There's a bit of a vogue in mushroom pickers. From Burkhard Bilger's picaresque 2007 piece in The New Yorker to a photo essay published this year on Slate.com that might as well have been funded by the Works Progress Administration, each reporter uncovers anew a desperate gold rush in the pines: meth-ravaged cowboys and poor immigrant families gleaning elusive matsutakes in the Cascadian backwoods, to be consumed at $40 a pound by the foodie bourgeoisie. Each anecdote, seemingly, contains the threat of a knife fight.
Seattle writer Langdon Cook's The Mushroom Hunters (Ballantine, 320 pages, $26) has its dodgy moments, too—woodlands crack cookeries, poaching on public lands, and gacked-out incompetents trying to strip the earth of fungus as if ripping copper from a house's wall—but what differentiates Cook from these other writers is the depth of his interest. He is a co-conspirator in the hunt, himself obsessed with mushrooms. He is obsessed with the entire physical world, and his descriptions border on the ecstatic. Hedgehog mushrooms live in cedar bogs "where the earth feels like it is moving under your feet, with dark brown, nearly red splinters of cedar piercing the blackened dirt like shipwrecks." Trees at the edge of the continent stand "shell-shocked."
Especially in the book's early sections, Cook shares with writer John McPhee a rare knack for weaving together people and their obsessions. He pairs descriptions of the musty pineapple smell of an Oregon black truffle, or the tooth-grinding boredom of picking a sea of penis-shaped morels, with empathetic portraits of the people at every station in the mushroom business.
So Cook follows a thrice-divorced former logger named Doug, one of the few journeyman pickers willing to give up his secrets, on a predawn hunt for hedgehogs, and camps out at a Laotian picker party until drink makes one of the family members a little dangerous. He follows mushroom buyer and purveyor Jeremy Faber up to Alaska during a bad mushroom season for Washington, taking the reader along on a dicey trip through Canadian customs.
His tone lapses only when dining. Cook fawns over the food of Sitka & Spruce chef Matt Dillon in Seattle, falling prey to the city-magazine habit of romancing chefs as heroic and unfathomable magicians. Dillon comes alive, instead, in the eyes of Faber, who views Dillon as a flawed friend, trusted collaborator and glory hog.
Indeed, one of the book's great successes is in drawing out the complicated relationships forged at the improvised frontiers of high-end foods. But it is among the foragers themselves, and at the ramshackle buyers' stands at the edge of forest burns—amid the yearlong transients who chase mushrooms all across the country—that the book is most at home.
GO: Langdon Cook will read at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Thursday, Jan. 9. 7:30 pm. Free.