Friday, September 27, 2013

Fungi on Tap

Ask commercial mushroom pickers in the greater Pacific Northwest how the season's going and they'll probably shrug. The central Oregon matsutake pick is weak, chanterelles on the coast—though abundant—are at rock-bottom prices, and Cascade lobsters are turning fishy fast.

Now ask a recreational picker and you're likely to hear that this is the best fall in recent memory. How can these two viewpoints coexist?

It's just a function of the different perspectives. Commercial pickers are trying to earn a living while recreational pickers are stocking their larders. The fact is, it has been a boon season for rec hunters—and not just for edibles. All kinds of unusual species are fruiting this year, for reasons that are not readily apparent. It's a reflection on how little we know about fungi.

Initially many of us figured this fall would be another bust, similar to previous falls of the last couple years. Oregon's morel patches dried up fast, and an unusually parched July and early August suggested a dearth of fall fungi. Then we got hit with some heavy August downpours, and September has been noticeably cool and wet. Mushrooms that are especially sensitive to rainfall—hello kings!—have exploded. The chanterelles are always there, rain or shine, and earlier than most rec pickers think. But mountain kings, those persnickety royals, are harder to pin down, and this year they've popped in a big way. I've been picking them since mid-August, first on my huckleberry outings and now whenever and wherever I happen to be outside, it seems. They're showing in places where I've never seen them before, among tree species that I wouldn't expect.

The other day I stumbled on a riparian patch below 3,000 feet in a grove of Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and red-cedar—not exactly fall king habitat. Enormous #2 boletes with perfect white sponges and caps the size of cantaloupes ringed a guerrilla campsite like fenceposts, all of them miraculously worm-free. Hunters are also finding blue chanterelles (pictured above right) coming out of the woodwork. This is a rarely encountered species that is generally local to a few very specific areas, yet I'm hearing from hikers who are finding them right on the trail in some odd places.

If you're a fan of Suillus, well have at it. Matsies are now carpeting the slopes. And Hericium is general. One species I haven't seen much of—yet—is Sparassis, the cauliflower mushroom. Give it time.

This is a good year for recreational mushroom hunters to learn new patches. Many of these patches won't produce on an annual basis, but if you remember them you can always check. The more patches, the better, especially if those patches are in diverse habitats.

This is also a good year to put up quantities of mushrooms. I've been drying and freezing porcini, not to mention lobster duxelles and chanterelles. As for the fresh menu, pizza bianca with sliced porcini buttons, sun-dried tomatoes, feta, and basil was a winner, as was the porcini-wine reduction sauce that gussied up my New York strip the other night. It's fat times for mushroom hunters.

Full buckets, everyone!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Mushrooms for the People

My new book The Mushroom Hunters has been on the shelves for nearly two weeks and I couldn't be happier with the reception so far. If it inspires a few curious readers to get outside and interact with their natural environment, all the better.

The Wall Street Journal calls the book a "rollicking narrative...delivering vivid and cinematic scenes on every page," and The Seattle Timescomparing the book to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Michael Pollan, and Hunter Thompson, says it both "instructs and delights" while "connect[ing] the dots between natural history, socioeconomics and cooking." Callers jammed the lines at both my Diane Rehm Show appearance and on Wisconsin Public Radio.

But equally important to me are the testaments from readers outside the professional media outlets. Ronald Holden at the Cornichon blog writes, "As always, it's Cook's story-telling skill that keeps you reading," and here's a post from a reader from Portland that recently circulated on Facebook:
I just finished reading The Mushroom Hunters by Langdon Cook... It's beautifully written and has a powerful, interwoven story. He really knocked this one out of the park! More than just a book about harvesting and selling mushrooms, he takes on so many important issues such as wealth/class structures, ecology and human interaction, small business challenges, immigration, and asks profound questions about happiness and satisfaction in life.
I feel lucky to have readers like these.


In my next post I manage to sneak away from my desk to see why recreational mushroom hunters in the Pacific Northwest are calling this a banner year...

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Book Launch at Elliott Bay, Sept. 12

For those of you in the Seattle area, please join me at Elliott Bay Books this Thursday, September 12, at 7 pm. I'll be reading from The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, showing slides, and raffling off bags of dried morels. The cafe will have shroomy bites and wine. There might even be a special guest visitor...

This past Tuesday I was in Washington, D.C., for the official on-sale date, to make an appearance on the Diane Rehm Show. You can listen to the broadcast here. On Thursday I'll be at my local NPR affiliate, KUOW 94.9 FM, to tape a segment that will air between noon and 2 pm.

Other upcoming appearances include Wordstock Lit Fest, October 4-6, Portland, OR; and Breitenbush Mushroom Gathering, October 17-20, Breitenbush Hot Springs, OR. More events are in the works, so check back here for listings.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

This Tuesday, September 10

Friends and readers, the publication of my new book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, is just around the corner. Good things are brewing. Publishers Weekly calls it "intrepid and inspired," The Daily Beast named it a "Hot Read," and both and Apple picked it as one of the Top 10 Best Books of September. The Seattle Times reviewed it this past Friday, with comparison to Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Michael Pollan, and Hunter Thompson.

Here's a snippet from a Library Journal review that, to my mind, encapsulates my efforts:
Not simply about mushrooms, this book examines human behavior, economics, food, society, and nature. In the end, readers will have learned a great deal about U.S. economic and social structures—all while being entertained and enlightened by stories of gastronomy and mushrooms. Highly recommended.
The book goes on sale September 10. That day I'll be a guest on The Diane Rehm Show on NPR (check for your local listing). The official book launch will be at Elliott Bay Books on Thursday, September 12, at 7pm. I plan to show slides, read a bit from the book, raffle off bags of morels, and the cafe will have some shroomy bites to eat. There might be a spacial guest in attendance as well...

After that I hit the road to visit mycological societies, mushroom festivals, and do other events through the fall and winter. I'll be at the Wordstock Lit Fest in Portland the first weekend in October and the Breitenbush Mushroom Gathering a couple weeks later.

The confluence of food, nature, and adventure is a mother lode of literary possibility. Join me on the mushroom trail and get your copy soon!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

New at Huffington Post

I've started blogging for the Huffington Post. You can read my first article here, and catch a glimpse of a couple characters who star in my new book.

The article begins:
In early August I got a call from a producer for the PBS TV series Food Forward. He had seen a review copy of my new book, The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, and wanted to film itinerant mushroom harvesters for an episode on wild foods. I knew just the guy to talk to...
Read more.