Diane talks with Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and an expert in race and electoral politics.
Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
The “king,” the “trumpet,” “the hedgehog.” These are all names given to wild mushrooms by those who forage for them. It’s a world that author and mushroom forager Langdon Cook knows well. In his new book “Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America,” we are introduced to the subculture of mushroom pickers and buyers who are responsible for finding the wild mushrooms that end up on our plates. Langdon Cook joins guest host Tom Gjelten in studio for the hour.
- Langdon Cook Author, "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America."
Mushroom Hunting With Langdon Cook
Read An Excerpt
From the book “The Mushroom Hunters” by Langdon Cook. Copyright © 2013 by Langdon Cook. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. The King, the Trumpet, the Hedgehog are some of the names given to wild mushrooms by those who forage for them.
MR. TOM GJELTENIt's a world that author and mushroom forager Langdon Cook knows well. In his new book "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America," we are introduced to the subculture of mushroom pickers and mushroom buyers who are responsible for finding the wild mushrooms that end up on our plates.
MR. TOM GJELTENLangdon Cook joins us here in the studio for this hour. It's a pleasure to have you here, Langdon.
MR. LANGDON COOKThank you for having me.
GJELTENAnd all you mushroom connoisseurs out there, here's your chance. You can get in on this conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. You can tweet us. You can email us firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook. And Langdon, are you a mushroom cook? Can people call in with their questions about cooking mushrooms? I'll bet you are. You are, aren't you?
COOKMost certainly. I love to cook mushrooms and, in fact, they lend themselves to all sorts of great preparations, so cooks call in.
GJELTENYou know, my wife and I really like Hen-of-the-Woods and we haven't quite figured out what's the best way to cook them yet. We sometimes grill them, sometimes bake them. I'm partial to grilling them. How do you cook these big Hen-of-the-Woods mushrooms?
COOKIt's funny that you start with Hen-of-the-Woods because I live out in Seattle. We don't have them on the West coast.
COOKYes, so you know I love Hen-of-the-Woods, but I have to have them at restaurants. I would say, though, that, you know, you can't go wrong sautéing mushrooms in a little bacon fat. You know, that's always the sort of fallback for me.
GJELTENOkay, we'll remember that. So you didn't come to this book, did you Langdon, just, you know, as by some idle curiosity, looking for a good thing to write a book about? You've got -- is it fair to say you're sort of obsessed with mushrooms and have been for a while?
COOKWell you know, I've been foraging for wild foods for about 20 years now, really ever since I moved to Seattle. I'm originally from the East coast and there's a very vibrant foraging culture in the Northwest. Of course, we've got shellfish and salmon and berries, but maybe we're most famous for our mushrooms.
COOKIt's a damp area, as you know, and people get pretty excited during mushroom season. So this is something I've been doing for a long time and it wasn't until I spent a year living off the grid in the wilds of Oregon in the Rogue River Canyon with my family that I suddenly stumbled upon foraging and mushrooms as my subject matter, as a writer.
COOKAnd you know they're just very charismatic and there are many stories to be told about both the mushrooms and those who go in search of them.
GJELTENWhy, you tell a lot of them in your book and it's a very colorful book. You know, I think the first question that I had is, I mean, I've obviously seen wild mushrooms on plates in restaurants and seen them in, you know, fancy food stores and so forth. Why is it that they are wild? I mean, why is it that these exotic mushrooms cannot be cultivated? That's, you know, to me, that's a real mystery.
COOKRight. Well, you know, most of the mushrooms that are foraged wild are what is known -- they have symbiotic relationships with trees. They're known to be mycorrhizal, which means they share nutrients with trees and they need the trees to live and the trees really need them as well.
COOKAnd that's just something that we haven't figured out in terms of, you know, farming them. Now, we do, of course, farm mushrooms. They're domesticated and so if you go to the grocery store and you find those classic, white Button mushrooms, sometimes they're called Kremini and they're, you know, updated with exotic, new marketing terms.
COOKIn fact, a Portobello mushroom is just simply an oversized Kremini, but those are domesticated mushrooms. Those are grown by us in, you know, indoor, cultivating rooms. But the wild mushrooms, they need certain species of trees to live. Sometimes they're parasitic. Sometimes they live off of sort of recycled -- they recycle humus and that sort of thing.
COOKSo they have different strategies that we haven't figured out in terms of domesticating and so you have to go into the woods to find them.
GJELTENYou can't replicate the environment they need to grow?
COOKNo. For example, Chanterelles and King Boletes, those are mushrooms that just simply cannot be farmed, at least we haven't figured it out yet.
GJELTENWell, you've got -- you brought me a bag here of Morel mushrooms and we like to cook Morels at home. Let me just -- these are very fragrant mushrooms, these Morels.
COOKThat's an earthy, toasty flavor there, isn't it?
GJELTENYeah, it is. Now Morels are fairly common, I think it's fair to say, wild. Are they, in fact, wild? Because you can buy Morel mushrooms, dried mushrooms, Morel mushrooms like this in some of the fancier supermarkets. Do they all come from the wild?
