Foraged wild mushrooms are among a four-star chef's most prized and coveted ingredients. But they are also the fruit of a secretive and sometimes dangerous subculture. In The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, author Langdon Cook sets out to shed light on the modern mushroom trade, tracking fungi from patch to picker to buyer and, ultimately, the finest New York City restaurants. Informed by a decade of hobby mushroom picking, and fueled by legends of territorial gun battles, Cook makes for the woods to hunt mushrooms, live and dine with pickers, and discover a hidden way of life in some of the country's most beautiful and wild places. We asked him to share a little of what he found.
OUTSIDE: What's the deal with mushrooms? They seem to drive people nuts. COOK: Fungophiles say that mushrooms can save the world, and there is some truth to that.We've discovered that mushrooms can mitigate oil spills; they've been shown to cleanse radiation out of the environment.
And finding mushrooms in the woods is like a treasure hunt. I'm just as excited to find the hundredth morel as the first.
How did you get into it? I've been a recreational mushroom hunter and outdoorsman for over a decade. My first book, Fat of the Land: The Adventures of a 21st Century Forager has a moment in it that was really the germination of this second book. I was in the North Cascades hunting morels in the woods with a friend. We started hearing these strange sounds around us—yips and hollers. We backed off a little and emerged into a meadow just as these other two guys popped into it on the other side. They were commercial mushroom pickers with these huge packs on that towered over them, with probably 80 pounds each of morels. Here we were with our little Guatemalan mushroom basket holding maybe five pounds. I'd heard rumors about mushroom pickers, all the stories about how they packed heat in the woods and were running gun battles over prized patches. With that lore out there, we were a little concerned. But nothing was said, and they disappeared into the timber.
It stuck with me—how did they find this many mushrooms in the bush? I realized I had to get to know some of these guys and answer that question.
Was that an easy process?
It's very hard to find out basic information. People tend to be secretive about their patches. I got ahold of the number-one wholesaler and called. The first thing he asked was how I'd gotten ahold of his number—he was suspicious from the get-go. I said, Look, I got your number from one of your pickers, and I'm curious to see how the business works. I don't want to get in the way. He just said no. "It's like the cops," he said. "We're not interested." I would get that a lot.
Speaking of clandestine operations, your book opens with some illegal foraging near Mount Rainier. Is this sort of activity common? I debated over that prologue, because in some respects I'm playing into the hands of those who would say there's all sorts of illicit behavior going on with the whole mushroom trade. But as I point out later in the book, to a large extent that view has been mythologized. There was a period in the mid-90s when there were all kinds of media reports of wild-mushroom hunting getting out of hand. There was quite a bit of money changing hands, and many of the mushroom camps swelled with new initiates. There were some incidents—a couple of shootings, a murder or two. But if you look deeper, you find that they didn't have anything to do with the mushrooms themselves. It was the usual story of inebriation and relationship problems.
Did you get into any tough scrapes while researching the book? I was hanging out with the matsutake pickers in Central Oregon, many of whom are Lao. I was staying at a mushroom camp where they had a big Buddhist festival. They slaughtered a steer and had a huge barbecue. They commandeered this Lao pop star who was on tour in the U.S. and somehow brought him out to the woods of Oregon and piped in electricity from town, set up a tent, and this guy sang his weirdly mesmerizing songs to the crowd. Everyone was drinking and having fun.
I remember turning to one of the pickers whom I'd been following around, and he said, "Nights like this usually end in a fight." A few minutes later, I'm sitting outside by the fire, and there's this young kid—probably early 20s—from Weed, California, or somewhere. I was one of the few white faces. I had my camera with me, and I might have been interviewing some people—obviously not one of the Lao pickers. He looked at me from across the fire, crushed a beer can, and asked me what I was doing here. And I said, "You know, I think I'm leaving." That was the end of the night for me.
Is that sort of hostility common?
I had a few moments like that, where I was perceived as an outsider who didn't have any skin in the game. But mostly I was met with enthusiasm by people who were eager to share the novelty of what they did—people who recognized that picking wild mushrooms for a job was unusual, and they were eager to show me how it was done and why it was cool.
And even though there is this veil of secrecy, I was surprised at how much folks were willing to share. People took me to patches; showed me places that had been handed town from their parents to them; let me camp with them and showed me around; fed me and took me in.
You write about people gathering hundreds of pounds of mushrooms in a single outing. How sustainable is mushroom hunting in its current form? There have been a number of studies, and so far no one has been able to link mushroom harvest with a decline in mushroom populations. Pickers liken it to picking cherries from a cherry tree: as long as you don't harm the cherry tree, you're going to have cherries to pick next year. Same thing with mushrooms: as long as you don't harm the mycelium, you'll have mushrooms to pick.
