CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Mushroom Hunters:
On the Trail of an Underground America

By Langdon Cook
New York: Ballantine Books, 2014
$26.00; hardcover; 296 pages
ISBN 978-0-345-53625-9

In the last 20 years the artisanal farmer has achieved if not super star status in the food world, then certainly a revered place in the hearts and minds of food connoisseurs. So why don’t wild mushroom hunters and their allies get any cred? Every wild mushroom we buy was found by one person; it was humped out of the woods, and sold to a distributor parked on the edge of the forest, who in turn had to hightail it out of the wilderness to get the mushroom to market before it spoiled. It sounds to me like wild mushroom picking is at least as challenging as growing an heirloom tomato.

Certainly that’s the impression I got from the lively portraits of mushroom pickers, distributors, and chefs in The Mushroom Hunters (disclosure: I blurbed the book) by Langdon Cook, an author, blogger, instructor, and lecturer on wild foods and the outdoors. His reports are the result of a year or so embedded with “circuit pickers,” those who gather in the state and national forests of the Pacific Northwest about 10 months out of the year, and they provide a significant first step towards understanding and appreciating those who gather our wild foods.

Not that Cook’s pickers necessarily want to be understood. This gritty, off the grid bunch aren’t what you’d call camera ready (though a reality TV series on mushroom pickers is in the works). Since they don’t sell to the retail public—theirs is an all cash business—there is no motivation for them to publicize their activities. In 2010, a fabulous year for Boletus edulis in the Rocky Mountains, Wild About Mushrooms cofounder David Campbell told me that commercial hunters were taking 20,000 pounds of mushrooms out of the mountains a week. I told him I’d never seen a truck or another hunter in the woods. “That’s the way they like it,” he told me. Indeed, circuit pickers go to great lengths to conceal their “honeyholes.” The competition, especially in poor fruiting years, is fierce, and hunters “farm” their spots—sometimes even on private property—covering up baby mushrooms and keeping the larger mushrooms picked clean to deceive other hunters. Nor do they flaunt their success. Cook tells stories of hunters staking out competitors in hopes of discovering their patches.

It’s a surreptitious industry, and that clandestine aspect of mushroom hunting has led to comparisons with drug smuggling. But Cook sees this secretive, cash economy as a kind of frontier-style capitalism “that [is] mostly gone nowadays. Maybe it [is] one of the last vestiges of a nearly vanished Wild West.” Consequently, there are those who describe mushroom pickers as exploiters of national resources—a rather ridiculous proposition considering the coal, oil, and gas extraction operations on public lands—but Cook depicts them as contemporary Daniel Boones, iconoclasts who symbolize American values of freedom and independence.

But not necessarily taste. Most of the pickers Cook describes seem perfectly happy with a Twinkie for dinner. Those higher up the food chain, the distributors and chefs, make good use of mushrooms like lobsters, hedgehogs, porcini, matsutake, chanterelles, Oregon truffles, winter chanterelles, black trumpets, and morels. You won’t learn mycology in The Mushroom Hunters: that’s not Cook’s agenda, but you will find many beautifully written passages describing the meals these mushrooms make.

“Faber [a mushroom hunter, distributor, and chef] sliced several cranberries in half, garnishing each oyster with half a berry, cider vinegar, and shredded scallion… For the soup course, Faber braised sliced leeks in the liquor of manilla clams and bay mussels, plus a healthy shot of sake. To this he added thinly sliced matsutake mushrooms, cooked them together briefly, and ladled the broth into bowels over the shell fish meats...The final course was pan seared game hen, plated with a butternut squash soufflé and finished with a black truffle gravy.”

Sounds good, right? But Cook’s pickers are sustained by a more esoteric food that he came to appreciate, as well: the vast and unruly American landscape. Over the course of the book, the author learned to read the land, the “crinkles in the topography, seeps of underground water, transitions in tree compositions, the presence of a certain species of woodpecker that might mean a change in habitat.” He came to understand that these nuances of nature, “add up to create the miracle of life in a cold universe...”

The Mushroom Hunters demonstrates that it is this knowledge of natural landscapes that makes the wild food gatherer valuable as food purveyors. In it’s own way, Cook suggests mushroom hunting is a skill on par with agriculture, composed of people living a life of similar arduousness, dependent on the vagaries of nature.

Except, of course, they don’t pay taxes.

— Review by Eugenia Bone
— Originally published in Fungi