Book Review – The Mushroom Hunters

Book Review – The Mushroom Hunters

Nate and I swung over to Filson in Seattle last night to see one of my local favorite authors do a little talk on foraging and camping. The store was awesome but the speech was even better.  Real stories of real foraging of real food (mostly local), especially mushrooms and greens, and some ideas on what you can make with food you can find in plenty around the PNW. Makes me want to join a mycological society (not kidding)!

I thought I would re-post this note from 3 or so years ago about his then-new book Mushroom Hunters. He is working on a book on Salmon and I can’t wait to read that.

I have become a retweeting fool. I have been known to light up the twittersphere with RTs from Michael Pollan, Michael Ruhlman, Jim Gaffigan (great humor…esp with food and family), and of course local writer, Langdon Cook.

I can’t remember who first introduced me to his first book, Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, and his blog, but I have simply gushed over all of his writing. He has been featured in Sunset, Seattle, and Seattle Met magazines, as well as dozens of others. I loved Fat of the Land, a simple and straightforward piece where each chapter was devoted to another edible, found, foraged, hunted, gathered, or fished for in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

I don’t know exactly what Mr. Cook does to pay the bills, maybe he makes enough money writing at this point, but the one thing I do know is that when I heard his follow up book would be all about mushroom hunters, I couldn’t wait.

It all worked out a few weeks ago when my oldest son was playing a football game over on Bainbridge Island and instead of riding back in the school bus, he jumped in the van because I promised I would take him to one of his favorite spots for dinner. He begged for Ezell’s, but I steered him to another of his Seattle favorites, Dick’s, because I found out that Cook was going to be at the Elliott Bay Book Co doing a reading and book signing, just a day or two after his new book came out. Since we were up on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, it seemed that a Dick’s Deluxe, fries, and chocolate shake would hit the spot after an afternoon of hard-hitting and sweating. I was right. He was happy, and I was now happy.

I got there late to the full downstairs “reading room” and slipped into the back to hear Cook read from his new book. I caught the last 40 or so minutes to hear several passages being read and even barely missed winning a free bag of mushrooms in a raffle (just one digit off)!

I bought the book and then headed upstairs to have him sign it. After all, he is a sort of local hero to me. Cook does all the stuff that we should do here in the Pacific Northwest. Hiking, foraging, gathering, and simply being aware of all of the natural food sources that are all around us.  He also does a great job of telling the stories and inspiring us to do the same. I introduced myself as “Irish Mike” and he immediately lit up, knowing, in that twitter-sort-of-way that we had “met” before. We shook hands, exchanged a brief conversation, he signed the book, and of course, I got a picture with him and my son.

Mushroom Hunter Signed

Now to the good stuff.

The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America is a book that at first seems to be part of a niche, almost cult-like segment of humanity. A razor-thin slice of society that finds the process of hunting for fungus in the woods, fun and exciting. It certainly doesn’t read that way though. Cook is a great story-teller. The way he describes the mountains, the water, the dirt, and the characters we meet in this book, feels like we are watching a movie, not a drab documentary. The producer, director, and camera crew, capturing just the right look, feel and emotion which Cook seems to do expertly all by himself, simply with his words. I couldn’t put it down.

Langdon Cook, Nate and I

In a nutshell, this book is about Cook meeting, following, and chronicling several characters who hunt for the wild variety of mushrooms found between British Columbia and Northern California. Cambodians, Laotians, Latinos, and all kinds of other men and women who scour our forests and hillsides huting this beloved food. Mushrooms grow in all sorts of habitats and without human intervention.  Mr. Cook shares that there is still so much to learn, and even species that have not yet been identified or named.  The book reads quickly and smoothly. Even the jaunts between disconnected parts of the story are smooth. We feel connected to this “underground” network of people and their sometimes nomadic way of life. The use of words to describe the beauty of the NW mountains, the extreme weather, and rich landscape are well thought out, not over used, and quite simply invite us in.

I would love to continue to try and recreate this book in this blog post with my own word, but I figured it would cloud the story and take you away from Cook’s descriptive prose. So instead, I want to share a couple of specific passages right from the book and let them suck you in the way they did me.

Doug paused before the fence. “This is where I get in,” he said plainly, as if judgment never existed. He pointed to a section that had been bent back to allow a gymanstic sort of entrance. Golden chanterelles, bright blips of brilliant yellow, bloomed in darkness along with the lenghth of the fence. We could see troops of them marching up the hillside. These were a type of chanterelle variously called floursecents, rainbowes, peaches, and spruce chanterelles.

Simple passage, but don’t you feel that Cook has taken us there to that particular fence in a remote part of the forest? What’s on the other side? Doesn’t it feel a little sneaky? Can you see that line of beautiful mushrooms jaunting up the hill?

and

My friend waived him on to continue. After shaving the truffle over our steaming plates of pasta, the waiter weighed the remaining truffle and calculated the not insignficant extra charge. This was my first Italian truffle, and it did not disappoint. The alba white is a species that growers haven’t figured out how to cultivate, which only enhances its mystique. It’s wild and subject to chatoic swings in the marketplace. To experience a ripe truffle of this caliber is to be overwhelmed by associations of indulgence, decadence, even naughtiness. Enveloping you like a cloud is the aroma and taste of a night of lovemaking – an earthy musk, a  taste of sweetness and of sweat, a complexity that would make a wine snob blush: hits of coffee, chocolate, garlic, peat, and overripe fruit.

Uh, I probably don’t need to translate. I am there. It smells and feels wonderful.

one more

Before leaving for the Yukon, I stopped in for lunch at Nettletown, which could boast perhaps my favorite pickled food of all. I ordered a bowl of udon noodles topped with a five-spice pork rib, a soft boiled egg, crispy shallots, and a medley of wild greens and mushrooms, including sauteed morels and the most exquisite fiddleheads I’d ever tasted. Pickeled in rice vinegar and Asian spices, they retained a hefty crunch and didn’t exhibit any of the bitterness that often plagues West Coast lady fern fiddlehaeds. This was one of Christina Choi’s signature dishes; a small bowl of them often accompanied a meal, on the house.

I added this simply because I too was have eaten this wonderful dish! I was one of the most memorable meals I have have ever had. Unfortunately, Nettletown closed, and Ms. Choi sooned tragically passed away. We lost a great one.

This post is probably already too long but I hope I can convince you to pick this book up and read it. It reads more like a novel, said one person on the back jacket. I don’t even like novels, but I agree, this is a fantastic narrative chock full of the sights, sounds, images, and smells of the underground mushroom hunters.

 

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