COOKThey're all foraged, by foragers out in the wild. Now there are people that are working around the clock to try and domesticate Morels, but so far their efforts have really come to naught. I think it's been done in a test tube, although I've been told that the taste isn't so great.
COOKSo really if you want premium Morels, you have to go into the woods and find them yourself or you have to pay somebody to do that.
GJELTENGive us a sense of -- I mean, as I say, Morels, you can find in a lot of supermarkets. What's the volume of production of Morels? I mean, what's the story behind these Morel mushrooms? How many of them are produced each year? How many of them are picked, I mean?
COOKWell, that's a good question because, you know, this is a fairly shadowy industry, fairly clandestine. It's taking place in the woods, sort of out of sight and it's hard to come by facts and figures like that. Certainly thousands and thousands, if not millions, of pounds, but, you know, Morels are foraged all over the world. And what's happening here in North America is really just a small fraction of the global output of Morels.
GJELTENSo some of these might be actually imported?
COOKWell, the Morels that I brought to you today are from the North Cascades of Washington State where...
COOK...I live. And you know, the likelihood is that if you're eating Morels in this country, they probably came from somewhere in the greater Northwest, although actually Morels are found all over the country. And in fact, there's great Morel culture in the Midwest, the upper Midwest, especially in places like Michigan, Indiana. They have these wonderful Morel festivals in May. You can forage them.
COOKCertainly right around here, but in terms of commercial quantities, the action is in the Northwest.
GJELTENBut wild mushrooms are, I mean, is it fair to say that it's big business?
COOKYou know, it's certainly a multi-million-dollar business. Now I don't think anybody's, you know, getting rich off of it, but it's becoming a bigger and bigger business all the time and...
GJELTENYou call it big business with an outlaw edge. That's a fascinating idea.
COOKThat's right. I mean, it is in some ways sort of a last gasp of that sort of frontier, capitalist spirit or the Wild West. You know, it's an all-cash business. It's sort of happening out of sight, in the woods and a lot of the characters are pretty colorful that are engaged in it.
GJELTENWell, actually speaking of colorful characters, you've got your book with you, don't you? I mean, this is one of the great things about your book, Langdon, is that you actually went out -- you, as you say, you've been foraging for a long time, but you sort of inserted yourself personally in kind of the business end of it, the subculture of mushroom hunters and you met a number of mushroom foragers while you were out there among them.
GJELTENTell us about this character that you're going to -- you're going to read a little selection from your book about one of the mushroom hunters. Tell us a little bit about him first.
COOKThat's right. I got on what's known as the mushroom trail and if you can imagine it, the mushroom trail extends from about northern California up through Oregon, Washington, British Columbia to southeast Alaska and that includes the Yukon, Idaho, Montana.
COOKThat's sort of the area, all right, and you can travel that area year-round on a circuit. So one of the characters that I met is known as a circuit picker. He's traveling year-round picking the flushes as they move. His name is Doug and this kicks off chapter two which is entitled "The Circuit Picker."
COOK"Doug Len (sp?) Carnell regarded me sternly. I've got nothing to hide, he said. Use my whole name, first, last and middle, although he wasn't sure about the spelling of the middle name. That was just about the first thing Doug said to me and the policy never wavered as he showed me everything he knew.
COOKTo say Doug is a woodsman is to make an easy understatement. Doug has worked as a logger, sure, but he's also served in the military, pounded nails, cut steel and captained a crab boat. When you drive around the Pacific Northwest's moldering timber communities with Doug and his $500, midnight-blue Buick Century sedan, you spend a lot of time waving to the people you pass, all friends or former colleagues, shake rats, longliners, Cat drivers, metal scrappers and three old coots jawing outside the general store.
COOKHe might spin a yarn about the ghost of a little girl who haunts Willa Bay's oyster flats or point out the eroded tops of cedar posts used long ago as an Indian salmon weir. He skied with Olympic medalists and sold peaches for profit. He's been thrice married and thrice divorced, but above all, Doug is a mushroom picker."
GJELTENThat's fascinating. A couple of thoughts. One, you called him a circuit picker, but he's very much in a different category than the citrus pickers, the migrant laborers who just do pretty bone-breaking or back-breaking drudge work. These people have to know what they're doing out there, right?
COOKWell, see, that's one of the fun things about mushroom hunting and that's why more and more people are getting into it, both recreationally and commercially. It's a complicated algorithm, a puzzle that needs to be worked out.
COOKYou have to sort of figure out tree composition and soil type and weather and topography and locating patches is just a thrill. It's a treasure hunt. So when you find that first mushroom, you know, it's just really -- when I take people into the woods and they find their first mushroom, that's it. They're sold.
GJELTENYou say about Chanterelle hunters, the mushroom hunters 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.
COOKThat's right. And one thing that I really appreciate about this hobby is that you learn so much about nature. It really kind of brings you into the natural world and, you know, one of the things that I'm really stressing in my classes that I teach is that we need to reconnect our landscape with the natural world, so learning our trees and our birds and, you know, just being familiar with topography, being able to wander into the woods and know where you're going and get yourself safely out.
