In the spring of 2007, while hunting morel mushrooms deep in the Washington Cascades, the forager and writer Langdon Cook had a startling encounter. Not with any grizzly or wolf known to dwell in that wilderness, but with two rough-and-tumble mushroom pickers each hefting 80 pounds of morels. “There I was, with my five pounds of morels in my Guatemalan woven basket,” says Cook. “I wanted to know how they did it, what skills they had. And they seemed like great characters.”
For five years, Cook ventured on and off the so-called Mushroom Trail — a giant, unmarked circuit of mushroom harvesting extending from northern California into southeast Alaska and back down through western Montana and Idaho. He documented the secretive life and times of the professional forager in his recent book, The Mushroom Hunters.
Cook is also the author of Fat of the Land, a book chronicling his earlier foraging adventures in the Northwest, as well as a blog by the same name. He teaches classes combining explorations into nature with the rewards of cooking and eating wild foods.
What got you hooked on foraging?
I managed to get through all my schooling without learning how to cook — at all. I was helpless in the kitchen, but the foraging really spurred me on to learn, because I was starting to bring home some pretty extraordinary foods. And I’ve always loved to eat. Also, [not] embarrassing myself in front of the woman who was eventually to become my wife was the other part of that equation.
I wouldn’t say I had a single breakthrough moment in the foraging. For me, it started with fishing, then led to shellfish and mushroom hunting, then berries and wild greens. What connects it all is the notion of the treasure hunt. I love wandering through the woods or the shore, finding these edible treasures.
You certainly home in on one group of wild edibles with your new book. Have mushrooms become your obsession?
Mushrooms became my obsession as a writer. I am foraging year-round. If you looked in my freezer right now, I still have many packets of vacuum-sealed stinging nettles, and more recently we put in gallons of huckleberries and of course, tons of mushrooms. I actually had a good salmon run, so I have a two-year supply of smoked salmon in the freezer at this point.
What is so particularly alluring about the wild mushroom?
We know so little about fungi, and yet we’re discovering that they have applications not just for the table, but for our health and wellness and our environment. Mushrooms are so important. They are now used to mitigate oil spills and to clean up radioactive contamination and, of course, the cancer-fighting properties in certain species.
As food, they’re incredible. They’re loaded with umami — the fifth flavor, that comfort-inducing savoriness that spreads across the palate. They combine with other foods really well, or they stand on their own. So, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, a mushroom is the great meat substitute. They come in so many different colors and shapes and textures, and they have very different taste profiles. So, they’re just really fun to cook with.
You’ve been a bird watcher since childhood. You describe in the book how with bird watching, you can make a list, but that the mushroom “became a part of me.” Could you say more about this aspect of mushroom hunting?
When I find a mushroom out in the wild, it’s taken a lot of preparation and puzzling over the data and figuring out the habitat and the complicated algorithm of finding where they grow. So, there’s the puzzle of finding it — so when you do find one, it feels really great. There’s something about being able to go and find the mushroom hiding in a secret patch in the wild, and bring it home to be part of the table, to go into the family meal and be part of the conversation. I almost think of the mushrooms as friends.
When we ingest mushrooms, it is our most intimate interaction we have with the wild.
That’s right. Of course, you have to know your mushrooms, because you could have that intimate experience and then wind up in the hospital. So you need to know the poison varieties before you learn the edible ones. There is a mystique that the mushroom has, and part of it is the fact that, for somebody who is new to it, they’re hard to find. And another part of it is their “otherness.” They sometimes really do seem alien.
Throughout Europe, there are longstanding traditions of mushroom gathering and cooking, but North America is a “mycophobic region.” How do you see this changing?
With globalization, I think there’s more of an openness to looking abroad at what’s going on in other cultures. Certainly, there’s a vibrant mushroom economy in China, in eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean, even in Mesoamerica. We’re starting to gain an appreciation for that here as we learn to appreciate a lot of other foods and cultures.
I think part of the allure of wild foods is that these are foods that can’t be farmed. There is something attractive about nature as the sole tender, and our job is simply to find or catch these foods. And when you think about it, we’re all descended from successful foragers.
What do you understand about mushrooms now that you didn’t know when you wrote Fat of the Land?
There are so many technical things I know now that I didn’t know when I wrote that book. For instance, morel taxonomy has gone through a total change. I’m also learning that these wild foods have wonderful medicinal applications. We are learning that these foods are loaded with phytonutrients. They’re really good for us. Huckleberries and all the Vaccinium have antioxidants, for instance. You think of a mushroom as something you probably couldn’t live off of, and you probably couldn’t, but they have a surprising bounty of phytonutrients in them.
You make a stark distinction in The Mushroom Hunters between “recreationals” and commercial pickers. What marks the commercial mushroom picker?
The commercial picker has a lot more skin in the game. I’m a recreational picker. I love to go out and hunt mushrooms, but at the end of the day the mushrooms are going into my own dinner. The commercial picker isn’t eating any of his mushrooms. Maybe he’s bartering a few or giving them to friends, but that’s his livelihood. The circuit pickers are following the flushes up and down the coast and deep into the interior mountains on a year-round basis. They’re itinerant, they move with the seasons, they camp in the National Forests. They are picking mushrooms on a daily basis.
Is there tension between these two groups that you witnessed?
There was more tension on the part of the recreational pickers. They are concerned that the commercial pickers are taking more than their fair share. There are also complaints about commercial pickers leaving trash in the woods, and that’s a valid complaint. Then, of course, there’s a bit of mythologizing as well, this idea of running gun battles through the woods and very territorial pickers protecting their patches. Now, there’s a grain of truth there, but it’s been exaggerated. I’m sure there are pickers who are packing heat into the woods. I didn’t meet that many of them.
Well, what you describe is not exactly “wildcrafting.”
Sure, there’s money involved, which always adds an unsavory element to it.
Are there other issues about the sustainability of commercial mushroom picking?
For their part, the pickers use the analogy that picking mushrooms is like picking cherries off a tree. As long as the mycelium of the mushroom isn’t damaged, it should continue to produce mushrooms the next year. There is no data that shows that picking mushrooms is not sustainable. What the data shows is that mushroom patches decline in productivity because of pollution and development. If you cut down the woods and pave them over, that’s when you lose your mushroom patches — not from picking the mushrooms.
You feel passionate about the educational value of mushroom hunting and foraging in general for stewardship. Why?
Environmental education is a huge part of what I see as my role. In terms of mushroom hunting or any of the foraging I do, I really try to get people to engage with the outdoors. I love it when parents bring their kids along, whether it’s my shellfish classes, or berry picking, or whatever — because who doesn’t love finding something that you can eat?
What are the essential skills to be a forager, just to start?
First, you need a sense of adventure. After that, you need close observation. That means not only paying attention to where you’re going so you can get yourself safely back out, but paying attention to all the little details, the little dramas that are unfolding around you in the natural world. They’re telling you where a mushroom might be hiding.
Lynne Curry is a writer based in Joseph, Oregon. She is the author of Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut, and she blogs at Rural Eating.
Related book: The Mushroom Hunters
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