To write The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, Langdon Cook spent several years in close company with commercial foragers—laboring alongside them, sharing camps in the bush, and documenting their secretive work from patch to plate. The result is a detailed, hard-won account of the men and women who bring wild fungi to market. With a cast of iconoclastic characters and echoes of the Wild West, the book tells the story of itinerant pickers and buyers who seem like throwbacks to an earlier era, scratching out a living in the country's most remote forests. Some are refugees from war-torn countries; others are exiles from the Old Economy. The author's personal photos, paired here with brief excerpts, depict a rough-hewn subculture in a truly American vein, one that is inevitably contrasted by the final creation on a restaurant plate.
The Mushroom Hunters will be available September 10, 2013.
Meet Doug Carnell, a year-round commercial mushroom harvester, with a handful of hedgehog mushrooms
To 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 in his five-hundred-dollar midnight-blue Buick Century sedan, you spend a lot of time waving to the people you pass, all friends or former colleagues: shake rats, long-liners, Cat drivers, metal scrappers, and those three old coots jawing outside the general store. He might spin a yarn about the ghost of a little girl who haunts Willapa Bay's oyster flats or point out the eroded tops of cedar posts used long ago as an Indian salmon weir. He's 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.
Doug's friend Jeff Lacey with fall porcini mushrooms
Hanging out with this pair reminded me of the sort of male camaraderie that develops in close quarters. You'll find it in school dormitories, on fishing boats, in the military. Old pals, they knew each other's foibles and weaknesses all too well and exploited them in an ongoing raillery of inside jokes, ragging, and general good-natured BS. They talked about women, football, and more women. Neither one was a paragon of the married life, and they goaded each other endlessly about their exes and sins of the flesh.
Doug and Jeff sell their harvest to Jeremy Faber, proprietor of Foraged and Found Edibles, shown here slicing porcini in half to check for insect infestations
Faber set his portable electronic scale on Sang Tran's kitchen counter, zeroed it out with an empty basket, and got to work. He moved about the kitchen with a barely contained intensity, like someone who's had too much coffee and maybe a few candy bars, though he's skinny as a rake. When he wasn't talking to Sang, he mumbled aloud a litany of things he'd forgotten to do that day or would need to do later when he got home—well after midnight—sounding like nothing so much as a human Post-it. Within minutes, word circulated around the neighborhood, and a line of mostly Asian men appeared at the back door, holding overflowing baskets: golden chanterelles, porcini with caps the size of softballs, scarlet lobsters, and the odd cauliflower mushroom, looking like something that might wash up at high tide.
As Faber grades and weighs another basket of mushrooms, the pickers' wives anxiously watch their profits ebb and flow
The pickers arrived one after another: Cambodians, Lao, Hmong, Mien. This was the main reason Faber had come to Raymond: to buy several hundred pounds from a community of mostly first-generation Southeast Asians who foraged in their adopted Pacific Northwest nearly year-round. Virtually all of them had been touched by war. Many had military backgrounds or grew up in military families. They had been anti-communists, rebels, guerrilla fighters, U.S. allies, and finally refugees.
A taste of spring: Chinook Salmon with Pinot Noir Sauce & Morels
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 calligraphied 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.
A matsutake mushroom buyer working out of a shipping container on the outskirts of Chemult, OR
Wealthy Japanese wanted their matsutake—and they had to look abroad. Demand went up and buyers started bidding wars. Prices went off the rails, briefly topping six hundred dollars per pound for number-one buttons. A gold-rush atmosphere took hold, and the fact that many of the Southeast Asians carried guns was not lost on anyone, notably the media. Newspapers reported sensational stories of running gun battles in the woods, social ills in overcrowded camps, and a general Wild West ethos more appropriate to the O.K. Corral than to Crescent Lake Junction.
A Mexican crew relaxes after a day of picking mushrooms near Sisters, OR
Mexican crews started to arrive by the vanload. “How you doing?” Faber said to the boss man of one crew, giving him the soul shake. Faber was suddenly in a good mood, giddy even. He was raking it in. The boss man, surprisingly clean cut and wearing a white straw cowboy hat—he was probably the driver and translator—looked confused. Who is this crazy white guy? “I'm okay…” he said tentatively. “Do I know you?”