COOKThese are things that, you know, I like to stress.
GJELTENWell, you just called it a hobby, but a lot of the people in your book do it for a living, don't they?
COOKWell, these are the professionals and they have an understanding that it just goes beyond what, at one time, seemed to me to be possible. You know, I could tell you a quick little story about how the book started.
COOKI was picking Morels in the North Cascades in 2007, in July, and I was with a friend. And we were in the woods and we started hearing these strange noises around us. And the thing that was unnerving us, they were human noises, not animals and this is a place known for its wolves and grizzlies.
GJELTENI'm going to have you pick up on that story after a short break. Langdon Cook is the author of "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America." He's got lots of stories about the mushroom hunter's world. He just started one. We're going to finish it after this short break, stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm today with my guest Langdon Cook. He's the author of "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America." And he's got lots of stories. Langdon, I kind of cut you off there just before the break. You were starting -- you were talking about a real interesting -- you were telling an interesting story about how you -- first time you were out there and you heard these noises around you...
COOKThat's right, and they were people not animals.
GJELTENAnd they were people, not -- but you do have to worry about wild animals out there, don't you?
COOKYou know, there are bears and cougars and all that sort of thing but no, you don't have to worry about them.
GJELTENBut in this case what you heard were people.
COOKThat's right. And that's what was especially unnerving. And so my friend and I, we sort of started retreating from the woods not knowing exactly what was going on. And we turned around and we bumped into these two guys . And they had packs towering over their heads and here we were with our cute little woven Guatemalan baskets with maybe five pounds apiece of Morels. And these guys each had about 80 pounds on their backs.
COOKAnd I recognized immediately that they were commercial pickers and I realized that what they were doing was actually communicating in the woods with each other through a series of, you know, hoots and whistles and that sort of thing. And they looked at us and we looked at them and nothing was said. And then they just sort of turned on their heels and disappeared back into the timber. It was kind of like a Big Foot sighting.
COOKAnd that was the moment when I knew I had to write about these guys because it was just such an interesting subculture that nobody had really devoted much time to studying. And so, you know, I got on the mushroom trail.
GJELTENYou talked about professional mushroom forages but do you have any idea how many there are or is this -- because this is such a shadowy world, is there no way of knowing?
COOKIt's hard to know but there's certainly several thousand professional harvesters in the west. In fact, during the height of the matsutake mushroom season in central Oregon there might be 3,000 pickers all kind of squeezed together in one national forest in central Oregon. So, yeah, I would say that there're certainly several thousand pickers who do it on a fairly fulltime basis.
GJELTENThis is a fascinating story. We're getting a lot of listeners calling in with their questions and comments about it. Remember our number's 800-433-8850. We're going to get to those questions in a minute but I'm going to sort of monopolize Langdon Cook here for a few more minutes. I'm thinking of a store like Whole Foods where you can always find, you know, a lot of exotic mushrooms. How do the -- on the wholesale end of this, the buyers for a big chain of supermarkets like Whole Foods, where do they get and how do they get those mushrooms?
GJELTENWhat's the -- you know, you talked a lot about the picking of the mushrooms in the woods but what about on the other end. There's sort of the retail end of this business.
COOKSure, you have the buyers.
COOKRight. And the buyers set up their buy stands near the patches in rural areas where the pickers are. And, you know, a lot of these people are out camping on the national forest, buyers included. And then in some cases the buyers or field buyers who are working, you know, for larger wholesalers -- I profile a buyer in my book who is smaller scale. And he actually sells directly to restaurants. So he bypasses the link that you're talking about. But certainly, you know, you can find wild mushrooms now at Whole Foods and other specialty markets and farmers markets.
GJELTENNow given that -- you know, it's not as big a part of the food industry as other parts are obviously, but it is -- as you say, it is a big multimillion dollar operation. How is it that this aspect of the food industry is entirely unregulated even though you have big supermarkets buying the stuff? And one of the things that you point out in your book, Langdon, is a lot of these mushrooms are actually picked illegally.
COOKRight. That does happen. Now I would say the vast majority are picked legally.
COOKBut, you know, the rules are kind of fast and loose at times. I think it's hard for the harvesters to keep up with the rule changes.
GJELTENSo there are rules.
COOKYeah, but it's a crazy quilt patter of rules. I mean, you're talking about federal rules and county and state. You know, national forests differ. They can be adjacent to each other and yet have completely different rules, national parks, state parks. It really depends and, you know, of course it's up to the forager to know what the regulations are in a specific place. But they're constantly changing and I think the regulators are actually trying to play a little bit of catch-up ball.
COOKYou know, wild foods and foraging, this is sort of a trendy thing right now. It's gaining popularity. And the regulators are -- you know, they're a little behind on this. So you have, you know, lots of different regulations.
GJELTENWe, at one point, called this -- called the economy of wild mushrooms an underground economy. I don't know if we were just trying to be too clever by half there or if actually it is, in a sense, an underground economy.
