The Mushroom Hunters
Among the Recreationals
My obsession with fungi arrived like a sickness. It con- sumed me. In the immoderate manner I approach all new pursuits, I read just about every book, online treatise, and marginalia I could find. It seemed to me I had something of a knack for stumbling on good mushroom habitat. Maybe this was because of all the hiking and bushwhacking I had done over the years, or maybe it was my youthful crush on birds that gave me a facility with field characteristics. Driving along the highway near my Seattle home, I would catalog the woods I saw and try to imagine what species lived there. Mushrooms often fruit in connection with a specific type of tree. I studied and memorized these kinships. Initially my wife, Martha, was supportive of my new hobby. Soon, though, to her dismay, I was sneaking out at all hours to scout likely patches. I started bringing home what some might consider unreasonable quantities of fungi—pounds and pounds of chanterelles, shaggy manes, giant puffballs, the list goes on—first to eat fresh, and then in such numbers that I cobbled together a homemade dehydrator, bought a stand-up freezer, and even did some pickling in the Mediterranean tradition. The homemade dryer gave way to a dedicated store-bought model, and my map collection grew into an unwieldy binder full of tattered and footnoted quads. I took my compass and mushroom knife wherever I went, just in case.
Ancient Egyptians called mushrooms “the magic food,” with powers of immortality fit only for pharaohs; commoners were forbidden to eat them. In Slavic countries, as far back as anyone can remember, families have gathered beliy grib, the white mushroom, like a crop, as a hedge against hard winters and starvation. In Africa, edible termite mushrooms grow as big as umbrellas, and a single Armillaria fungus spreading across more than two thousand acres of Oregon’s Malheur National Forest is considered the world’s largest organism. Mushrooms have been implicated in the assassination of a Roman emperor and the surrealistic trip down a famous literary rabbit hole. There’s a mushroom that resembles a dead man’s foot and one that looks like a frozen waterfall. Mushrooms are colorful, beguiling, hideous, and transformative.
But more than anything, they are thought of as food. Across much of the globe, through the ages, hunting wild mushrooms has been a regular feature of people’s lives, a rite of passage even. “All Russians know the mushrooms, not by dint of study as the mycologists do, but as part of our ancient heritage, imbibed with our mother’s milk,” writes Valentina Pavlovna Wasson in Mushrooms, Russia, and History. A popular Russian nursery rhyme even includes points of mushroom identification. It’s hard to imagine such children’s verse catching on in North America, save for a cautionary tale about deadly blooms in the woods. Yet even here, in the land of fast food and finicky palates, the allure of the wild mushroom is taking root.
Parked in front of a white tablecloth in a trendy Manhattan restaurant, a curious diner might pause to wonder how all this came about. Not long ago, on a snowy evening near Central Park, I browsed the menu at one of New York’s finest eateries. The quail came with black trumpets. Shaved truffles sexed up a celery root agnolotti. The garganelli corkscrewed fetchingly in a morel cream sauce. The menu was dotted with calligraphed references to chanterelles and porcini, like little colorful caps poking through the forest duff. The fungi, it turned out, even outnumbered the fish. Such riches would have been unimaginable a generation ago. For a mushroom enthusiast like myself—and an increasing number of home cooks and restaurant patrons around the country who know the fungal difference between a lobster and a hedgehog—this quiet revolution of wild edibles has been a culinary bonanza. More and more, diners are discovering that wild mushrooms can stand on their own and replace traditional parts of a meal, even the meat.
My friends tended to view my mushroom compulsion with detached amusement. Even Martha found it hard to fathom. This surprised me because it was Martha who first showed me an edible wild mushroom, in the early days of our courtship, while on a backpacking trip in Olympic National Park. We harvested several pounds of chicken of the woods, a shelf fungus decked out in bright citrus colors, and made an elaborate Italian feast over a camp stove in the wilderness. After this, the domesticated supermarket variety hardly passed muster. For one thing, it’s bland. Selecting mushrooms from a bulk bin—even when they’re periodically updated with new and exotic marketing terms like cremini—can’t begin to match the satisfaction of finding them in the wild. Most people don’t even realize that the Continental-sounding portobello is merely an oversize cremini, both of them being the exact same species, the very domesticated Agaricus bisporus.
A quick primer. All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. The kingdom also includes yeasts, rusts, and mildews—even slime molds. It is a mark of fungi’s otherness that we don’t have a proper lexicon with which to discuss them. Though a mushroom is not technically a fruit, we borrow a term from the plant kingdom and refer to its growth as a fruiting. Thus, a mushroom is the fruiting, reproductive body of a fungus, much as a cherry is the reproductive fruit of a cherry tree. The fungus that produces mushrooms usually—though not always—lives underground in the form of thread-like filaments collectively known as the mycelium, a root-like mass of tiny tendrils. When conditions are right, the mycelium produces a mushroom, which contains the fungus’s reproductive material in the form of spores.
Mushrooms are the great decomposers and recyclers of the world, and they can be categorized in terms of their survival strategies. Note, again, that they’re not plants. They don’t photosynthesize. Instead, they get their nutrients in one of three ways. Some are parasites, like the lobster mushroom, feeding off other living things, even animals. Others are saprobes, recycling dead organic material (wood, dung, humus) into soil. The rest are said to be mycorrhizal, which means they partner with plants in a mutually beneficial exchange of nutrients. Skilled mushroom hunters know how to exploit the various mushrooms’ survival strategies. They can locate colonies of the parasitic honey mushroom, with its tightly packed clusters of amber-colored caps, by finding the dead trees that are its prey; or they can return to a saprophytic lion’s mane mushroom year after year that fruits out of a lightning-struck hardwood. By far the most abstruse relationship is among the mycorrhizal mushrooms. The mushroom hunter seeking chanterelles must understand which plants and trees the chanterelle requires to live. Knowing the trees of the forest is an essential piece of the puzzle.
Only recently has science begun to unravel the mysteries of mushrooms. Turns out, they’re evolutionarily closer to human beings and other members of the animal kingdom than to plants. In other words, fungi and animals share a common relative in the distant past, while plants had already split off the family tree. This commonality between fungi and animals can be seen in chitin, the fibrous substance found in the cell walls of mushrooms and the exoskeletons of arthropods. Fungi have had a profound impact on people and civilizations throughout human history, despite our lack of knowledge. Consider for a moment how baking, brewing, or winemaking would have begun without yeast. Or where we would be without penicillin. In the future we may rely on mushrooms to help clean up oil spills, and the Chernobyl meltdown proved that fungi can mitigate nuclear contamination by literally feeding on radiation. The most obvious use through the centuries, however, can be seen on our dinner tables. Meaty, flavorful, and highly textured, wild mushrooms are a pleasure to cook with and exhibit that sought-after “fifth flavor” popularized in Japan and known as umami, a comforting savoriness that spreads across the palate and coats the tongue, making the diner feel good all over. Many parts of the world have enjoyed long liaisons with fungi, notably Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, much of Asia, and Mesoamerica. North America is largely a mycophobic region, as passed down from an Anglo-Saxon fear of what lurks in the dark woods. But this is changing.
Our driver pulled the lever, the door clanked shut, and we lurched out onto Lake Street, a police escort’s flashing blue lights leading the way through the rain-soaked streets of Boyne City, Michigan. The yellow school bus passed a row of tent canopies set up along neat sidewalks, their unlikely wares on display: lawn gnomes for sale, ornately designed walking sticks, and phalanx after phalanx of carved wooden toadstools as tall as toddlers, with little white price tags fluttering in the wind. It was the start of the annual Boyne City National Morel Hunting Contest, and everyone on board this bus hoped to find glory in the nearby woods.
I was in the lead bus of five, seated next to a woman named Mary Ellen. Passengers shifted in their seats, making squeaking noises in their rain slickers and plastic pants. A few wore wide-brimmed rain hats and billowing ponchos, even garbage bags. “I’m sizing up the opposition,” Mary Ellen whispered to me as she studied each passenger. “That guy might be worth keeping an eye on.” She pointed a discreet elbow at the seat in front of us, where a stocky man in a camouflage trucker cap was checking a GPS application on his smartphone. After living on both coasts, with years spent in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, where she once worked as a network news radio anchor, Mary Ellen had recently returned to live a more bucolic life in her hometown, and today’s excursion was one of the reasons why. The bus picked up speed. No one on board, save the driver, knew our destination. Secrecy, after all, was paramount.
I had come to Boyne City because I have always been drawn to nature’s secrets more than to, say, Hollywood’s secrets or the secrets of Wall Street hedge-fund managers. Nature is real. It exists beyond our ability to create it or even mediate it. When I was young, the mystery of birds kept me up at night. Later, it was anadromous fish, such as salmon and steelhead, swimming upstream on their unknowable migrations. Wildflowers, with their constellations of families and their pouting, O’Keeffean lips, seduced me for a spell. But once the mushrooms grabbed hold, I couldn’t let go. The others got tossed aside and mushrooms became my fondlings, and before long I found myself going to greater and greater lengths—such as today’s morel hunt in a distant state—to satisfy my fungal yearning. This is not to say I wasn’t interested in the human element. In fact, by this point the human intersection with the natural world had become something of a specialty of mine. I was most interested in foraging, that age-old knowledge passed down since antiquity that had briefly lost its luster in the glare of whiz-bang modernity and was now being rediscovered all over again. Foraging existed at the crossroads of a few of my favorite pastimes—nature, the outdoors, and food—and foraging for edible mushrooms satisfied my desires like few pursuits could. At the end of the day, birds were just a note in a life list; I could watch them and study them and be enamored of them, yet they remained apart. Mushrooms, however, came home with me. They went into a pan and became a part of me.
Morels might be the most widely recognized edible mushrooms in the world. In the Midwest they’re the favorite, bar none. Across much of Europe, morels form a culinary triumvirate with two other celebrated types of wild mushrooms, chanterelles and porcini. Each season, hunters take to the woods to visit old family patches handed down like precious heirlooms. In Asia, morels are foraged in bewildering numbers in the Himalayas, Caucasus, Hindu Kush, and elsewhere, with many of those morels funneling into Istanbul before export, just as art and religion did hundreds of years ago. In North America, quite possibly their point of evolutionary origin, morels signify the beginning of a new year of mushroom hunting. The people who gather them come from long lines of mushroom hunters, including those at the Boyne City contest, many of whom had been picking morels since childhood. “I had some in butter and garlic last night,” bragged a man behind me in a flattop haircut. Everyone on the bus within hearing distance perked up. “They’re popping now in Illinois—big time,” confirmed a woman with a harsh smoker’s voice, grasping an oxygen tank. “My eyes aren’t what they used to be,” lamented another, and everyone nodded solemnly. “You know what?” said a tiny, ancient woman across the aisle as she banged her wooden walking stick on the floor for support, gripping its morel-shaped handle with thin, bloodless fingers. “I don’t even eat the darn things and I can’t get enough of them.” “Sweetie, I’ll take ’em off your hands,” said her seatmate, and they both cackled loudly as the bus rounded a corner and left the last vestiges of town behind.