‘The Mushroom Hunters’: foragers in the fungal wild
Seattle author Langdon Cook’s “The Mushroom Hunters” follows the complex, sometimes unsavory backstory of the gourmet mushrooms demanded by high-end diners. Cook reads Sept. 12 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “The Mushroom Hunters” will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave. N.E., Seattle; free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
Langdon Cook has got to be the ideal companion to have along on a backwoods-camping trip. The guy can forage and fish, he’s a wizard cook, he’s only a little reckless and, to judge by his new book “The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of Underground America” (Ballantine, 296 pp., $26), he’s terrific company — especially when sharing his passion for mushrooms.
Like Susan Orlean in “The Orchid Thief,” Seattle author Cook shines a light on a shady subculture operating at the seam between wilderness and commerce. Like author Michael Pollan, he knows that every bite of food these days has a complex, often unsavory backstory. Like the late Hunter Thompson, he not only goes along for the ride with the shifty characters he’s writing about, but drives the getaway car. After reading “The Mushroom Hunters,” you’ll never look at a portobello the same way.
Actually, you may never again look at a portobello period. As Cook writes with a whiff of disdain, “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.”
What excites Cook is not the very domesticated but the very wild, gnarly, phallic, smelly, hard-to-find but exquisite-to-eat fungi-like hedgehogs, morels, matsutakes, yellowfeet and truffles. Even the chanterelle — “an off-the-shelf French floozy Halloween costume” — is a touch common for Cook’s taste.
And so he sets off into the damp fungal wild with a couple of colorful commercial foragers. Doug Carnell, the picker, is an Olympic Peninsula knockabout with a checkered past and an internal atlas of prime mushroom patches from the North Cascades to the Klamath Mountains. Jeremy Faber is a quick-talking, nimble-witted New York Jew who came to Seattle for the skiing and food scene, earned his chops at top-flight local restaurants (Ray’s Boathouse, Serafina, The Herbfarm), and then struck out on his own with a foraged-foods business. What unites this unlikely pair is their shared addiction to combing the woods in search of wild (and marketable) food.
Actually, woods is a little too stately a word for the kind of dreary, degraded places where Cook and company do much of their foraging. Morels are most abundant on recent burns, black trumpets favor the remote logged-over hinterlands where fugitives and tweakers hole up, matsutake like to hide in recovering clear cuts.
Cook logs many an hour getting muddy, coated in ash, scratched, bruised and, on one memorable occasion, scared out of his wits by pistol-packing bad guys.
Though not as probing or associative as Pollan, Cook does nimbly connect the dots between natural history, socioeconomics and cooking. In the course of a few pages he whisks us from a prime patch on some dismal ridge on the Peninsula to the modest home where Asian refugees sort and grade hundreds of pounds of mushrooms to the chic precincts of Sitka & Spruce, where chef Matt Dillon plates those same mushrooms in wildly imaginative combinations.
“It was one thing to grow a nice tomato or pepper at home,” Cook muses as he contemplates the wild bounty of our region, “quite another to uncover nature’s hidden garden deep within the folds of the misty mountain forests of the Pacific Northwest.”
Cook instructs and delights as he browses this hidden garden — and he dazzles when he describes what he does in his own kitchen.
“You need to make this at home,” Cook’s wife whispers to him in the course of a memorably mushroomy meal dished up by Faber of Foraged & Found Edibles. A lot of people are bound to be saying the same thing after reading this beguiling, surprising book.
David Laskin’s new book “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century” will be published this October by Viking.