COOKRight. There's a little bit of that. You know, it is certainly -- I mean, the mycelium of the mushrooms of course are underground. But the economy itself, yes, you know, I think it's fairly hidden. And I'm trying to cast a little bit of a light on it. My interest is really ultimately in the characters, in the stories that come out of this. I do get into the business end of it and of course sort of the politics and the regulations and all of that.
COOKBut at the end of the day I'm most fascinated by the characters and what they have to do to go into the woods and find a hundred pounds of morels in a day, which might strike some as virtually impossible but they do it. And in fact, in order to be successful you really do have to pick these large quantities.
GJELTENYou can't carry a hundred pounds of mushrooms, can you? I mean, it's one thing to lift a hundred pounds but I imagine a hundred pounds of mushrooms is like -- they must be big gunnysacks full of mushrooms or a couple of them or three of them, right? How much -- how big are a hundred pounds of mushrooms?
COOKI know. It's a lot. Well, what they do is you have a pack board. It's similar to what say a hunter might use to pack out, you know, an elk or something, a large animal like that.
GJELTENSo you drag is behind you.
COOKWell, no. You wear it on your back and you pack up the pack board these baskets. And they're the sort of produce baskets that you might see in a restaurant's walk-in cooler. And they get traded around between the buyers and the pickers and the restaurants. And they're sort of a standard size. And each basket holds about 12 pounds of mushrooms. And these baskets get stacked up the pack board and then lash to it. So you can actually carry a hundred pounds of mushrooms out of the bush.
COOKNo easy feat, especially if you have bushwhacked miles into un-trailed territory and you've got to find your way back out at the end of the day. It's exhausting work.
GJELTENOkay. Let's say you're a really proficient expert mushroom forager. How much you going to -- and you're willing to work hard, long hours, how much are you going to make?
COOKYou know, it's all over the map. I talked to a morel harvester who had a really good spring one year. He said he cleared $30,000, which seems like...
GJELTENJust in the spring.
COOKIn one season picking morels. He was picking a hundred pounds a day every day throughout the spring. But, you know, it fluctuates wildly. The prices go up and down and really it's dependent on the weather as well. You never know if the mushrooms are going to have a good season or not. And you just, you know, boots on the ground, you've got to get into the woods and find out for yourself.
GJELTENOkay. When that guy has all these morels, a hundred pounds a day, and sells them to a buyer, does he get cash, does he get a check, you know, direct deposit in his bank account?
COOKYeah, there are no checks or credit cards involved. It is all cash. So he'll hump those mushrooms out of the woods and, you know, put the baskets in his pickup and drive to the nearest buyer. Or perhaps it's a buyer that he has a relationship with, you know, a buyer that he hopes to get the best price from because sometimes the prices do differ a little bit from buyer to buyer. And then the buyer will go through his mushrooms and grade them and weigh them.
COOKNow with morels, there isn't a lot of grading that goes on. There's pretty much one price that the buyer is paying and that's what the picker will get. But then take porcini for instance, those are king bolete mushrooms. The Italians call them porcini and that's pretty much the term of commerce. The buyer will go through the porcini and start slicing them in half to see if any of them have worm infestations. You know, the worms like them as much as we do. And other animals do as well. I mean, the bears and the elk and the deer all love porcini.
COOKBut he'll go through and grade the porcini. And then depending on the buyer, he'll have a scale of say number one through number three or maybe number four and the number one button is the best. And he'll pay top dollar for that. And then the number three or the number four is a mushroom that will get dried for later. And the picker's making very little for that.
GJELTENSo we have a listener, speaking of porcinis, who wonders why aren't they available in the U.S.? Is that true, they're not available...
COOKPorcini is available in the U.S.
GJELTENYeah, I thought they were. And he sent -- are these -- he sent a picture. I guess these are some that he found himself from the Black Hills of South Dakota. Do those look like porcini to you in that picture?
COOKFrom here they do, yeah.
COOKYeah, porcini, one of my favorite mushrooms, when they're fresh they have a wonderful nutty flavor. When they're dried they have that earthy toasty aroma that just, it's like inhaling the woods themselves, the duff and the dirt and the trees. I mean, it's really a powerful aroma. And what I like to do is I grind them up and reconstitute them -- excuse me -- in hot water. And then use that powerful flavor for soups, stews, sauces.
GJELTENNow, you talked in your book about another type of mushroom that -- and I've eaten quite a few mushrooms and I adore wild mushrooms -- but there is one that I had never heard of before, a lobster mushroom. Tell us about the lobster mushroom. You actually say -- and I have trouble believing this, Langdon -- that you made some lobster risotto using lobster mushrooms instead of lobster meat. And you said you could barely tell the difference. That is hard to believe.
COOKWell, let me correct you slightly. I use both Maine lobster and Washington lobster mushrooms.
GJELTENBut you couldn't tell them apart.
COOKAnd I challenged my friends from Maine to see if they could tell the difference. You know, lobster mushrooms are an increasingly popular mushroom on the mushroom trail and at restaurants. Ten years ago you could hardly pay a chef to use them. Now, you know, they're catching on. The lobster mushroom is a very interesting type of fungus. It's actually a twofer. It's one species of fungus that has parasitized another transforming sort of a bland white gilled, unpalatable mushroom into a brilliant neon orange, show-stopping and choice edible.
