It’s ten minutes past 7 p.m. on a Friday in Eugene, and I’m squeezed into a folding chair in a crowded basement classroom at the University of Oregon, staring at a table covered with mushrooms. People are still pushing into the room, filling the chairs and settling themselves cross-legged on the floor. The air is thick with the smell of fungi. All around, I overhear snatches of conversation as old friends and new acquaintances swap lore and advice: “Forget hiking anymore,” one white-haired woman in a fleece jacket and boots tells the graduate student sitting near her. “You’ll always be looking down!”
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We’ve all assembled to listen to Ed Fredette, a local self-proclaimed fungi enthusiast, talk about finding and identifying wild mushrooms. Fredette walks us through the basics of what he calls “mushroom chasing,” all the while repeating his tried and true mantra, “When in doubt, throw it out!” Even though only a few species of poisonous mushrooms have been identified in Eastern Oregon, people here are still worried about becoming sick from wild fungi. By the time he finally finishes answering questions, almost three hours have passed—this crowd is very, very, interested in mushrooms, and for good reason.
A marriage of local foods advocacy and recession-consciousness, mushroom foraging is especially hot stuff in rainy Oregon, where local ’shroomers picked literally tons of mushrooms last year, some earning hundreds of dollars for a day’s harvest. (Pickers also hunt for fungi in upper Michigan, Canada and New England.) From locovore chefs to DIY freegans, thousands of people scour the public forests and Cascade Mountains for mushrooms to sell at farmers’ markets and on Craigslist, or simply for their own identification or cooking. Fliers advertising baskets of matsutake or chanterelles fill the community bulletin boards at organic groceries across the state.
There are more than 5,000 types of fungi growing in the Pacific Northwest, where the heavy seasonal rains combine with conifer forests that stretch from the mountains down to the coastline, creating an ideal habit for some of the most popular edible species of mushrooms. Morels and the coveted matsutakes appear in the spring, and in the late summer and fall, the forests are filled with golden chanterelles, hen of the woods, and boletes. Winter brings hedgehogs and for those who know how to find them, valuable crops of truffles.
Fredette is just one of the many searching for fungi, and he exemplifies the grass-roots ethic that characterizes the pastime. “Don’t call me an expert,” he cautions. “I’m not a mycologist, but I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m still alive and healthy.”
Dustin Olsen, the 31-year-old owner of The Mushroomery, in Lebanon, Ore., built his mushroom farm by hand when he decided to turn his hobby into a full-time business. Now he spends two days a week on his farm cultivating specimens, two days foraging and two days selling his harvest at farmers’ markets around the state as well as to restaurants, grocery stores and community-supported agriculture (CSA) customers. Olsen estimates that he earns about $25,000 to $30,000 a year simply from the wild mushrooms he gathers in the mountains.
“We’re in the right place in the right time,” Olsen says. “Just five years ago there were people who thought I was crazy, and now people are starting to come around and see the enormous value of mushrooms. They have vitamin D and amazing amounts of protein, and medicinal uses that haven’t really been studied until recently. More and more mushroom farms are popping up, and people are realizing that mushrooms have so many flavors; there are mushrooms that taste like maple syrup and ones that taste like lobster.”
“If you’re not excited by finding mushrooms, then you should take your pulse,” says Fred Shipley, the president of the Oregon Mycological Society, which educates people about mushrooms by holding monthly talks and sponsoring forays. The organization has about 900 members, but lest anyone mistake mushroom chasers as a homogenous bunch of environmental foodies, Shipley is quick to point out the diversity within Oregon’s larger mushroom scene, from the academic researchers at Oregon State University to the Asian and Latino transient pickers who follow the mushroom season up the Pacific Coast.
“There’s a class of people who only want to know where they can get the edibles, while others are more interested in identification or toxicology,” according to Shipley, while sustainability and localism seem to be drivers among the younger or more urban populations. But there are also rural foragers for whom mushrooms are a key food source and a Slavic community carrying on a cultural tradition, in addition to those with what Shipley calls, “romantic ideas about being outside.”
The farm-to-table ethos typified by Portland’s restaurant scene is flourishing across the state. It is particularly strong in the Willamette Valley, the heart of mushroom country, where the food and wine culture has grown substantially over the past few decades, and chefs increasingly emphasize ingredients found at their doorstep.