When I was a wee lad of five, the soles of my feet bore witness to my proclivity to run around without shoes anytime the weather and my parents allowed. They were thick skinned. I remember my Grandmother taking me on a drive to the area out in the country where my Grandfather worked for a local sawmill, in Southeastern Ohio, to harvest wild mushrooms. She wouldn't allow me to help and, in fact, she admonished me to stay back on the logging road as she ventured into the woods to search for her quarry. To make sure I took her warning to heart, she told me that there was quicksand in the area. Even at the tender age of five, I had no doubt seen a Tarzan movie or two, or some Western, and knew what quicksand was, and how it could swallow you up. So I stood there on a sandy logging road, obediently, for the half hour it took her to harvest a sackful of mushrooms...and peering intently into the woods instead of at the ground, I didn't notice that I had stepped onto a red ant hill. You can guess what happened. Nobody said mushroom picking isn't without its risks, even for the innocent bystander it seems.
Here in Oregon, there was a story back in February of a couple and their adult son who went out to harvest wild mushrooms down by Gold Beach, in the coastal Siskyou range, and got lost for 6 days before a search team of more than 100 found them. No mention was made od whether or not their hunt was otherwise successful. The father hurt his back, the son sprained his ankle, and all three of them holed up in a hollow log at night to get out of the rain. They really weren't all that far from their state campsite...but woodland skills, let's face it, aren't what they used to be.
Over the years I've read stories about recent Asian immigrants to the West Coast who venture out into the woods in search of wild mushrooms, as they were used to doing "in the old country", but failed to take along a good field guide that identifies the poisonous ones from the edible ones...to their detriment, unfortunately. A poisonous mushroom can cause liver damage remarkably quickly and lead to a painful death. There have been several instances of foreign born immigrants poisoning themselves by eating what looked like a perfectly edible mushroom from "back home."
Going into the wild to harvest wild mushrooms is an old, old activity...and it was almost among those things that we refer to as "lost folk wisdom." My grandparents did it, but my parents did not...nor did any of their sibblings. Neither my sister nor I did. I'm 55...so I'm guessing that, for the most part, the folk knowledge, let alone the practice, of knowing where to find mushrooms in the forest and, more importantly, which ones were edible lay fallow.
Somewhere along the line Green Giant stepped in and supplied us with vast quantities of relatively inexpensive and unquestionably tasteless white button mushrooms, commercially raised, to satisfy our craving for 'shrooms. They no longer came from the woods...they came in styrene trays, wrapped in cellophane. Presliced!
Then came the 80's...and YUPPIE gourmands, foodyism, and the collapse of Japan's native mushroom ecology, and a strong yen. Many changes were wrought. In the mid to late 90's prices for certain wild mushrooms skyrocketed to over $800 per lb. The mushroom picking landscape changed...both physically, economically and demographically.
My Grandmother, the Mushroom Picker, was born in 1911 deep in the southeastern hollows of Kentucky. She's really the only relative I have that was a regular and expert mushroom hunter. Although...most of my aunts and uncles will readily tell you that they grew up eating wild mushrooms. They are all in their 70's now...and some are even older. So...even by the 50's, the folk tradition of harvesting wild mushrooms was well along upon its wane. Urbanization and changing eating habits had almost sealed its fate to obscurity.
My own Hillbilly credentials are mostly in order...I regularly can produce from the garden, I've shot and dressed a few deer, skinned rabbits and squirrels, caught and scaled countless Bluegills, eaten turtle and wild greens. But I will be the first to admit...when it comes to wild mushrooms, I'm just as clueless as the 18 year old who uses a skateboard as a primary mode of transportation, and who wouldn't know how to develop photographic film in a darkroom. I can develop film...at least if I referred to a youtube primer to refresh my memory...but I couldn't tell you where to find wild mushrooms, or warn you against the ones that aren't safe to eat. I just didn't acquire that knowledge growing up.
