyes trained on garlic fries for the entire season. (Recently an Eater editor, visiting from New York, had her raspberry kouign amann from Craftsman and Wolves stolen by a gull with particularly good taste at the Ferry Building).
- Raccoons can be lured with cheese, marshmallows, or fig newtons.
- Bears will eat anything — including pot brownies, as Levin chronicles — but you should never, ever, feed them. Also, a black bear can be as big as twice the size of your fridge, so steer clear.