When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
Humans long ago stopped relying on foraging in favor of agriculture. But not everybody has given it up entirely. With Spring right around the corner, we look at the wild bounty available in our backyards and parks, and find out how to recognize edible mushrooms and wild greens.
- Raymond LaSala President of the Mycological Association of Washington
- Steve Brill "Wildman" Steve Brill is a foraging expert and tour guide.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILong, long ago, mankind made the move from hunting and gathering to agriculture. But that's not to say all of us have made the switch for good. From morel mushrooms to wild ramps, spring is the season to get outside and find yourself some edibles. Sure, it might seem a bit primitive, but it can also be fun. A fun, local and sustainable way to enjoy nature's bounty.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut we do need some guidance so we don't pick ourselves a hemlock salad. So joining us to provide that guidance, we turn to Raymond LaSala, president of the Mycological Association of Washington, whose purpose is to share knowledge about fungi. Ray LaSala, thank you for joining us.
MR. RAYMOND LASALAThank you Kojo. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation, too, by calling 800-433-8850 to talk about your own foraging experiences or habits. Joining us in studio is Sara Lipka. She joined us for our previous segment. She stays because she is not only a reporter for "The Chronicle of Higher Education," she has been foraging for food with the Mycological Association of Washington. Sara Lipka, thank you for rejoining us. What caused you to join?
MS. SARA LIPKAJoin the Mycological Society?
LIPKAI was interested in cooking with mushrooms that were too expensive to buy at whole foods.
NNAMDIAnd so long story short?
LIPKASo I went out a few times trying to find morels and with the guidance of the Mycological Association, was able to find some spots and realize where was best to look and how to avoid mushrooms that wouldn't turn out well.
NNAMDIHear that, Whole Foods? The Mycological Society is after your customers. Ray LaSala, what are the right kinds of places to go foraging?
LASALAWell, Kojo, it's really not just a matter of the right places, but also the right times. The right places are mushroom specific, it depends on what the mushroom likes to grow on. It could be in the woods underneath tulip poplars. It could be in grass. It could be in moss. It really depends on which mushroom you're talking about.
LASALABut again, the time of year is also important. Morels only come out in spring. They'll grow underneath tulip poplars. They'll grow underneath Ash trees, possibly old apple orchards, but only in spring.
NNAMDISo this is the right time to start going out and looking?
LASALAExactly, the season should start in about a week.
NNAMDIDo you go out looking for wild foods? What is your favorite kind to gather? Call us at 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Share your experiences there. Ray, you know, mycology is a fancy word for mushroom science, isn't it?
NNAMDIAnd you're the president of a mushroom focus group. What kinds of mushrooms are you excited for at this time of the year?
LASALAAt this time of year, the big find is morels, to be sure, and that draws an enormous following. But there are a lot of other mushrooms that grow in our area that you can hope to find at this of year or at least over the next month or two. You can find oyster mushrooms any time of year. You can find a mushroom called the Wine Cap Strophaira growing in wood mulch just after morels finish up.
LASALAAlso just after morels finish up, you can find a wonderful mushroom called Chicken of the Woods, which is a bright orange and yellow shelf-like apparition that is absolutely delicious and that you simply cannot find commercially.
NNAMDIWell, spring has just begun and nevertheless, you have brought with you a bottle that seems to be full of mushrooms. When...
LASALAI'm so glad you asked.
NNAMDI...when did you find those?
LASALACheck these out. I got these probably three or four years ago. These are a mushroom called the Slippery Jack. It comes out underneath pine trees, in this case eastern, young eastern white pine trees in October into November. If you can, smell, just get a good whiff of that jar and you'll -- isn't that amazing?
NNAMDIYes, it certainly is. Tastes pretty good, too.
LASALABut you see, in this case, it's not just a matter of finding the mushroom, but also knowing how to treat it. What I did to produce that was I got the mushrooms when they were young. I took them home. I peeled off the skin on the top of the cap.
