Seattle forager-blogger Langdon Cook is the author of the new book “The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America,” his second nonfiction narrative book on foraging in the Pacific Northwest. Readers may remember his first, “Fat of the Land,” a fun read about his adventures as a newbie foraging coastal foods, such as squid. Langdon’s new book is broader in scope, nuanced, and more journalistic than “Fat of the Land“; in an approach that recalls Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he endeavors with elegant prose to give us a behind-the-scenes view of the mushroom trade.
We meet immigrant pickers, refugees from war-torn countries who grew up foraging in Southeast Asia and find it a familiar career, former loggers who once felled old-growth red cedars and now harvest morels and porcini for a living, and even a truffle-sniffing mutt. And we also trail the path of the main character, Jeremy Faber, a 30-something New York Jew who works as mushroom middle-man, traveling North America year-round, competing with other middle-men to acquire the best fungi from the pickers and then selling it to upscale restaurants on the East Coast. Langdon then eats the mushrooms Faber sells at these high-end restaurants and writes in detail about the flavors he experiences, inspiring our mouths to water with tales of his favorite decadent fungi dishes. I enjoyed the insider secrets, such as that many (most?) chefs who describe truffle-infused sauces are actually lying, employing a synthetic chemical concoction made to taste like truffles instead of the real deal!
Through the perspectives of the people Langdon meets, we also get a robust exploration of the moral and legal dilemmas pickers face when deciding whether to harvest on private land, the tension between them and the forest rangers, the methods they use to assuage them (such as sending over free morels), and the occasional prison time that can result when they get busted.
There can be no doubt that Langdon is deeply enamored of mushrooms. “French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) wrote that truffles are the ‘black magic apple of love.’ Black magic seems about right. There isn’t much middle ground. Either truffles make little impression or they cast a spell,” he writes.
And we learn lots of interesting naturalistic facts too, from the geological history of the Pacific Northwest to tree-and-mushroom species correlations, such as that porcini thrive in a second-growth spruce timber plantation. “Novice Question: ‘Where can I find morels?’ Old-timer answer: ‘Morels are where you find them,” he writes.
It’s a great read, but I do have one criticism: I would have liked to see some female characters in the book. The only women we meet are those briefly mentioned as the wives, girlfriends, or desired lays of the men he follows. But having met Langdon and knowing him to be a good-natured guy, I believe this must be an unintentional oversight.
Bottom line: “The Mushroom Hunters” is an interesting, well-researched tale that is intriguing and worthwhile reading for any forager. As the holidays approach, it will make an especially great gift for that foodie or mushroom enthusiast in your life.
Full disclosure: I benefit from a percentage of sales via Amazon when you click the link to Langdon’s book from this post. However, I only review and promote books that I like. As a number of disheartened authors and publicists already know, I do reject quite a few.
News: Catch me talking about yarrow and cedar for beer brewing on the show “Brew Dogs” next Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 10 p.m. on the Esquire Network. You can also download the episode from iTunes after it airs!
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