A Shroom With a View

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And off they go, the writer and forager Langdon Cook, accompanied by a devoted mushroom picker named Doug Carnell. They are tracking down lobster mushrooms, growing in the forest shade, big and bright red. "With each new discovery, I am filled with immense pleasure. It's like being a kid again, on a treasure hunt in the woods."

That boyish enthusiasm propelled Cook to the front rank of food writers four years ago, when his "Fat of the Land" book came out. And it stands him in good stead as he continues, now, with "The Mushroom Hunters." In addition to Carnell, there are professionals like Jeremy Faber of Foraged & Found Edibles, and his friend, restaurateur Matt Dillon of Sitka & Spruce and half a dozen other ventures. Cook is the guy you want at your side if you so much as set foot into the natural world, though you realize that even in a city park or vacant lot he'd find plenty of interesting stuff to eat.

So what's the subtitle all about? Turns out that "On the Trail of an Underground America" doesn't really refer to the shrooms but to the pickers, "...the men and women--many of them immigrants from war-torn countries, migrant workers, or refugees from the Old Economy--who bring wild mushrooms to market."

To write the book, Cook embedded himself

"...in the itinerant subculture of wild mushroom harvesters, a traveling, carnivalesque, mostly hidden confederacy of treasure-seekers that follows the "mushroom trail" year-round, picking and selling the fungi that land on exclusive restaurant plates around the country. The book takes place over the course of several mushroom seasons and follows the triumphs and failures of a few characters, including an ex-logger trying to pay his bills and stay out of trouble; a restaurant cook turned mushroom broker trying to build a business; and a celebrated chef who picks wild mushrooms on the side to keep in touch with the land.

As always, it's Cook's story-telling skill that keep you reading. Here he is in the Willamette Valley:

I went to the Oregon Truffle Festival to eat, of course, but I also went to meet the truffle people these passionate, determined, sometimes loony people who all had one thing in common: a taste for a wild food that no one has ever been able to fully or properly describe, a taste that has driven some to the edge, or beyond the edge, of madness. I myself had never experience this loss of control. As much as I loved fungi, I still thought of myself as a relatively sane person.
Well, of course Cook succumbs. You will, too.

The Mushroom Hunters, Ballantine/Random House, 320 pages, $26

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on September 17, 2013 10:30 AM.

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