LASALAI sliced them rather thickly, dehydrated them until they were completely crisp, put them in the jar, sealed -- it's a glass jar, by the way, sealed it up and just left it alone for, you know, a year or two so that it would age. That's what you get.
LASALAIf you taste that mushroom fresh, it's kind of, you know, slimy and insipid, not much flavor. Furthermore, if you don't peel off the cap cuticle, you may very well get diarrhea. So you have to know what to do with them.
NNAMDIThank you for doing that for me. Tell me, Sara Lipka, what has been your experience foraging with the Mycological Association?
LIPKAIt's a really enthusiastic group of people who have such vast knowledge about the varieties of mushrooms that grow locally and can help, as I said before, prevent you from finding some look-alike mushrooms that would do you harm.
NNAMDIWhat is the experience itself like? Is it fun?
LIPKAIt's pretty fun. When there are these events where people go out, they're called Forays. And so the location of a foray is kept under wraps until just before you go and the -- you might get a message the night before or maybe the day before about where the group will meet. And there's a request, kind of the ethics of foraging, is that once the location is known, people not go out in advance to kind of raid the area that has been identified as a good spot at a good time.
NNAMDIYes, you don't want people cheating, so to speak.
LASALALet me add that going out with the group is not only a great way to learn about wild mushrooms, in my opinion, it's the only way. What novices really should not do, or people who know nothing about mushrooms, is just go out armed with a field guide, let's say, and expect that they can safely identify mushrooms for consumption. Absolutely not, should not be done.
NNAMDIWe'll talk a little more about the safety aspect later, but let's go to the phones first and start with Bill, in College Park, Md. Hi, Bill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLHi, Kojo, Thanks for taking my call.
BILLI just wanted to let you know I thought it was interesting. I moved out to this -- to the area in suburban Maryland about 10 years ago and I come from the Midwest, from northern Indiana. And out there, it's really common to hunt morel mushrooms. You know, most of northern Indiana is farms and with plaques of woods here and there.
BILLAnd people guard their little plats of woods very carefully during this time of year because of all the morel mushroom hunters that come out. And when I came to Maryland, I was surprised to find that there's not as many people that seem to be aware of it or brave enough actually to go out and hunt mushrooms and so I've been able to find some pretty spots. There's some really good spots in Maryland where you can find them.
NNAMDIReally good spots in Maryland. Care to talk about that Ray LaSala?
LASALAYes. As I mentioned earlier, the really key thing is to understand the habitat that the mushroom likes. And for morels, for me, the most productive spots are places where there are lots of tulip poplars or Ash trees or if you're lucky enough to know where there's an old apple orchard.
NNAMDISara Lipka, I'm fascinated, were it not for the Mycological Association, how do you think you would have fared trying to undertake this on your own?
LIPKAWell, I know a couple of botanists who I think would've helped and so that might've made it a little bit easier. But Ray's right that the field guides can be used well in the hands of people who are knowledgeable about what they're looking for. And a morel is a good place to start because I don't think the poisonous look-alikes are actually that similar in appearance to the morel.
LASALAYou'd be amazed at the mistakes people can make. To an experienced person, they can be very distinctive. He'd say, how could you possibly confuse A with B? But it happens all the time.
NNAMDIYes. As I said, we'll talk a great deal about that later in the broadcast. On now to Diana, in Montgomery County, Md. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANAHi, Kojo, thanks for the fun show. My husband took mycology in college and kept his field guide of the look-alike. And we moved to Montgomery County about -- well, we moved to this area of Montgomery County about 16 years ago and twice in that time, completely unbidden, something called a Giant Puffball has made an appearance, which is the size of a soccer ball, except it's white.
DIANAIt looks like it's a young white snowball from our window. The first time it happened, we had a couple of them. The second time, there was only one. But the best part is there are no look-alikes and so we ate it and it was delicious. We sautéed it in butter.
NNAMDIGood for you.
LASALAIt's true that there's nothing that closely resembles a Giant Puffball and, you know, giant snowball, heck, I mean, it looks like a volleyball or even a beach ball, it can be so big. But even when you've correctly identified it to species, there's still the matter of recognizing when it's in good edible condition as opposed to being over the hill.