Neither did my parents. That knowledge just seemed to skip, by the most part, a whole generation. It mostly skipped my own, as well, though by the late 70's & early 80's there was a decidedly small number of mostly "Counter Culture" folks who had gone back to the forests to take up the trade. In the time that bridged this, American agriculture had been trying since the late 1890's to find a productive and economical way to produce commercial mushrooms. England had done so, but the "spawn", that is the genesis of a viable mushroom, that originated from England proved to be short lived and undependable when transplanted to the U.S.
It wasn't until around 1903 that an American borne mushroom spawn was created by USDA scientists that proved to be dependable for commercial growers. For unknown reasons, the industry began and quickly consolidated in the state of Pennsylvania...by 1930 the census showed that of 516 commercial mushroom growers in the U.S., 350 were located in Chester County, PA, alone. Further developments with synthetic manure enabled commercial mushrooms to accelerate their progress into the American diet. After WWII a trade organization was formed that availed itself of a major advertising blitz to sell Americans on the uses for, and the efficacy of, commercially grown mushrooms. Really...prior to WWII, most people, to the extent that they ate mushrooms at all, ate them seasonally, and they were locally procured wild mushrooms. They either harvested them themselves, or got them from someone they knew who harvested them.
My Grandmother, in 1961, was an outlier. A throwback to earlier times that had already become outdated, and frankly smacked of a kind of regional poverty. She still went out into the local woods to pick her own. She wasn't alone...but there was little risk of running into another mushroom hunter at that time out in the woods. Most Americans were already eating Swanson's frozen dinners, at worst, or vegetables from tin cans at best. As a nation, by the early 60's, we had already been largely transformed from a people who raised their own food to a people who purchased their food from the grocery store. The grasp of where that food came from was already beginning to lose it's strength.
By the end of the 70's, it started to change a little. Thank the Hippies for that. And those who never changed to begin with. In certain pockets of the U.S. where wild mushrooms are common, this knowledge never, really, went extinct. It just became less common, and less practiced. Oregon and Northern California are blessed with a climate, forest cover and soil that promotes an immense population of wild mushrooms. There have always been people here who were aware of the culinary treasure that awaits them in the woods, and who have gone out to seek it. Their numbers have ebbed and surged over the years, but since around 1980 they have mostly grown. And during periods of that 30 year span, they have exploded.
Those Boomers who resolutely decided to "go back to the Earth in the late 70's were buoyed by the other Boomers who resolutely did not. Those who did not were, byt 1980, in the workforce, and fully ensconced in the belly of the Machine they had protested against not 10 years earlier. Many of them were pleasantly surprised to find that they were being well paid. Hence, the rise of the dreaded "YUPPIES". They were pulling down regular paychecks, and a sizeable number were pulling down quite nice paychecks. What, then, to do with this new found affluence?
And not the shit our parents fed us, either. REAL food. Butter...not margarine. Fresh vegetables...not Libby's canned veggies. Donvier ice cream makers...not store bought ice cream. Food became a new status symbol. Restaurants were quick to respond, and a market for wild mushrooms, among many things, was born anew. For a small cadre of counter culture folks, a nice supplemental income could be earned by hiking into the woods, which they enjoyed anyways, and harvesting Nature's Bounty.
That was pretty much the market situation up until the early to mid 90's. Then...three forces came into confluence. Japan, already suffering an economic retrenchment but still rich, found that it's own homegrown mushroom ecology had collapsed due to over harvesting. America had a burgeoning population of rural immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America who were unskilled but used to physical work. Global trade had evolved to the point where a product that grows naturally in a forest in North America could be harvested and both transported and sold overseas at a marked profit.