You have environmentalists who are concerned about sustainability, and I consider myself an environmentalist. But I think a lot of the people working on these issues don't have a really good sense of the natural history and biology of the mushrooms that they're trying to protect. It's the "museum under glass" approach to the natural world. From my perspective, I just want to see people get outside, interacting with their environment, and we're seeing more and more barriers to that.
Favorite mushroom dishes?
Porcinis have this really rich, deep earthiness that goes great with soups, stews, or sauces.
Then there are mushrooms like morels, a flavor that's almost impossible to pin down. When people ask me about morels, I like to say we haven't invented the words to describe what they taste like. They're meaty, which is great for vegetarians. I like to make a morel sauce and put it over a veal chop or a good steak. But for vegetarians, just toss the steak and give them the morel sauce, and they'll be very happy.
There's something about mushroom cookery that inspires a kind of camaraderie, gathering around the hearth, sharing a bottle of red wine, and having a feast with your friends.
Favorite spot to hunt? Or is that top-secret? How can I put this? The Olympic peninsula is like one big chanterelle factory. So if you can't find them, you're not looking very hard. But I love to go to eastern Washington in the spring to pick morels and spring porcini when the snow is melting off and the mountains are greening up, and the birds are singing. There's this whole reawakening in the mountains, and I love to be out there when it's unfolding. And of course when you get home, you've got this wonderful food to cook.
An Exerpt from The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America
The next morning the sun was already above the trees when we finished our coffee and walked out of camp at 6 a.m. It would be a warm day for the Yukon. I was dressed in light pants, heavy socks, and boots. In my pants pockets I kept two granola bars, a mimeographed Forest Service map of the burn, and my wallet (just in case). I wore a long-sleeved capilene t-shirt and a compass around my neck. My mushroom knife was sheathed on my belt and a water bottle tied to my pack. I had a rain slicker stashed in one of the baskets. We passed by the spot-burned woods adjacent to camp, strode through blackened hot burn to the ridge, switchbacked up, and then began following the drainage. Before leaving me, Faber suggested I keep to the edge of the hot burn. The picking would be better on the edge, and, perhaps more importantly, by keeping to the edge I wouldn’t get lost. Unlike the evening before, I was now looking for the highest densities of mushrooms before dropping my pack. I walked by onesies and twosies, scouting for the large clusters that would make the picking go faster and increase my chances at a hundred-pound day. Each time I dropped my pack I would make circles around it, carrying my bucket to points beyond and then leaving that on the periphery to make even wider concentric circles using my shirt as a receptacle. These orbits around orbits insured that I would cover the most ground possible without the burden of carrying my pack. With the hem of my shirt clenched firmly between my teeth, I sliced off morels as fast as I could and dropped them into the makeshift pocket of the shirt. Pretty soon I got in the habit of walking with my knife unsheathed to save time. I could hear my seventh grade teacher telling us a story about how her son had stabbed out one of his eyes in a swing set mishap involving an open pocket knife. All my life this story had made me cautious around blades—but not today. Honor trumped eyesight. The shirt bulked up quickly. I could smell its contents as the mushrooms piled up to my chin. Unlike chanterelles or porcini, fresh morels don’t have a particularly appetizing aroma, certainly nothing that suggests the wonderful and complex aroma of cooked morels. The smell is dank, almost milk-like, and hardly hints at what lays ahead in the pan. Nearby, the white bucket stood out against the earth tones of the burn like a beacon, calling me in after each sally through this one small wrinkle of burned-over forest. I’d circle back to the bucket with a full shirt, then make another foray before picking up the bucket and going elsewhere, until I’d covered an area around the pack the size of a football field, at which point I’d hoist the pack again and look for a promising new area.
The day heated up and the burn offered little respite from the sun. For the Yukon it was hot, about 75 degrees. Downed timber lay higgledy-piggledy across the earth, like a goliath’s game of pickup-sticks. Under the burnt logs and in the depressions left by uprooted stumps grew morels. They poked their impish heads through the ash, phallic in the extreme. A pornographer would see penises everywhere—rudely shaped penises popping out of every nook and cranny, mocking our taste in psycho-sexual foods. I followed the ridgeline and picked as fast as I could. My teeth began to hurt, as if I had spent the night anxiously grinding them together. After four shirtfuls my five-gallon bucket was nearly full and I emptied it into a basket. Each basket took a bucket and a half of morels to fill. When the basket was full I covered it with a lid, nested it among the empty baskets, and lashed them all to the packboard with bungee cords before moving on. My cords were color-coded. I had two long red bungee cords to cinch the baskets to the pack and two short blue bungee cords to keep the baskets nested together with their lids tight. These were not the sort of bungee cords with weak, bendable hooks and short-lived elastic that you might find at a typical hardware store; they were bungee cords that Navy Seals could endorse. Faber wouldn’t even tell me where he’d found them. The packboard was the kind preferred by big game hunters, and the extendable top braces were crucial for stacking a maximum number of full baskets, not that I required this carrying capacity, yet. Soon, though, I had two full baskets tied together, and then three.
