If you enjoy high-end dining, you’re probably also a fan of wild foraged mushrooms. Morels, chickens of the woods, chanterelles and other mushrooms say “local,” “seasonal” and “rare” in a way that no protein and few vegetables can. After all, it’s one thing to grow an acre of something and offer it for sale; it’s another entirely to scramble through the wilderness, sometimes skirting the edge of the law, in search for precious, unpredictable fungi — all the while worrying about the competition.
In “The Mushroom Hunters,” Langdon Cook delves into the underground world of wild mushroom foraging and buying in America. We learn about the mushrooms themselves, of course, but also about the buyers who purchase them in bulk and broker them out to restaurants; the chefs who prize and utilize this wild bounty; and the pickers — gourmets-gone-wild, rough-and-tumble types from the margins of society, or hard-working immigrants.
Like any good investigator, Cook follows the money. A productive season can yield a skilled picker $30,000. That may not sound like much until you account for the fact that it’s tax-free (wild mushrooms are very much a cash commodity) and the work consists of hiking through some of the most beautiful parts of the country.
Half the fun of “The Mushroom Hunters” is the treasure-hunt aspect of foraging. A chance spotting of wild salad greens in a pond can yield a quick $200, and buyers carry pockets stuffed with cash so that they can peel off twenties and hundreds to buy premium product. A sale of two days’ worth of premium-grade matsutake buttons brings one of Cook’s subjects $6,000, a dazzling figure that conceals the risk, expense and exhaustion of relying upon mercurial wild fungi as a career.
The other half of the fun is in the flavor. Cook takes time to explore the taste and smell of mushrooms. He manages to be descriptive without being precious, and as a result “The Mushroom Hunters” contains some vivid and memorable accounts of meals: “The truffle, as big as a golf ball,” he writes, “sat on [the] kitchen chopping block. I took a whiff. Its pungent aroma reminded me of overripe pineapples mixed with other loamy forest smells.”
At its strongest, “The Mushroom Hunters” lends fresh, sharp illumination to a little-known but vigorously contested patch of gastronomic turf. And at its weakest, it’s a scattershot but entertaining ramble through the woods with a group of ragtag characters who live most vibrantly when they’re out in the wilderness, scrambling in search of the perfect patch of morels. “There was food all over the forest floor,” recalls one hunter. If that image enchants you, so will Cook’s journey.
Norton, who edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table, is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”