LASALAAnd another problem is that you get novices who are so excited at finding a certain mushroom at long last, they are really determined to eat it regardless of what it looks like and that, too, is a big mistake.
NNAMDIHey, Diana, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we return, we'll continue this edition of "Food Wednesday," with Raymond LaSala, president of the Mycological Association of Washington, whose purpose is to share knowledge about fungi.
NNAMDISara Lipka, thank you so much for joining us. Sara Lipka is a reporter for "The Chronicle of Higher Education." It turns out she joined the Mycological Association and have been going out to pick her own food with them. Sara, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIWhen we come back, we'll joined by ""Wildman"" Steve Brill, author of several books about wild food. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Do you go out looking for wild foods? What is your favorite kind to gather? 800-433-8850, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to "Food Wednesday," foraging and wild food. We're talking with Ray LaSala. He is president of Mycological Association of Washington. Its purpose is to share knowledge about fungi. He joins us in studio. Joining us from a studio in Bronxville, New York is the "Wildman". Steve Brill, author of several books about wild food, including shoots and greens of early spring, widely acknowledged as one of America's go-to guys regarding foraging. Steve Brill, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. STEVE BRILLHi, pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou, yourself, it is my understanding, have actually gotten into trouble while foraging. Why were you a target of a government sting during the 1980s?
BRILLI was teaching people about edible wild plants, common renewable resources that grow in our region, everything from dandelions to prince mushrooms. And the New York City Parks Commissioner, a man by the name of Henry Stern, didn't like that I was teaching foraging, and having people eating dandelions in the parks. There's this wild man in Central Park. He's a hairy fellow that (word?). He's going into Central Park and eating the dandelions. We can't have someone going into Central Park and eating the dandelions.
BRILLIt's like going into the Central Park Zoo and eating a bear cub. So 25 years ago this month, he put undercover park rangers on my tour. It was a man and a woman and they said they were married. They never held hands or kissed. I figured they been married a long time. The man kept taking pictures of me. I hold up the specimens, except I'm the specimen. And they paid me with marked bills. In the '80s, there was a crime wave going on in New York City so I guess they had extra marked bills to use to catch people.
BRILLAt the end of the tour, I showed people that you could eat the dandelion. The male ranger ducked behind a tree, took out a hidden walkie-talkie, there he is on 81st Street, go get him. Every park ranger in New York City popped out from behind the bushes. They surrounded me, in case I was going to climb up a tree, put me in handcuffs lest I bop them on the head with a dandelion. They searched me. I don't know if they were looking for weeds or weed, but they put me in handcuffs, hauled me off to the police station, searched my backpack.
BRILLFortunately, I had eaten all the evidence, and charged me with criminal mischief for removing vegetation from the park. I got a desk appearance, a ticket. I had to go to court. The first thing I did when I got home was notify the press. I got on everything from Letterman to MTV. When they took me to court, I served "Wildman"'s Five (word?) Salad on the steps of the Manhattan criminal courthouse to reporters and passersby. The press ate that up, too. And subsequently, the city was forced to turn over a new leaf. They negotiated with me, dropped the charges, and hired me to lead the same nature tours I was leading when I was arrested.
NNAMDIAnd that's how "Wildman" Steve Brill became a legend. You should know that according to Bill Lyons, spokesperson for the National Parks Service, foraging or picking plants in national parks is strictly verboten. He says they know lots of restaurants around this time of year like to go to our local Rock Creek Park and take morels and charge up the wazoo for things they got for free. Virginia regulations also say no person shall remove, destroy, cut down, scar, mutilate, injure, take or gather in any manner any tree, flower, foreign shrub, rock or plant, historical artifact or mineral in any park unless a special permit has been obtained for scientific collection.
NNAMDISpeaking of scientific collecting, Steve Brill, foraging might seem to some like a big foodie kind of activity, but both you and Ray LaSala might more closely identify with the label of naturalist. How does your love of nature guide your passion for the food it provides?
