Eating Underground America

In his new book, Langdon Cook delves into the Northwests mushroom trail, a seldom-seen world straight out of the Wild West.

It’s just another Wednesday morning at the office when Langdon Cook answers his cell. Cook is, in fact, at Lincoln Park fishing for salmon, but considering that the 46-year-old Connecticut native is a dogged forager, epicurean outdoorsman and prolific writer, he can rightfully count surfcasting as research—even if he hasn’t caught anything today.

Cook’s first book, 2009’s Fat of the Land, was a collection of essays detailing the author’s immersion into the wild foods—from nettles to geoducks—found around the Northwest. His second, The Mushroom Hunters, out this month, traces the intersecting lives of a handful of commercial mushroom foragers, revealing the secrets and the drama of their very singular existence.

Both of your books are about foraging. 
What sets them apart?
With Fat of the Land I had a reservoir of stories tumbling around in my head. I wrote that entire book in bed, actually. Our house is tiny and I don’t have office space at home. I have one of those husband pillows and I’d sit propped up on that in bed and remember 15, 20 years worth of tales with my foraging buddies and put that down. For The Mushroom Hunters, I had to go out into the field, for one thing. I wanted this to be firsthand. I didn’t want this to be an “as told to” sort of book. I wanted to go out on the mushroom trail and experience it myself and get to know those people and write from the perspective of being right there on the spot seeing it happen.

I was really careful with the narrative in The Mushroom Hunters. It’s not just an episodic collection of chapters that could be standalone essays. There’s a narrative arc in the book. The main characters are recurring and you go on a journey with them and experience their successes and failures.

Why mushroom hunters?
What these guys are doing struck me as impossible. How does one go into the woods and pick 100 lbs. of morels in a day? As a recreational forager, that seems absurd. What are their secrets? What do they know about the landscape? Hunting mushrooms is a real puzzle. Variables like weather, topography, slope aspect, humidity, forest canopy and composition are very important. All these criteria go into finding a patch that’s gonna yield mushrooms in commercial quantities.

As someone who considers himself an amateur naturalist, it amazed me that these guys could go into the woods and find these quantities. You have to live pretty close to the land to be able to do it. A lot of patches are hand-me-downs that have been known commercial patches for years. Patches are getting lost via logging and development every year. A good commercial picker will have a Rolodex of patches in his head.

A more compelling reason [for writing the book] was getting to know the mushroom hunters themselves, what made them tick. What it was like competing for business in this last gasp of Wild West, frontier-style capitalism. It seemed like a throwback to olden times.

Have you gotten into mushroom foraging more intently after writing the book?
I do a lot of stuff in the outdoors and picking mushrooms is right near the top of the list in terms of my favorite. It’s a treasure hunt. It brings out the kid in all of us. Pretty much anyone I take mushroom hunting, when they find that first one they’re so exited and so thankful and they wanna do it again. It doesn’t get old. Morel number 344 is just as satisfying a find as morel number one.

The Pacific Northwest is ground zero for wild mushrooms. They can be foraged in every state, but in commercial quantities the real action is in the Pacific Northwest. That’s just a function of geography and weather. It’s damp. It seems our volcanic soils have been helpful too. Shellfish, mushrooms, wild greens, huckleberries. And maybe because of our climate we have a long season for things like miner’s lettuce and fiddle ferns and stinging nettles that can be gathered in commercial quantities here.

I’m still just a recreational forager. I have no interest into dipping a toe into the commercial wild food economy. It might demystify the whole thing for me if I did.

The Mushroom Hunters is available Sept. 10 from Ballantine Books.

Illustration by Sam Alden

See more in Food & Style