Jeremy Faber and award-winning chef Matt Dillon in the kitchen
Matt Dillon can remember when he actually had a day or two off and could go picking. He remembers getting his tires slashed while picking matsutake with Jeremy Faber near Mount Rainier. Or the feeling of driving up to a gray and misted ferry terminal with a carload of wild mushrooms after spending a couple of days on the Olympic Peninsula. “I'd have hedgehogs, a few matsutake, some chanterelles, some yellowfeet, maybe a couple cauliflower mushrooms, all sitting in the trunk of my car in mushroom baskets I'd borrowed from Jeremy. It's raining, it's mid to late October. It's cold out. I'm in my rain gear, drinking hot cocoa, my dog in the back.” Matt Dillon and Jeremy Faber were best friends now, but it wasn't always like that…
If the hedgehog is the underdog of wild mushrooms, the matsutake an exotic foreigner, and the king bolete royalty, the chanterelle is a preening starlet on the red carpet, hoping—praying—for one more People cover. Despite its romantic twirl off the tongue, you'd think the chanterelle was practically domesticated—an off-the-shelf French floozy Halloween costume. Is there an A-list wild mushroom that gets less respect among the mycoscenti, after all, than the chanty? Like an overexposed model, it has the faint whiff of “been there, done that” among connoisseurs. Well, I for one wouldn't kick a golden chanterelle out of the kitchen for getting around, and apparently I'm not alone.
The sun rises over Manhattan as Jeremy Faber loads 300 pounds of Oregon chanterelles at Newark Airport into his delivery van, some of them bound for New York's four-star restaurants such as Del Posto
The orecchiette came with a lamb-neck ragu, sage bread crumbs, and carrot puree. Fusilli was tossed with lobster. A type of pasta known as agnolotti—“little envelopes with something good inside,” remarked the waiter—was served with a filling of Grana Padano and Tyrolean speck and a broth punched up by black truffles. And those were just the first courses, or primi. For the secondi I ate a perfectly cooked veal chop, sliced into medallions and garnished with caramelized chanterelles. The meal was rich, surprising, abounding in flavors—and much, much more money than any of us was accustomed to spending.
Meeting up with Arora had been my idea. Somehow I knew that he and Doug would have plenty to talk about, though I hadn't anticipated the myriad connections they would share from three decades on the mushroom trail. People, places, events: They talked a common language, and Arora's sharp memory helped elucidate long-forgotten details in the foggier corners of Doug's head. We sipped cups of hot tea, and Doug told Arora about his biggest payday, the matsutake pick of the early 1990s, when prices went crazy.
Plates of truffle-infused salumi at the Oregon Truffle Festival
The cooks, tattooed and pierced like a crew of treasure-seeking pirates, sailed up and down the line, brandishing their mandolines like sabers, shaving paper-thin rounds of black truffle over the plates in quick staccato bursts. A second course of creamy red and white quinoa served risotto-style with a Riesling-poached egg, shaved coppa, wild winter herbs, lemon-thyme emulsion, and shaved white truffles had me reeling. Uncle, I wanted to cry, putting my face in the dish to suck in its delights, but it was too late: A meat course of white-truffle-roasted beef short ribs with white-truffle potato puree, salsify, and beet jus was already before me.
Mushroom picker, northern British Columbia
Back at camp, Faber started to organize the buying part of the operation. He had baskets arranged all around the SUV, and it didn't take long for pickers to see them as they drove by. A new buyer was in town. They approached cautiously at first, not wanting to commit, with one main question: How much?
Wild food entrepreneur Jeremy Faber picking morels
Faber plays both sides of the wild foods business: He's a picker and a buyer. Most of the time he's busy driving around the Northwest, buying from a carefully cultivated network of pickers so he can sell directly to restaurants or at farmers' markets. When the pick is good, though, he'll be out in the field himself, alongside his pickers, trying to boost his margins. He'll tell you that's the only way to make money in this business. You've got to be willing to get dirty.
The author with fifty pounds of morels on his back, Yukon Territory
Jeremy Faber called me out of the blue on a Thursday afternoon. It was late June. He had a simple question for me: Did I want to go to the Yukon tomorrow? All along I'd talked about how much I wanted the wilderness picking experience, the military-style campaign of pulling mushrooms out of the bush and rushing them to market against the clock. Here was my chance. This wasn't some token “wilderness” in the Lower 48, surrounded by towns and roads. This wasn't a nice little forest preserve. Weren't there grizzlies up there? What if I got lost? These were the questions on my mind. Equally worrisome: Would I measure up? This last question was the worst of all.