COOKAnd you're seeing it more frequently these days in restaurants. And when it's sautéed it has sort of a silky, you know, lobster like texture. And it does have a little bit of a hint of the sea to it. So I call that risotto my double cross country lobster risotto. And it is a way to sort of make your Maine lobster meat go a little further.
GJELTENTell us about the first time that you saw a lobster mushroom in (unintelligible) out there in the woods.
COOKWell, in the book actually I open in the prologue with a lobster mushroom hunt. And this is within an anonymous forager who did not want to reveal his name because he was foraging illegally inside Rainier National Park. And he took me to his secret patch. And it was just unbelievable. I mean, I'll go out and I'll find a bunch of lobster mushrooms, you know, five, maybe ten pounds and I'm happy with that. Over the course of that maybe two- or three-hour period, I think we found somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred pounds of lobster mushrooms.
COOKWe were in a beautiful old growth forest of Douglas Firs and Hemlock. It was a nice place to walk around. And the lobster mushrooms, bright orange, were just peaking out of the duff. And it was just seeing each one, finding it, putting it in the bucket. It was a very satisfying feeling. Of course, what we were doing was technically not legal.
GJELTENAnd you reminded him of that and he had a very interesting reaction. Tell us how he reacted when you reminded him that what you were doing was illegal.
COOKYeah, you know, he said to me, well, you know, think about, you know, the mountaineering, you know, clubs that are up here and the concessionaires and all the different sort of commercial enterprises that are working out of the park. You know, why can't I just go pick a few mushrooms? And then he kind of angrily scoffed at the amount of RVs that were driving through and camping. I mean, this was a guy, you know, who had some problems with, you know, how people are using the wilderness.
COOKHe lives pretty close to the bone. He loves being out in the woods. He does not like the RV culture and he wants to go sleep on the ground, you know, and really experience it the way maybe, you know, it was experienced a hundred years ago.
GJELTENSo he sees himself as not putting the forest environment at risk but he's worried about all those others who are less responsible.
COOKThat's correct. At least that's how he justified it.
GJELTENLangdon Cook is author of "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America." I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know what? Let's go -- I have to say, Langdon, and I wasn't prepared for this but we have a ton of callers. Let's start out with Geri in Washington, D.C. Good morning, Geri, you've called "The Diane Rehm Show."
GERIHi. Good morning. Couple of questions. For one, I'm a shiitake person mainly because from what limited knowledge I have, they're very healthy and they're great on vitamin D. And according to what you're saying, mushrooms is a weather phenomenon, a weather and location phenomenon, meaning like Pacific Northwest forests. And are there any -- and I think that shitakes must be domesticated because at Whole Foods there's organic shitakes. And also, is there any mushroom hunting in the D.C. area or is it a west coast, northwest phenomenon?
GJELTENWell, I would think that wild mushrooms almost by definition are organic, or am I wrong, Langdon?
COOKWell, wild mushrooms are. But it's telling that they mention that they're organic with the shitake because those are domesticated mushrooms. So those are farmed. But they are very good for you. They have lots of phytonutrients. And they have that umami property. That's a term popularized in Japan. It means the fifth flavor. It's a sort of comfort-inducing savoriness that spreads across the palate. And wild mushrooms, and all mushrooms, are loaded with umami. So that's why they're so much fun to cook with. But, yeah--no shitake are wonderful mushrooms.
COOKIn terms of foraging in the D.C. area, you can forage for mushrooms in every state in the union, even Hawaii, Florida, certainly Alaska, right here in D.C. You just need to get out there, get outside and start looking around. One thing that I recommend to anyone who's interested in mushrooms is join a mycological society.
GJELTENSay that again, a myco -- not a micrological...
COOKA mycological society.
COOKRight. Mycology is the scientific study of mushrooms. And there are mycological societies all over the country. And they're really becoming quite popular. We have one where I live ,the Puget Sound Mycological Society, which has thousands of members. And that is the best way to learn about mushrooms. Because remember, there are some poisonous varieties out there in the woods. It's important to be able to recognize those. And then lots of delicious edible ones, some of which are pretty easy to recognize. But I would say it's better to go out with an expert, with someone who knows what they're doing. And learn from them in the field. Looking at pictures in a field guide isn't really the way to start.
GJELTENHow big a problem are poisonous mushrooms?
COOKWell, on the west coast -- really on both coasts, every year, you know, a few people are victimized by bad identification. They pick a mushroom that they think is edible. It's not. It's poisonous and the results can be disastrous.
GJELTENOf course if you're a commercial forager, you're going to bring your mushrooms to a buyer. And if by some chance you happen to pick the wrong one the buyer's not going to buy it obviously.
COOKThere's no record of that ever happening. There just simply isn't a record of a poisonous mushroom ending up for sale at a marketplace.
GJELTENLangdon Cook is the author of "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America." He also wrote "Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager." That was from your earlier foraging experience I guess.