BRILLWell, I got interested in this because I was initially hungry and went into the kitchen and found a carton on oatmeal, followed the recipe. It tasted good. I started doing more and more cooking and got interested in whole foods nutrition as well. Then I discovered that there were wild foods around and these are totally renewable. The rules against picking anything, a blanket rule like that is absolutely ridiculous. People need to have more contact with the environment, not less, as long as you know what you're doing. And you're hunting for renewables, the same weeds that come up in people's gardens that grow back again.
BRILLI'll actually be doing a wild food and ecology tour of Rock Creek Park, I think, around July 5th. That will be on my website. There's an organization that's setting that up. My website, by the way, is "Wildman"stevebrill.com.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. I spent some time there yesterday.
BRILLYeah. We're still making arrangements. But especially kids. They memorize science in school. It bores them to death and they lose interest in the natural environment. We need to bring them out looking for the mulberries, the dandelions, the daylilies, which are invasive, the Japanese knotweed, which is invasive, the chicken mushrooms, which are parasitizing trees. Not that cutting down a mushroom is gonna harm the fungus that's living inside the tree, but there are plenty of very constructive things people can do relating to the environments hands on, and the government really has no business in blocking that.
BRILLThey're basically perverting laws that are meant to prevent vandalism and environmental destruction. Obviously, you're not -- shouldn't go cutting down trees for firewood or picking rare things, but morally, ethically, and ecologically, using renewable resources rather than non-renewable ones is the way you should be going.
NNAMDISo Ray LaSala, sustainability is a big buzzword in foodie culture now. How concerned should we be about the regrowth of a plant or how removing a mushroom harms the environment?
LASALAWell, the mushroom is just a part of a larger organism that, for the most part, lives within its food source. For example, Steve mentioned chicken mushroom. That grows on oak trees. Most of the organism permeates the wood of the oak tree and when it decides it needs to reproduce, then it puts out a mushroom, which spreads spores to other locations. You could pick the mushroom and you still won't be disturbing the organism that lies inside the wood.
LASALAYou'd have to be incredibly diligent to wipe out a population of mushrooms just by harvesting the mushrooms. The USDA Forest Service has done studies of commercial harvesting in the Pacific Northwest that found that even commercial harvesting had no impact on the viability of the mushroom population.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones. Here is Rebecca in Washington D.C. Rebecca, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REBECCAYes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was wondering where I could find a black elderberry, the tree, if it even grew around here.
NNAMDIAny idea about that, Ray LaSala?
LASALAYeah. Well, first of all, elderberry is not a tree. It's a large shrub or bush. Um, I've found it along country lanes. So maybe if you go to northern Montgomery County or out into Prince William or Louden counties, you'd stand a better chance than you would within the District, let's say.
NNAMDIRebecca, good luck to you. As soon as we started talking about foraging, one of our producers, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, got a bright look in her eye and exclaimed ramps. These are a wild leek-like plant. Where can you find those, Ray?
LASALAAll along the Potomac River. Rich bottom land.
NNAMDIAll along the Potomac River.
NNAMDISo that's where Ingalisa needs to go?
LASALAThat's a good place to go. I've found it in other locations, but the easiest one to find is along the Potomac River. That's a good example of where there might very well be a sustainability issue. Because to harvest ramps, usually people dig up the entire plant because it's got a very nice onion or leek-like bulb at the base. And so there is danger of people digging out entire patches.
NNAMDICareful, Ingalisa. Raymond LaSala is president of the Mycological Association of Washington whose purpose is to share knowledge about fungi. He joins us in studio. Joining us from a studio in New York is the "Wildman", Steve Brill, author of several books about wild food, including "Shoots And Greens Of Early Spring," widely acknowledged as America's go-to guy regarding foraging.
NNAMDISteve Brill, there are, of course, some dangerous plants out there. What do we want to look out for in the eastern United States, hemlock, poison ivy or worse?
