One late summer morning in the forest above Lake Tahoe, with the sun blazing and the traffic rushing by on U.S. Highway 50, I find myself crunching through dry pine-needle duff looking for wild mushrooms. Of mushrooms I know only that they come sliced or whole in my local supermarket, brown (which somehow hints of the wild and is more expensive) or white; that a particular hallucinogenic variety can be obtained on the black market for recreational purposes; and that a high percentage of those that grow in the wild will either make you very sick or kill you dead.
Luckily, I have as my guide on this virginal foraging expedition a jolly fellow by the name of Hank Shaw, who knows mushrooms. In this glittering age of industrial agriculture and packaged food, Shaw has made a name for himself writing about what he calls "the forgotten feast," publishing high-art recipes for the preparation, eating, and enjoyment of things like cardoons, yucca flowers, oyster toads, and squirrels—stuff that most folks don't think of as food, or think of at all.
With us is his friend Joel Martyn, a Lutheran pastor from South Lake Tahoe. He's a big man with a thin beard and tattoos up and down both arms. He carries a large holstered Buck knife in his camo backpack. One of his Facebook profile pictures shows him on his knees beside a 6-point bull elk he's just killed with a bow and arrow. "We try to forage and hunt what we can," he says of his family. "It's free, it's healthy, and it's fun for the kids."
Shaw has received vague intelligence from a local friend who claims to have bagged five pounds of boletes a few days prior. We zig-zag off-trail through the lodgepoles, looking for little pushed-up mounds of duff— "shrumps," as these gentlemen call them— beneath which lurk either cool, fresh, edible mushrooms or piles of rotted, fungal material that Shaw compares to sticking one's hand into cold deer guts or diarrhea.
"It's good habitat," says Shaw, kicking at the dirt, "but it's dry. Crunchy-crunchy." He talks about how professional mushroom hunters lie about their finds. In a few weeks, he says, when the season gets going, you might catch a fleeting glimpse of one through the trees, like Sasquatch with a square backpack specially designed to keep the precious porcini buttons from getting crushed. The good stuff goes for upwards of $45 a pound.
We find a few shriveled but deadly corts, a classic Alice in Wonderland spotted fly agaric toadstool, and something that might once have been a bolete but has long since been mutilated by squirrels or insects or time. Shaw and Martyn handle everything with bare hands, which is shocking to me: I've always been afraid to touch unknown wild mushrooms for fear of poisoning. They look at me with the kind of pity reserved for the feeble of mind.
We find a child's ski glove, a plastic bottle, and an old tire. We find an imperfect shrimp russula ("tastes like shrimp," Shaw explains), a red russula ("of the lose your lunch bunch"), a pair of golf ball mushrooms ("you gotta cook 'em a long time to make 'em tender"), and a gigantic russula of another sort that Shaw says the Russians are willing to eat "after salting the hell out of 'em."
Along the way, especially beside the road where they have been thoroughly sprayed with exhaust, heavy metals, and who knows what else, Shaw points out other potentially forageable plants, like cow parsnip, oyster plant, elderflower, and chinquapin, a kind of acorn once highly prized by the local Indians. "There's a huge category of forageable stuff that's small and fiddlesome that I just don't deal with," he says in reference to this last. Starch is the hardest thing for foragers "unless you're willing to spend an inordinate amount of time grinding acorns.