Modern-day foragers seek out delicious fungi…carefully
The forest could not have been more beautiful that morning. The mid-morning sun broke through the trees in sharp, well-defined beams, shining like a spotlight on the forest floor. The crisp crackle of fall leaves and the sound of my own labored breathing provided a soundtrack to the morning’s hunt. I had been walking along a Tennessee mountain trail with a group of mushroom foragers for about an hour when the steep grade of the mountain trail and the constant stooping and bending to look for fungi began to mercilessly taunt my body.
I’ve spent decades carefully tuning my physique to forage for urban provisions such as pork belly tacos, pho and craft beers while traversing the rough terrain of city sidewalks and adeptly avoiding brushes with overly aggressive panhandlers. My back has adjusted to the task of bending to reach the low shelves at Publix and my ass has conformed to a shape perfectly suited for restaurant booths and gastropub bar stools. My pear-shaped frame is a shining example of how humans have adapted away from the physicality it takes to forage for foods and how we have grown accustomed to a food system that makes sure something edible is always within arm’s reach.
About 12,000 years ago, someone sporting the latest trend in animal-hide fashion decided they were tired of wandering from scrub to scrub in an unpredictable search for food and began to stick some plants in a spot of ground they were fond of and grow their own food. Fast forward to 2014—and agriculture has become something we take for granted. While modern agriculture promises to provide a variety of abundant, convenient and safe foods that are as close as the corner Golden Gallon, there are those who prefer a DIY approach to food and continue to forage—even if that approach courts a bit of danger in the process.
Modern-day foragers trace their roots back to the earliest humans, but their motivations have changed over time. Most modern foragers do not forage out of need; they forage for more complex reasons, including a desire to recapture some sense of self-sufficiency, or a reaction to our obsession with processed foods. For mushroom hunters, foraging gives access to a variety of fungi that are not available through supermarkets or any commercial grower. These mushrooms have a broader range of flavors and a more robust taste that only comes from freshly picked, wild-grown mushrooms.
Angel Miller, co-owner of 2 Angels Mushroom Farm in Harrison, TN, says, “Local, wild-grown mushrooms such as oyster, chanterelle, or chicken of the woods have a much bolder taste and are far superior in terms of flavor and texture to the commercially grown varieties.” This makes sense if you have ever tasted a juicy, flavorful garden tomato compared to the tasteless, rubbery ones that fill supermarket produce sections.
Mushroom foragers in Tennessee can find morel, puffball, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods and many other varieties of mushrooms not typically sold in stores. The heightened flavors and unique textures of these fungi are perfect for the true mushroom aficionado, the restaurant chef looking for new flavors, or the home cook wishing to step up their mushroom game.
But what about the danger? Isn’t it idiotic to eat wild foraged mushrooms?
Like so many intrepid food adventurers who seek out risky foods such as the toxic Fugu, Icelandic Hákarl, or Sardinian Casu Marzu, mushroom foragers are culinary daredevils. The mushroom foragers I've met are a mixture of elderly naturalists, college professors, patchouli-soaked hippies and bearded post-hipster foodies with a healthy dose of middle-aged normcores thrown in to smooth out the Gaussian distribution of the demo. Not exactly an audacious-looking bunch, but each and every one measured the dangers against education and knowledge.
Angel Miller, who has taught mushroom-foraging classes and forages mushrooms for her businesses inventory, says there are ways to minimize the risk. “Never guess,” she emphasizes. “Educate yourself about the poisonous varieties first, then move on to identifying edible mushrooms.” She cautions new foragers to always corroborate with a knowledgeable expert and don’t depend on Google images or any other single source. Since some symptoms of mycetism (mushroom poisoning) can take up to 24 hours to appear, just take a small bite first and wait 24 hours before chowing down on the rest of the batch—even if you are completely certain that mushroom is edible. Miller also recommends putting an uncooked specimen aside to take to the hospital for analysis if you are poisoned. Not the kind of thing you see on the back of a bag of Cheetos, but then again, the anal leakage warnings didn’t stop people from eating Olestra either.
If traipsing around the woods looking to fill a mesh bag with fungi sounds like a fun way to spend a Saturday, there are ways to learn how to keep from poisoning yourself and possibly dying in the process. First, and most importantly, find an expert to teach you the ropes. Although Chattanooga doesn’t have a mycological club (mycology is the study of fungi) the Cumberland Mycological Society is based out of Crossville, TN and warmly welcomes new members, as does the Mushroom Club of Georgia, based out of Marietta, GA. Both of these organizations can give you support and information to get started, or you can contact Angel Miller at 2 Angels Mushroom Farm for more information about mushrooms, both wild and farm raised. But whatever you do, please, for the love of Euell Gibbons, DO NOT simply buy a book and start foraging on your own.
While there certainly are dangers, they shouldn’t be overstated. To put the level of danger in perspective, food poisoning sickened 48 million Americans last year, and killed almost 3,000—including people whose only poor decision was to eat some bad fast food. In that same year 17—not 17,000—just 17, or one-half of one per cent of all food-related deaths were from eating mushrooms. In fact, most of us eat wild mushrooms all the time in restaurants or from the store without giving thought to any real or imagined danger.
For me and some of my more candid mushroom-foraging friends, the experience is as much a part of the hobby as the harvest. Foraging can transform a simple home cook into a spawn of Survivorman who isn’t just making dinner; he is extolling the wellspring of nature’s creation. She is no longer preparing food; she is sharing earth, sky and sea. A plate with foraged elements is instantly elevated and bathed in a glow of virtue simply because of how the ingredients were obtained.
But regardless of the harvesting experience or how many double rainbows arc across your foraging basket, the ultimate test is taste, because in the end the best thing to come from foraging is a delicious meal. I made it through my mountain mushroom foraging excursion exhausted, but I came away with enough fungi to make a stunningly flavorful and beautifully rich risotto. Since I am a benevolent soul, I will share the recipe here.
You can thank me later.
Recipe: Wild Mushroom Risotto
10 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/2 pounds fresh wild mushrooms (such as hen of the woods, chanterelle, or oyster) sliced into equal-sized pieces
7 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup finely chopped leek
1 1/4 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup dry white vermouth
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for serving
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/4 of mushrooms and sprinkle with salt. Sauté mushrooms 3 to 4 minutes or until tender and beginning to brown. Transfer mushrooms to medium bowl. Working in 3 more batches, repeat with 6 tablespoons butter, remaining mushrooms, and salt and pepper.
Bring chicken broth to a simmer in medium saucepan and keep warm. Melt remaining butter with the olive oil in a heavy large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add leek, sprinkle with salt, and sauté until tender, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add rice and increase heat to medium. Stir until edges of rice begin to look translucent, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add white wine, vermouth and stir until liquid is absorbed, about 1 minute. Add 3/4 cup warm chicken broth; stir until almost all broth is absorbed, about 1 minute.
Continue adding broth by 3/4 cupfuls, stirring until almost all broth is absorbed before adding more, until rice is halfway cooked, about 10 minutes. Stir in sautéed mushrooms.
Continue adding broth by 3/4 cupfuls (stirring until almost all broth is absorbed before adding more) until rice is tender but still firm to bite and risotto is creamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
Transfer risotto to serving bowl. Top with additional Parmesan cheese, if desired.