The idea of lurking grizzly bears had long since vanished from my mind. There was no time to worry about such beasts. I was driven to pick as many morels as I could. Strategy now occupied my head. When I wasn’t in the middle of slicing morels off at the ankles and filling my bucket, I was scanning the burn, trying to deduce its secrets. Looking at a burned-over forest is like seeing the landscape naked. It can’t hide. The drainage reveals itself in all its crimps and creases. I studied the topography for clues—slope aspect, moisture pockets, percentage of standing timber, whether any of that timber was alive. The deeper I progressed into the burn, the more I learned from experience. The forest—this badly wounded northern boreal forest—was eerily beautiful in its most desperate moment. Blackened trunks rose in silhouette against a gray sky. The dense mat of sphagnum moss ran like a green maze where it hadn’t burned into ash. Clumps of perfect morels sprouted from divots in the singed moss and on tufts of red spruce needles. Despite Faber’s warning to stick to spot burn on the edge, I was finding it easiest to cover ground by walking right through the hot burn. Here the trees had mostly burned up and it wasn’t necessary to hurdle downed timber. The ground underfoot felt spongy and tentative, like it might just give way once and for all and send me hurtling to untold depths. Little wisps of smoke followed my footfalls like stepping on ripe puffball mushrooms. There were morels in the hot burn, though not as many as in the spot burn, and many of them were dried out from direct sunlight and wind. The hot burn was apocalyptic—the popular imagination of forest fire, with virtually nothing left alive and only a few skeletal trees to tell you this was once a forest at all. Just the same, next summer it would be pulsing with new plant growth. Fireweed would be the first to erupt in colorful bursts of green and pink, providing shade for new saplings to sprout. In time the ash would melt into soil, shrubbery would take hold, and moss would reclaim the ground. In this way a new forest would rise from the ashes of the old.
The other reason I preferred walking through the hot burn was the need to keep moving. A cloud of flying insects harried me constantly, buzzing in my ear. Now I realized what a miscalculation I’d made in allowing Faber to shame me into not buying any bug spray. At the time I had decided he was right—dealing with insects in the bush required changing one’s state of mind. Bugs only bothered you, I told myself, if you let them. But now I realized how mistaken I’d been. The phraseeaten alive came to mind. A hoary phrase—and yet so correct. I couldn’t shake them. Insecta had it out for me: mosquitoes large and small, black flies, sand flies, no-seeums, deer flies, horseflies. Morel picker flies. The list went on. They pursued me like the furies, darting in when my hands were full of mushrooms, penetrating my ears and nostrils, clawing at the corners of my eyes, finding sweaty folds of skin and clothing under which to burrow in and hide. They gave no quarter. Just before 1 p.m. I reached my limit, turned around, and headed back toward camp, where we had agreed to meet for lunch. I was a mile or more away. I had four full baskets and a half-full bucket—about 50 pounds, half my goal. Miraculously, I passed Faber a quarter mile from camp. He’d already eaten lunch and was on his way back into the bush. All along, with nobody to talk to except the voice in my head, I had been wondering what Faber would say about my first full day of picking professionally. I replayed little scenarios over and over, imagined bits of conversation. Would he be critical? Dismissive? I was on his turf, trying to prove something. Now he looked at my load and said, “Well, you’ve outpicked everyone else around here. Go get some lunch and take a break.” It’s understood that the level of picking doesn’t impress Faber, but still, he’s not one to offer empty praise. I’m feeling good. The way home was treacherous, however. I carried my heavy load over countless deadfalls and beneath leaning snags. The top of my pack, with its extended frame that rose a foot above my head, was now a liability. Like a buck that must lower his antlered head in thick cover, I was forced to duck and weave among the downed timber, several times getting hung up while trying to scoot under suspended logs. Potential widow-makers littered the ground. It’s easy to see how a picker might come to a grisly end in the burn, impaled on a sharp branch or crushed by a tree. By the time I reached camp I was exhausted. The bugs had had their way with me. At times there were so many crawling over my skin that I felt like I was walking through spider webs. My body was covered with raised red welts—more than a dozen on my right wrist alone where the skin was exposed. Behind each ear collected a dry, crumbly crust of blood, matted hair, and squashed flies, and beneath that the Braille-like pattern of bumps where they had pierced tender recesses of epidermis before I could swat them away. The bumps followed my hairline all the way around the nape of my neck, while the larger welts of horseflies and deerflies adorned my shoulders, back, and chest, with a collection of bloody lumps in the pit of my chest where they had gotten under my shirt and more on my abdomen. Mosquito bites were indiscriminate. They were everywhere, wherever the bloodsuckers could get purchase. I had flecks of bright red blood all over me. My hands were black with soot, not to mention my own dried blood from swatting so many half-sated mosquitoes. My pants had turned from a light khaki color to lead gray. My feet ached.
But hey, more than 50 pounds before lunch. I’m feeling good.