Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Transaction

On Saturday I joined Doug and his friend Jeff for another day of picking.

Hanging out with this pair reminded me of the sort of male camaraderie that develops in close quarters. You'll find it in school dormitories, on fishing boats, in hunting camps. Old pals, they knew each other's foibles and weaknesses all too well and exploited them in an ongoing banter of inside jokes, ragging, and general good-natured BS.

We drove a ways north on the Olympic Peninsula to check out a chanterelle patch only to find out another picker or crew had beaten us to it. But while settling for the dregs—only about eight or nine pounds worth—we stumbled on a few king boletes that had just come up. Kings grow fast, much faster than chanties, and it's likely they hadn't even broken through the duff when the competition had cleaned out the patch a couple days earlier. This was a key piece of information. We made tracks for another nearby patch.


A king bolete patch in full flush is a lovely sight to behold. Chanties are beautiful nuggets of gold in the dark woods, but kings are something special. I get a thrill with each find—and this thrill would come a hundred times over on these few acres of second-growth timber. This was the patch where Doug had picked 35 pounds of kings earlier in the week and another 75 pounds with the help of Jeff two days later. Here we were only a day after that haul filling our buckets again with tight no. 1 buttons, about 45 pounds in all.

This was a "day saver" (as Doug called it) for the pickers after getting scooped at the last patch. We loaded up the baskets and drove back south to Raymond to meet the buyer, Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles, who was en route from Seattle to buy mushrooms from several Raymond-area pickers, most of them Cambodian immigrants.

Sang was in the process of cleaning his pick when we arrived. It was his house and for the use of his kitchen he'd receive a commission at the end of the night. Other nearby pickers started showing up at the back door with baskets overflowing with boletes.

Jeremy worked quickly to grade everyone's pick—he still had stops to make in Elma and Centralia. First he separated the no. 1's from the no. 2's and no. 3's. A no.1 is a firm button with a cap that hasn't fully opened. These are considered the most choice. A no. 2 is generally larger and softer than a no. 1, and no. 3's are known as "dryers"—they're better suited to dehydrating and sold dry.

Next he cut every mushroom in half to check for worms. A type of fly known as a bolete gnat lays its eggs on the mushroom and the larvae can reduce a perfect looking button into a wormy mess in a matter of hours. After cutting the mushrooms are graded out, weighed, tallied, and the picker paid in cash on the spot.

This is the moment of truth for the pickers and some can't bear to watch. A cluster of wives looked on as their husbands' work for the day was added up.

It was after 10 pm when we were finished loading up Jeremy's van with baskets of kings. Now he had to make a stop a few blocks away to pick up a hundred or so pounds of white chanterelles, then on to his other rounds. He wouldn't be home for a while yet, and even then his work on tonight's buy had only just begun. Back in Seattle—more than two hours away—he'd need to haul all the mushroom baskets into his basement walk-in for the night and start packaging up his restaurant deliveries the next day.

For their part, the pickers all went home with cash in their pockets to get some sleep before tomorrow's pick, when the whole process would repeat itself.

12 comments:

Kirsten Lindquist said...

Love this post! Love the sociological bit and the story of how mushrooms come to our table.

Emily said...

agreed. excellent post. thank you!!

Mike DeMarco said...

Everyone involved earns every penny. And thanks to the lives that give us feast. Bountiful Earth, industrious people, and a good story.

K Lambert said...

every penny is exactly right. A day's pick is earning these folk a few dollars while those in the middle and at the restaurant end are making substantially more. That kind of inequity drives harvest practices towards unsustainability. Ah, the sweet poetry of capitalism...

MPB said...

This is the kind of story I am looking for. I am a film/mycology student trying to make a documentary on mushroom hunting culture. I just got back from Crescent OR where Mushroom Camp was a ghost town but Kings and Matsi were abundant.

Prices have dropped for the pickers to 5-6 dollars p/p (for #1's) yet costs have risen 10 times for camping in Mushroom Camp (where harvesters are 'forced' to stay).

Forgive my unsolicited request of fellowship, but if helping a student make a (short) respectful documentary is of any interest please email bromax30@evergreen.edu

Thank you kindly and I enjoy all your posts!

LC said...

Dear Readers: Thanks fo your comments. I'm camped up in NW BC (and currently poaching wifi from a nearby ranch) but will respond to your comments when I get back to Seattle. Cheers!

Spencer said...

What a great story! It is so interesting to me to learn about mushroom hunting and all the work that goes into it.

Audrey said...

Great story Lang. Had no idea. Happy camping and fungi hunting.

klahmers said...

Am I reading it correct that the 2's are valued at less that the 3's? Is this always the case or based on availability and need? Thanks for the interesting post.

My name is Marie. said...

I've always wondered how wild mushrooms make their journey from the woods to grocery stores and restaurants. Like anything else, the more I know about the people and processes involved, the more I appreciate them. Thanks for an informative post!

Tobiah Orin Naumoff- Moshier said...

Great post, Lang. You're right. Something about kings gets my blood pumping quite a bit faster than most other fall species. As to this piece; very cool-great concept. You could do an entire book following the life of these guys, season to season. Americana at it's best! Well done!

Daniel Hunter said...

Wow. I haven't made it over the coast yet, but I'm sure if I should be deflated or motivated. On the one hand, why bother scouting out a new area that's so completely mapped out by regular pickers. On the other, I can't deny myself that thrill of a fresh bolete find either. I've never sold nor spent money on wild mushrooms. Yet...