BRILLYeah. We have poison hemlock, we have water hemlock, we have poison ivy. Very good plants to know if you're gonna invite the boss over for dinner. And they're not particularly hard to recognize, although people still get in trouble with these so...
NNAMDIThere's some rules of thumb as far as plants or mushrooms you don't want to pick, just as far as look or smell.
BRILLNo. Just the ones you can identify with 100 percent certainty. If you can identify with 100 percent certainty, and I have books, there are great mushroom books. I'm going to be coming out with an app in a few weeks that will let people identify these things with all the poisonous lookalikes and the non-edible lookalikes. I mean, there are some plants that won't kill you, but they taste so bad if you bit into them, they'd make you wish you were dead.
NNAMDIRay LaSala, you also have brought with you a field guide.
LASALAThat's right. This is the "Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms" by Gary Lincoff.
BRILLYeah, that's excellent.
LASALAIt's an excellent book. But in my opinion, it's not a good book for beginners because there's -- it doesn't present a very good systematic approach for identifying mushrooms. It's got wonderful descriptions, a lot of pretty good pictures, but what tends to happen is that novices end up just flipping through the photographs looking for something that matches up with what they've got in hand and they don't have enough experience in interpreting what they're seeing in front of them to be able to make that at all reliable.
NNAMDINow, if they want help with that guide, you've got a date coming up soon.
LASALAThat's right. As it turns out, Gary Lincoff, the author of "The Audubon Guide," is going to be speaking at the next monthly meeting of the Mycological Association, which is gonna be this coming Tuesday evening, April the 5th, seven o'clock at the Kensington Park Library in Kensington, Md. on Knowles Avenue. And the public is welcome to attend that meeting. It should be a fantastic meeting.
NNAMDIHere is Nancy in Reston, Va. Nancy, your turn.
NANCYHi, thanks for taking the call. About 20 years or so ago, I was teaching in Appalachia in, like, south central West Virginia and I was a third-fourth grade class, and so we were doing language experience where the kids would dictate, you know, the story. So we were -- it was on spring. And so they -- I said, what do you like to do in the springtime, and they said, I like to go Molly Moocher hunting. And I'm like, okay, what are Molly Moochers?
NANCYCome to find out, they were morels. And then, the following year, I talked to another teacher and she -- and I said, you know, they were talking about Molly Moochers, you know. What are -- that's when I found out that Molly Moochers were morels. And so the next day, she brought me in this like -- a garbage, you know, full of morels and they -- obviously, they were so good.
NNAMDIMolly Moochers, that's a name Ray LaSala is clearly familiar with. Steve Brill, to the novice, a lot of things look really similar, and of course you don't want to eat just anything you pick off the forest floor. What are some lookalikes to be aware of?
LASALAWell, the first thing you want to do is pick the things that are very distinct, that have no poisonous lookalikes. Dandelion greens, early in the spring, mulberries at the start of the summer, all the various brambles, raspberries and blackberries, even if you can't identify them to species, as long as you don't get poked with the thorns, you are safe with those. And there are nuts like black walnuts that are quite delicious. People often confuse horse chestnuts, which are very common, with chestnuts, that are almost extinct, and the horse chestnuts are poisonous.
LASALAThere's also a plant called Canada moonseed that looks a lot like wild grape. There are some pretty clear distinctions, but you have to look them up in a reference book. The grape has tendrils that hold onto what it's climbing. The Canada moonseed twines around whatever it's climbing, but the leaves and the fruits look similar. Canada moonseed also has one crescent-shaped seed in it. Grapes have many seeds in it. So those have poison lookalikes. The cattail, you can't go wrong. That's a plant that grows in wetlands.
LASALAYou'll see the dead over wintered seed heads that look quite white and fluffy, and the cigar-shape brown immature seed heads that look like the cat's -- a cat's tail. You pull up the shoot and peel it and the inside tastes like cucumber or zucchini. The immature green flower head you cook like corn on the cob, and when it turns yellow, you shake the pollen off of it into a bag and use that as flour, along with more conventional flour. One caution with the cat tail, never pull out a cat tail if there is an animal rights activist watching.
