800px-Shiitake_mushroomIt’s been a mostly dry summer so I was surprised to find my backyard covered in mushrooms. Unfortunately I can’t tell if they’re edible—I somehow doubt it, though I’d be more curious if we had a Filbert tree behind our house. Filberts give rise to hazelnuts and, in very precise conditions, truffles. I’d probably need a pig to sniff them out, too.

In any event, mushroom hunting is a big business. According to Langdon Cook, author of The Mushroom Hunters, pickers can be well off but most of them are migrant and poor. Nancy Rommelmann reviews the book in the Wall Street Journal.

Once the buyer has got, say, 2,000 pounds, he has to get the morels out of the backcountry fast. Wild mushrooms are highly perishable, their quality easily compromised by rot, heat, bugs, crushing. Which means that after days of haggling, of being cold and damp or hot and sweaty—and, if it is summer in Alaska, fighting swarms of mosquitoes dense as beaded curtains—the buyer suddenly needs to hustle. Maybe it’s an all-night drive to a prop plane or floating downriver on a raft or begging a helicopter ride, anything that will get the morels to Los Angeles and New York, where 24 hours after being picked, they are displayed for sale on a bed of froufrou ferns.


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