GJELTENHe's also a columnist for Seattle magazine and we're talking this morning about wild mushroom hunting. And Langdon actually did it and wrote about it in this new book. We're going to take a short break. We've got a lot of people on the line waiting to asking questions of Langdon. We'll get to those calls when we come back. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten from NPR, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. I'm here with Langdon Cook. He's the author of a new book called, "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America." And you can try to get into this conversation -- our number is 800-433-8850 -- but I have to tell you you're going to have some stiff competition because our lines have been full just about since we opened the phones. You might want to, instead, try to send an email.
GJELTENYou can have maybe a better chance of getting your question on the air if you send an email, but call if you'd like. We were talking, just before the break, Langdon, about the problem of poisonous mushrooms. Here's an interesting email. "Can your guest give any kind of general guidelines for telling the difference between a poisonous and a nonpoisonous mushroom?" This is the good part, "My Sicilian grandmother used to say that if you put a nickel in the fry pan with the mushrooms and the nickel turns black, that means they're poisonous." That's from Vince, in Baltimore.
COOKRight. I've heard that one before. And…
GJELTENYeah, go ahead.
COOK…that simply is not a good policy. All those sort of folk, you know, traditional ways of telling, you know, poisonous from nonpoisonous mushrooms, they're pretty much all wrong. I wouldn't resort to that. You really need to be able to identify them correctly by looking at their field characteristics.
GJELTENYou know, but this is an interesting -- because sometimes folk ideas actually have a grain of truth in them. And one thing we know about wild mushroom foraging is that this has gone on for a long, long time, right?
COOKPretty much since we came out of the trees, yeah.
GJELTENSo I mean there must have been sort of folk wisdom about -- or was it just a matter of trial and error?
COOKWell, you've got to think that there's a long history of trial and error there that involved a few people who didn't make it. And I guess we have to, you know, when we sit down to our mushroom feast, we have to raise a glass to them, the brave. But no, you have to be careful. And that's why I really suggest that you join a Mycological Society and go out with someone who knows what they're doing.
COOKSeeing them in the field, being able to hold them in your hand, looking at them from all angles, that's the way to learn wild mushrooms. That said, some of our best edibles are actually pretty easy to identify, Chanterelles, King Boletes, Black Trumpets, Hedgehog mushrooms, you know, the Hedgehog -- that's its common name. It's known for the little spines that it has under the camp, hence the name Hedgehog. So it's actually quite easy to identify.
COOKBut it's important to learn these field characteristics before you start, you know, grazing in the backyard.
GJELTENPaul wants to know if it's possible to grow truffles in the United States. In fact, he asks are truffles even considered mushrooms. They're from the fungi family, I guess.
COOKThey are fungi, for sure. And they live underground and they emit a powerful cocktail of chemical molecules that attract other rodents to eat them and also human beings. But I have a whole chapter, actually, on truffles in the book. And yes, they are grown commercially. So there's one species in particular, the Perigord truffle, which is very popular in France, which lends itself to domesticity. But then, also, people have figured out how to find our native truffles on the Pacific Coast.
COOKThese would be Oregon Black and White truffles that grow with Douglas firs. And actually, the Christmas tree farms are good places to look for those and timber plots. They like those young Douglas firs. They're wild, but they can be foraged in good numbers. And then, you know, in terms of the Perigord truffles that are being farmed, that is an increasingly popular activity.
COOKAnd I think we're just starting to get some data coming in on how those truffle farms are doing in the new world, because this is really a brand new thing. I mean to be a truffle farmer is to have a very new sort of job title, at least in this country.
GJELTENAnd truffles are a real delicacy and I know that genuine truffle pasta is a very pricey dish, truffle sauce.
GJELTENI mean a little jar of truffles, you pay a lot for them, don't you?
COOKWell, or the waiter might come by, tableside, with, you know, a little mandolin or something to shave them. And he'll weigh the truffle beforehand on his little scale. And then he'll shave it and weight it again. And you're paying, you know, the difference. And in some cases more than what the dish would have been, you know, originally.
GJELTENLet's go now to Al, who's on the line from Ohio. Good morning, Al.
ALHey, good morning. How are you guys? Thanks so much for having this on.
ALYeah, just a couple things real quick. You just talked about truffles and how expensive they are. My buddy came back from Italy with truffle honey and he brought it to this place where we were all at. And he says, go ahead, have some, enjoy it. Well, I took some honey, but I also took one of the truffles and I caught his ire for that.
GJELTENWell, it's because they're so expensive.
ALYeah, but anyhow, I have some friends that I know that go do mushroom hunting and foraging. But they won't ever tell me where it is. They won't take me. And all we want is to get into doing this and I'm, you know, by trade, I went to chef school and I worked in the business, so I'm fascinated by all types of food, and in particular these wild mushrooms.
GJELTENSo, Langdon, I guess that genuine mushroom foragers don't like to share their turf or their knowledge or something, right?
