In the late 1970s, I went to work in the woods, on Washington State's Olympic Penninsula. This began a seven year stretch of wildland firefighting interspersed with more or less regularly attended winter and spring quarters at the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources. For varying stretches during those years, I lived in trailers, World War Two era shacks, tents, and a couple of log cabins. In addition to working for the forest and park services, there were a couple of logging stints, setting chokers and chasing around Forks, mostly high lining. Whenever I could, I was mountaineering, skiing, rock climbing, fishing for trout, steelhead and salmon, hunting deer and elk, and foraging, mostly for mushrooms. Were I to pick the top three meals I've ever eaten, like the protagonist of Langdon Cook's, The Mushroom Hunters, I would say they were meals I cooked in the woods or on the beach, and all three included wild mushrooms. Specifically, there were chanterelles, chicken of the woods, and black trumpets, combined with salmon, elk, and trout, respectively. Other than that, there was salt, pepper, butter, and olive oil. The settings for those meals, a beach off La Push, shoreside on Lake Crescent, and on the bank of Goodman Creek, certainly contributed to the magic, but the fact remains that wild food, freshly caught and gathered, and simply seasoned, was the heart of the matter.
Langdon Cook's marvelous book brought those meals back to mind for me, some thirty years after the fact. Great books do that; they ignite passions, or rekindle old ones. The Mushroom Hunters is such a book, a must read, a page burner, in fact.
If you're not yet familiar with Cook, this young northwest writer and wild food lecturer won the 2014 Pacific Northwest Book Award for The Mushroom Hunters; he's also written Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager, which I've got on the way. He has the gift, like Rowan Jacobsen and John Geirach, of leaving you wanting more. Reading The Mushroom Hunters revived that old passion in me, frankly. I still fish, hunt, camp, and hike, but for God knows what reason, I'd stopped foraging, and that makes no sense. Our property here on Lummi Bay is rife with edibles, and there are many, many more an easy drive and hike away. Monica and I are going to get back into the woods; I really miss fresh watercress, miners lettuce, and mushrooms…
In 1998, I was frequenting La Conner Chef extraordinaire Thomas Palmer's restaurant. One night he stopped by the table and, after a brief chat, asked what we were eating. When we allowed that we hadn't decided yet, he uttered those magic words, “Let me cook for you,” and he did. I don't recall the whole meal right off hand, but I do remember the fresh wild mushroom appetizer, simply sautéed in butter, deglazed with a splash of white wine and seasoned with sea salt and black pepper. We happily fought over the last bites. Wild mushrooms add an unmatchable, solid base note to so many dishes. It's that thing you can't quite place but gotta have; wild, earthy, deep, whatever you want to call it. I've spent too many years letting somebody else bring them to me; it's time to go back in.
The Mushroom Hunters follows denizens of the commercial wild mushroom trade here in Washington and up and down the Pacific Coast. Like Cook himself, it's as much about the passions of cooking and the outdoors as it is about the mushroom trade. A good writer accurately recounts a place, an experience, a thing; a great one puts you there. After reading Cooks magnum opus, (so far, that is; I've no doubt he's just getting warmed up), I bought updated foraging and mushroom guides and cleaned the climbing gear out of my trusty day pack.
Followers here know I'm not one for faint praise. If Langdon Cook got me this fired up, he'll do so for you as well. Go get his books, and check him out on his website, where you can keep abreast of what he's got cooking, including appearances and classes.