NNAMDIHere we have an e-mail from Karen in Bethesda who says, "I grew up in Michigan with a book called "Free For The Eating." As kids, we brewed tea from pine needles, rosehips and wild wintergreen, as well as eating the potato-like roots of spring beauty flowers. (makes noise) I haven't ever been brave enough to try cat tails, though. Does your guest have a comment on those?" Cat tails, Steve Brill?
BRILLYeah. They are absolutely wonderful. They're in large quantity. They're very easy to recognize. And I have a recipe with a shoot which tastes sort of like a cucumber or zucchini that is similar to a French stew made with eggplant, zucchini and tomato. That's called ratatouille. My version, which is in my wild vegan cookbook is catatouille. And catatouille is definitely superior to ratatouille, being that it's made from tail of cat rather than tail of rat.
NNAMDIRay LaSala, do you have any favorite wild food recipes for early spring?
LASALASure. Morel's simmered in cream sauce is pretty classic.
NNAMDIYou also, it's my understanding, make a form of liquor.
LASALAWell, that's right. Green black walnuts are used by Italians to make a liqueur called Nocino or Nocillo. What you have to do is -- the towns are very specific. You need to pick this -- the green walnuts, right around the feast of St. John, June 20th or so. You cut them up, steep them in vodka and add flavorings like star anise and cinnamon and cloves and lemon peel and let it steep for six weeks and then bottle it.
NNAMDII know your secrets. Ray LaSala, in some areas, invasive species are thriving and delicious. In particular, I've heard of something called garlic mustard. Sounds pungent, what does it look like?
LASALAWow. It's got leaves that have little indentations all around. The leaves grow basally when it's young. They all come from the very bottom. It sends up a flower spike with little green buds that erupt into little white flowers. The time to harvest it is when those little buds are just about to burst open. If you get it then, and just briefly cook it, it tastes almost like rapini, so it's great on sandwiches if you're out the woods and brought some cold cuts. Or you can even use it raw in a salad, as a...
BRILLI make pesto with it...
BRILL...that's out of this world.
NNAMDIHere's Karen in Alexandria, Va. Hi, Karen.
KARENHi. Good to hear the show. I am so excited about hearing from other mycologists and mushroom hunters. That's what I've been for 30 years, and I had the great good fortune of living in the woods of northeast Connecticut. And, oh, man, I would die for some of the beautiful mushrooms that I had in my woods. But there was one mushroom called the two-toned bolete, and that is a delicious mushroom when it's cooked.
KARENAnd I had them that appeared mostly under the birch and the hemlock trees down by my streambed. So I was all excited. I had my basket full of boletes -- two-toned boletes, and I was, you know, going up the hill, and I was ready to cook them. So I ate one raw. And $1,000 later at the ICU of the hospital, I was really, really sick.
NNAMDIGot to cook those first. Thank you for sharing that story with us, Karen. We're just about out of time. Raymond LaSala is president of the Mycological Association of Washington. Ray LaSala, thank you so much for joining us. The "Wildman" Steve Brill, when are you coming to go through Rock Creek Park, Steve Brill?
BRILLI think it's somewhere around July 5th or 6th. I will have it on my website, "Wildman"stevebrill.com, when the plans are firm.
NNAMDIHe's the author of several books about wild food including "Shoots And Greens of Early Spring." Ray LaSala, the last word.
LASALAYeah. Just one more thing. For those who are interested in learning more about cooking with wild mushrooms, an organization called Open Kitchen in Falls Church, Va. is having classes this Sunday on that subject and I'll be appearing.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
Most Recent Shows
Gunmen launched an attack in Mali's capital on Friday. We explore the conditions that continue to fuel extremism in West Africa and the challenges of combating them.
We learn about a historic cottage in D.C.'s Petworth neighborhood, on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home. While he wasn't the only President to stay there, it bears Lincoln's name and it's estimated he spent about a quarter of his presidency in residence there.
A new Washington Post poll named crime as the biggest problem facing Washington, D.C.-a 12 percent increase from 2011.