By 1995 the wild mushroom harvesting scene was changing and changing fast...and not for the better. Whereas before the odd picker would harvest carefully and selectively, either for his or her own use, local consumption or perhaps a small regional restaurant trade...now hordes of pickers descended upon the forests. Chanterelles, Hedgehogs, Morels, Oysters, Boletes...all had a consistent market. But another species...the Matsutake, which grows under the litter of coniferous tress indigenous to the Pacific Northwest, became the gold of the forest. Japan's stock was nearly spent, and the demand was enormous. Prices spiked to close to $800 per pound at their peak. Some of these mushrooms, when mature, can weigh close to a pound each...just to give you a visual.
A literal army of commercial mushroom pickers fell upon the forests of the upper West Coast. Many, if not most, of them were recent Asian immigrants...Hmong, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Laotians. There were also Latinos who were lured to the trade from more traditional itinerant agricultural work. Unsurprisingly, there was both a culture clash and an economic clash between the newcomers and the old timers. It sort of recalls the tensions between Cajun shrimpers and Southeast Asian fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. Except for a period of time, this was even more hot.
See...there always used to be sort of a code of conduct, an ettiquette, among wild mushroom harvesters. They were individuals, and hunted small scale. Some did it for supplemental income, but even there it was on a relatively small scale. There was an understanding with regards to how many 'shrooms you should harvest from a specific area, and how many you should leave behind to ensure the next year's crop. There was an understanding as to how big was gig enough, and how samll was too small. There was an understanding with regards to proper harvesting methods...rooting up the mature fungi carefully so as to leave the underlaying root system as undisturbed as possible, and leaving the overlaying leaf litter as undisturbed as possible.
But once the trade went global, and the price was high, and the harvesters were from outside the area...not to mention outside the country...all the rules fell to the wayside.
Picking crews worked en masse, not as individuals. They started carrying guns...both to signal others when they found a good patch and to ward off competitors. Not a few deaths have been chalked up over the years to competing mushroom pickers who come across one another in the woods...and one has a sackful of pricey mushrooms while the other has a gun. Instead of using a screwdriver to gently pry the mushrooms out of the ground, gasoline powered air blowers were brought to bear to completely denude the area underneath likely trees.
Most of the lands that the mushrooms are harvested from are U.S. Forest Service lands. The USFS is used to administering logging or small scale firewood harvest...the explosion in mushroom harvesting caught them sort of flatfooted. They didn't see it coming until it was a fullblown event. Many of these itinerant workers camp out on public lands for extended periods so as to be close to and safeguard their "good spots", and when they leave they leave behind two things. A mess, and an area that's not likely to support a future mushroom harvest for many years to come. They strip it bare. The USFS has tried enforcing newly imposed regulations over the years, but faces a language barrier. Warning signs, explaining approved and prohibited harvesting methods, must be published in a multitude of languages, even though they are miles away from the nearest city. And that presumes both literacy and a sense of civics on the part of those who may take the time to heed the signs.
Some of the worst of this activity has subsided, I'm glad to say, over the past few years. Japan found other foreign markets in Korea and China to supply its Jones for the Matsutake's, and so the prices have subsided. The heyday is probably over. But what with farmers markets, restaurants, and an unending desire among upscale diners for local fare and exotic flavors, wild mushrooms of all kinds are still quite popular and still fetch a good price on the market. The last time I bought some chanterelles (last Spring) they were IIRC around $15/lb. I won't even tell you what I paid for morels a few years ago...I'd never eaten them before and just wanted to know what the buzz was all about.
I bought 3 lbs as a splurge, and took them to my Sister's house for a dinner party. My Mom was put in charge of cooking them, and she soaked them in a bowl of salted water first...you should have seen the critters that crawled out of all of those fins. Unfortunately, she battered them in a rather thick and bland batter, and fried them. They were very unremarkable. My Grandmother was unsurpassed. They didn't call it tempura back in Southeastern Ohio, but thats pretty much how she made them. A thin batter with some herbs, and fried quickly in a deep pan of oil and drained.
Let me tell you....they were delicious.
Sat Apr 21, 2012 at 9:27 AM PT: Here's a nice resource on hunting for Morels if anyone is interested in having a go at it: