Alan Muskat explains the parts of a mushroom to a student on one of his mushroom adventures.
Anyone with enough money can purchase a fancy plate of food, but it takes real moxie to go back to pre-agrarian practices and eat stuff right off the ground.
Alan Muskat, professional mushroom gatherer and wild foods expert, among other things, is one such daring soul. One might not call him a foodie, per se, but Muskat has the foraging thing down pat. While he doesn’t have sorbet in his freezer, a jar of ants sits alongside an ice cube tray filled with honey-locust puree. Jars of dried lichens and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms rest on a bookshelf bordering his kitchen. He mentions that there’s high meat in the basement—meat “put up” to age enough so that it begins to host scores of reportedly beneficial bacteria as he offers up a glass of slightly fermented mushroom ink to sip.
It’s all rather wild.
“But I’m wild on a practical level,” says Muskat, who’s busy in his kitchen sautéing a few mushrooms he gathered and dried last fall in a pat of raw butter, churned by a cow-owning friend.
Muskat grew up in Miami and didn’t set foot in the woods until he was of college age. The way Muskat explains it, wild blueberries were his gateway food—he discovered them along the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey.
“It was amazing,” he says. “You could pick your food!”
He left behind his rather prudish life as a Princeton student to join a co-op, and before anyone knew what was happening, Muskat was part of an Audubon expedition, living on a bus for a month to learn the ropes of environmental education. After graduating, he took a quick foray to Portland—where his enthusiasm for wild mushrooms developed in earnest—then landed in Asheville, where he’s lived for the past 15 years. Within a year of moving to the Western North Carolina city, Muskat made mushrooming into a full-time job.
He teaches people how to gather mushrooms and cook them. His ever-growing reputation as a knowledgeable and very quirky character has enabled him to lead groups of well-heeled foodies scratching around in the dirt for wild foods.
All this summer, Muskat’s hosting retreat-like foraging expeditions at the Laughing Frog Estate in Walnut, N.C., featuring well-known WNC chefs cooking what is gathered on the property in the evening. “No Taste Like Home,” Muskat’s series, is an authentic foodie experience, with just enough pampering to make a $125 price tag for foraging (accommodations not included) go unquestioned. Muskat calls it a sort of “Iron Chef Appalachia,” and has crafted a press release peppered with jokes about how the dinner could conceivably kill his guests.
“It’ll be like a wedding,” says Muskat. “Until death do us part.”
The joking is all in good fun—and all part of Muskat’s efforts to entertain himself and those around him while keeping all parties involved aware of their own mortality. It’s a good way to keep things fresh.
“There’s always been a tension for me, between it as a lifestyle and a way to make money,” he says of his wild foods fetish.
Muskat formerly spent much of his time foraging for mushrooms that were then sold to local restaurants. One of his chief clients used to snatch up everything he gathered, but then learned to gather mushrooms under Muskat’s tutelage.
“Now they don’t need me anymore,” he says—though it’s clear there’s no love lost.
The demand for foraged mushrooms has come about largely due to diners’ increasing culinary curiosity and the culinary cognoscenti’s movement past overwrought, fusion-filled presentations to hyper-local ingredients. And that’s where foraging comes in. Sure, the chefs that are fussing around with prissy presentations may be garnering attention. But when it comes down to it, culinary figures like Anthony Bourdain, who travels the world sampling grubs in Ghana and scorpions in the markets of Vietnam, are wielding more influence because they’re taking the culinary experience to the next level.
Last August, Muskat pitched the idea of a wild foods show to Erika Dobrin of Goodbye Pictures who was in Asheville filming “Austin and Santino,” a sequel to “Project Runway.” The Asheville Chamber of Commerce had connected Dobrin with Muskat so that he could help her find interesting locations for the fashion show. Dobrin bit at the idea but envisioned a more travel-oriented concept.
“She was proposing far-flung settings for the show,” Muskat says. “I, on the other hand, wanted it to be in Asheville, or at least southeast-based, so I gave her a couple of way-out, yet local, examples.”
Muskat had no intention of becoming another Andrew Zimmern, host of The Travel Channel’s show Bizarre Foods, and traveling to far off places to eat fermented things and make faces at the camera.
“That’s the tension with TV,” says Muskat. “They want to make it exotic, and I want to make it your backyard—which is boring to people that just want to be entertained.”
Muskat had his own experience with Zimmern when he took the chef-turned-TV star to the Biltmore Estate woods for a little foraging trip.
“It was only because I knew a gardener there who had scouted it for me, and I urged [Zimmern] not to reveal that [the Biltmore Estate] was where we were,” he says. “It would make it seem like you’d have to go to a special place like that to do what I do. But he couldn’t resist. He wasn’t about making it accessible.”
While exotic and edgy does sell, Muskat lives the locavore movement to the fullest as a general rule of thumb. His refrigerator contents might even make Zimmern blush, what with its jars of organs from locally raised farm animals. There’s lamb heart, tongue and liver alongside a jar of local cream so thick it looks like yogurt. And there are mushrooms everywhere—dried, frozen and turned into stock with a little seaweed thrown in for extra umami, or savoriness, one of the five basic tastes together with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.
None of the five basic tastes exactly came into play, though, when Muskat began his mushrooming expeditions.
“The first mushroom that I positively identified was Russula Emetica. Do you know what an emetic is? It’s the medical term for something you eat if you want to throw up,” he says.
Muskat only (wisely, he adds), nibbled at the somewhat toxic mushroom, chalking it up to part of the learning process.
“My mouth started burning, like if you put hot sauce in your mouth. But more like battery acid. The funny thing is that I was hooked after that,” he says.
Swallowing a piece of a deadly mushroom could kill a person if he or she does not receive the proper medical treatment, says Muskat, though even the deadliest mushroom can at least be tasted without risking certain death.
Muskat recommends that ‘shroom newbies learn the ropes from hands-on experience, supervised by a human guide and not a book. In fact, he recommends a human teacher so highly that, when people ask him which field guide books to reference, his answer is “none.”
“The smartass answer is ‘this is not a field guide,’” he says, picking up a tattered mushroom handbook from his bookshelf and flinging it to the floor. “Okay! Guide me!” he shouts to the book. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t respond. Muskat, hands on hips, nods, his rather odd point confirmed. “A field guide is a human being. It’s Sacagawea.” He points at the hardcover on the floor. “This is a book.”
Once out in the still mostly dormant woods, Muskat continues to reiterate that the most important thing to remember when gathering mushrooms is to “bring a friend who knows what they’re doing.”
“There’s this mindset that people have when they want to do something that they’ll just buy a book and do it on their own,” he says. “There’s nothing alternative about doing it yourself. American individualism was designed for corporations to sell you books.” With that, Muskat, who’s written a few mushroom books himself, turns and crunches off through the dry leaf-covered floor of the forest.
Another tip? Don’t always watch the ground, he says, right after he points out a few signs of life poking through the leaves: wild onion grass.
“I tell people they’ll miss the forest for the fungus if all they do is look down,” he says. “But it’s true,” he admits, stopping for a moment to toe the dried leaves away from the base of a lichen-covered tree stump. “Most mushrooms do come out of the ground. Some come out of trees, but generally they’ll come out within five feet of the ground.”
He snaps a piece of dry lichen off of the trunk. “Lichen is a fungus—it’s a mushroom with algae on it,” he says, tossing it into the trees.
It’s too early in the season for much more to be growing, Muskat says. “The season is generally June through September, October. Except for morels, which are late April and early May.”
Another cardinal rule of gathering mushrooms? “No rain no mushrooms. That’s an African proverb,” he says. “I think it’s taken generally to mean, if you have all sunny days in your life, then you don’t gain the benefit of suffering.”
At that, Muskat leans over and plucks a huge, partially rotted mushroom the size of his head, dotted with a grub or two. “This is what they call a loathsome mass of putrescence,” says Muskat, allowing a little giggle to escape. “This was very likely a cracked-cap polypore. This is related to one of the top medicinals,” he says, taking a quick whiff. “The Chinese version of Phellinus, but no one uses it here. You have to be careful, because it grows on a poisonous tree. I’m tempted to eat it and see what happens.”
He breaks it in half, revealing more grubs.
“Somewhere I heard that no grubs are poisonous. If I could find that out for sure, I would eat them,” he says, poking his index finger into the mushroom’s gills.
It’s this sort of scene that inspires a gut reaction of fear in some when it comes to wild-gathered mushrooms.
“We associate mushrooms with death, and that’s part of the mycophobia,” Muskat says. “I guess the question is, where do you draw the line between death and rebirth? The tree is dying, the mushroom is living, then the mushroom is nature’s recycling system. If it’s a circle, where does the circle start and stop, you know?”
There has always been quite a bit of superstition and fear surrounding mushrooms, says Muskat. “They seem to grow out of nowhere and grow rather quickly,” says Muskat. To that end, he says, they were associated with lightning strikes—the trees would burn after lightning hit them and the mushrooms would spring out of the rotting trees. “It seems rather silly to us now that they wouldn’t get that mushrooms grow from spores,” Muskat says.
Muskat looks down near his feet, where he has just noticed the droppings of a forest creature, studded with large seeds. “Someone’s been eating persimmons,” he says, harvesting the seeds and offering them on his upturned palm. “Take these home, roast them, then put them in your coffee machine and make coffee out of it. Once you roast it at 275 degrees, you can’t get any disease.”
That, Andrew Zimmern, is a bizarre food, indeed—and straight out of Muskat’s backyard.
For more information about Alan Muskat and his guided mushroom foraging expeditions, visit alanmuskat.com.
Cooking tips for mushrooms
The Tao Te Ching says that ruling a large empire is like cooking a small fish. The same goes for mushrooms. You’ll need a careful hand and a cute little pan, because with only one or two mushrooms in it, it’s easy to add too much oil, salt or flame.
Heat the oil first (so the mushrooms don’t just soak it up). I recommend olive, coconut or palm. Then add the mushrooms and salt. Toss the contents to spread the oil and salt evenly. Softer mushrooms are like pancakes, however; you don’t want to fuss with them too much, especially at first. (I also recommend taking the time to slice them thinly).
Cook these for a while; the amount of heat and time depends on the mushroom. The salt will help the mushrooms lose their water. Covering the pan will help retain this moisture, which will steam the mushrooms and cook them more thoroughly without the need for extra water. If you do find that the mushrooms are browning more than you want, you can add a splash of water, wine or Pabst Blue Ribbon and re-cover. This will speed up the cooking process.
I find that things taste better the less water you use. Softer mushrooms soak up water and get mushy, while others can handle it. In fact, some need a little added moisture if you don’t use much oil and they’re a little dried out to begin with. Other mushrooms, like chanterelles, may release too much water. You can uncover the pan to evaporate it, pour it off and use it for stock or add something like cornstarch to thicken it (try Irish moss, a seaweed, or dried sassafras leaves, the fîlé in gumbo). But either way, you’ll probably want to cook that water off so you can get your mushrooms to brown slightly.
... Also, wet mushrooms don’t brown: caramelization occurs at 320 degrees F, and as long water is steaming out of mushrooms, their surface temperature is not going to be much higher than 212 degrees.
Muskat’s mushroom-cooking techniques (Wild Mushrooms: A Taste of Enchantment, Alan Muskat, 2007)