COOKYeah, here's a suggestion for the caller, he can lay in wait like a gator in the weeds for his friend to drive by and then tail him to the secret patch. I mean there's all sorts of, you know, great stories about prevarication and secret patches and people taking their patches, you know, to their deathbed. And it's part of the fun, I think. Some of it's a bit of mythologizing. You know, we love to talk about our secret patches, but I have to say that most of the professional foragers that I met on the mushroom trail were very generous with their information.
GJELTENLet's go now to Edward, in Sarasota, Fla. Edward, it says here, you are a professional mushroom forager; is that right?
EDWARDI was when I lived in England. It was about eight years ago, and I was trained by a wonderful German lady called Brigitte, Mrs. Tee's Wild Mushrooms. She's well known in the New Forest in England. And my kept my patch very secret from her and then one day she came to my birthday party and she found where my patch was.
GJELTENWell, wait a second, first of all she trained you to be a forager, but then when you had your own patch you wouldn't even share it with her?
EDWARDNo. No, because I could pick about -- I used to get up at 4:00 in the morning, when dawn broke, and I used to collect between 18 and 20 kilos of ceps every morning.
COOKCeps, that's Porcini.
EDWARDYeah, and the cep du Bouchon, was the one that was worth another 2 or 3 pounds more per kilo than the larger ones, because the Bouchon, is the baby and it's not…
COOKRight, the button.
EDWARD…generally infected by worms.
GJELTENAnd why did you do this? Did you do this for a love of mushrooms or for, you know, did you appreciate the adventure, being outdoors?
EDWARDWell, I lived in the New Forest, but I'd always been a gardener and I loved the forest. And I just became -- and you do become obsessed. And when I say obsessed, I mean really obsessed. It's a wonderful, wonderful thing. The only thing I'm disappointed now is I've moved to Florida and I see mushrooms and I don't know whether they're edible or not. And I do speak to Mrs. Tee and she says, well, send me photographs.
COOKCan she tell our listeners what sort of living she made off it, whether it was the sort of living…
EDWARDShe has a beautiful house and Rolls Royce. She supplies…
COOKOh, this is…
GJELTENThis is Mrs. Tee, but what about yourself?
EDWARDOh, well, I built my own house in Sarasota. I'm not doing too badly.
GJELTENOn the basis of your mushroom earnings?
EDWARDPartly. That paid my mortgage, and then I also run another business in furnishing…
EDWARD…and horticulture. But mushrooms are -- I wish -- that's the one thing, people say to me why did you leave England? And I say because we built a house and, you know, I want to move over to here. And it's a fun thing to do when you're young enough. And they say what do you miss? And I say I miss the forest, the ponies, my little thatch cottage and I miss the mushrooms. We used to go out every morning, me and my dog, and I really miss it. It's an obsessive -- I can't tell you how -- when you find a Hen of the Woods or a Chicken of the Woods or when you find the Trompette de la mort, the -- is what we call them.
COOKThe Black trumpet, right.
EDWARDThe Black trumpet, yeah. When you find a huge stack of those along the riverbank, oh, it's just, oh, my goodness. And you don't sell them, you keep them.
GJELTENWell, thanks so much for sharing your stories with us, Edward. I mean, you're right, aren't you? These are fascinating people that go into this for the love of mushrooms and the love of the nature.
COOKFor sure. And he mentioned chicken of the woods. That was the first mushroom that I ever foraged myself and ate from the wild, which was about 20 years ago, while backpacking in Olympic National Park.
GJELTENWell, I asked -- we opened the show talking about Hen of the Woods, are they two different types of mushrooms? (unintelligible) was not found in the upper Northwest.
COOKRight. Chicken of the Woods is a different mushroom. It's a sulphur shelf, polypore, decked out in bright citrus colors of orange and yellow. And actually, when you saute it up in the pan, it does have a little bit of that chicken texture to it. I made a stir-fry. It was wonderful, and that's when I got hooked.
GJELTENI have an email here from Mike, in Washington, D.C. He says, "My girlfriend and I are avid mushroom foragers and manage to find a good amount of choice edibles in the woods." His girlfriend co-owns a new local grocery store in Washington, D.C. and, "is interested in offering some of our findings there. Many of these mushrooms are quite easily identified and offer no risk to eat them. Are there any regulations we need to be aware of in offering these mushrooms to the public at her grocery store?" He's talking about his girlfriend's grocery store. Do they have to keep any regulations in mind, you know, if they want to commercialize some of the mushrooms that they have themselves picked?
COOKIncreasingly that's the case. I know in my home state of Washington, new regulations are being devised coast to coast. So, you know, you have to look into your local jurisdictions, but yes, there are regulations there.
GJELTENLet's go now to Henry, who's on the line from Rochester, N.Y. Good morning, Henry.
HENRYGood morning. Thanks for the program. I did not expect to be fascinated by the mushroom conversation, but I am.
GJELTENThere you go.
HENRYI grew up on a small farm in central New York, near Cazenovia, and we used to pick puff balls. Do you have any experience with puff balls?
COOKAs a matter of fact, I do. We have giant puff balls, in fact you have them as well. And I can remember actually picking for my very first radio interview, an NPR affiliate in Seattle, KUOW. And I picked…
COOK…a giant puff ball on the way to the studio. I was a bit nervous. It was a live interview. And I was driving by and there was this thing the size of a basketball right in the middle of Seattle, growing, you know, in a median. And I picked it, put it in the car, drove to the show and everybody was just agog at this thing. And we ended up -- it was about 10 pounds -- slicing it up for everyone at the station. And it provided a nice, what I consider, sort of a security blanket for my very first interview.
COOKYou know, if anything lagged we could always just talk about this incredible mushroom here that looked like a dinosaur egg in the middle of the table.
GJELTENBut you don't them, do you?
COOKOh, yeah. No, you can eat them.
GJELTENYou can eat puff balls?
COOKYou know, puff balls have sort of a bland…
GJELTENIt's a very common wild mushroom. I've seen those…
COOKYeah, you need to make sure that they're young and fresh. They will be clear white all the way through. Of course, once they age, they do that great thing that we're all familiar with, when you step on them and they expel their spores in a big puff of smoke. Obviously, you don't want to be eating them at that stage, but when they're young and fresh you can certainly eat them.
GJELTENLangdon Cook is the author of, "The Mushrooms Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America." It's a new book. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, and you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Okay. Joe is on the line, from Charlottesville, Va. Good morning, Joe. Thanks for calling.
JOEGood morning. How are you?
GJELTENGood. I'm sorry you had to wait so long.
JOEOh, not a problem. Hey, I was hoping that Lang (sic) could share a couple of more stories of his earlier mycological adventures and some of his formative years with us.
GJELTENHow old were you when you first really got interested in mushrooms, Langdon?
COOKWell, I would have to say that it's been about a 20-year odyssey at this point. Before that, you know, I didn't really pay much attention to them. So, you know, it's been in my adult life. Of course, as a kid I loved wandering around in the woods. And I'm sure there were lots of interesting mushroom species out there that I didn't recognize. But it wasn't until I really started getting into wild foods in general, that I started learning my mushrooms. But, yeah, so this is more recent.
GJELTENLet me read a couple of emails here in the closing moments of the show. Mike says, "My father's greatest spring pastime was hunting morels. We lived near a large woods and as soon as he got home from work he would hike into the woods for a couple of hours. He didn't always find any, which was part of the challenge for him, but one day he brought one home that was so large the local paper printed a photo of him holding it. It had to be about eight inches tall. For those of us who have roots in Indiana," and he grew up in Lafayette, Ind., "hunting and cooking and eating morels is a special treat."
GJELTENWe're getting a lot of these emails of people who are just -- I think it is fair to say, obsessed with mushroom hunting.
COOKYeah, and that's really the opening line of my book. I did become obsessed. I'm still obsessed. And it's an easy rabbit hole to fall down into. You know, there's all sorts of interesting things going on in the world of mushrooms right now. Not just in the culinary scene. They are used -- there are so many different applications. We've learned that we can mitigate oil spills and radioactivity. We learned that after Chernobyl, as a matter of fact, with mushrooms. They literally eat the radiation.
GJELTENYeah, I saw that in your book. And explain how that can be. What do you mean, they eat the radiation? They absorb the radiation?
COOKI don't fully understand it myself, but somehow they are able to cleanse the environment. Now, you wouldn't want to eat those mushrooms.
COOKBut they have a way of breaking it down. And the same thing with oil spills, they're using oyster mushrooms. And the oysters are feeding on the oil. So, you know, there's all sorts of interesting applications. There's also mushrooms that they're looking into for cancer-fighting properties.
GJELTENOkay. One last email before we close out the show. This is from Renee. "I gather Morels, Chanterelles, and Maitake on my property in Ohio. I share with friends who appreciate these finds, but some years I have more than I can use. How do I try to sell to markets or restaurants? I have contacted a few local high-end restaurants, but they say they don't source food from non-vendors. I've wasted many Chanterelles for lack of preservation. How do I preserve, if I can't sell them? I've considered purchasing a dehydrator."
GJELTENA bunch of questions there, but just summarize, if you are an amateur mushroom hunter…
GJELTEN…how do you get started selling them?
COOKLet's talk about preservation first. Basically, drying or sauteing and freezing are your two best ways of preserving them.
GJELTENAnd what about selling them? Is that out of the question for most amateur mushroom foragers?
COOKYou can go, you know, knock on the back doors of restaurants. You could try online, certainly. I think Craig's List might even be a place to go look. There's all sorts of new pathways that are opening up, especially with the internet. And people are more interested in mushrooms than ever. So there are avenues out there.
GJELTENPeople are more interested in mushrooms than ever. I think we have demonstrated that principle this morning. Great deal of interest in this subject of wild mushrooms and mushroom foraging. Langdon Cook is the author of, "The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America," an important new book, judging by all the interest that this hour generated among our listeners. Langdon, thanks so much for coming out here from the upper Northwest and sharing your stories with us.
COOKIt's been my pleasure. Thank you.
GJELTENI'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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