McCall, Idaho, is not the easiest place to reach from New York City. For some reason known only to my travel agent, I had to fly first to Denver and then from Denver to Boise. In Boise, I caught the McCall Air Taxi, a tiny four-seater plane flown by a man named Jack Magee, who had been a fighter pilot in Korea and Vietnam. Magee navigated the 100 miles up the Payette River valley to McCall, population 3,800. The last major event in McCall had taken place in 1996, when a man driving a horse-drawn wagon at the opening festivities for the Frontier Days rodeo was hit by lightning and fell down dead. I just hoped I wouldn't provide this year's drama.
I had come to Idaho to hunt for and eat wild mushrooms. When I was a girl growing up in rural Massachusetts, I'd go out in the fields and woods after a rainstorm and find mushrooms in every color and shape imaginable: puffballs as round and white as volleyballs, thick pancakelike fungi ringing the white birch trees, growths the color and shape of carrots poking up through the dead leaves. Still, I had been taught from an early age not to pick any of the mushrooms I found and never, ever to eat them. Years later, when my father took to collecting wild morels and chanterelles, I still lived by those childhood warnings. I would help him gather milkweed blossoms and Japanese knotweed shoots and other not-very-palatable woodland growths, but with mushrooms I was taking no chances.
I had a feeling things would be different if I followed Darcy Williamson. I had met her briefly on a white-water rafting trip with Idaho's Salmon River Outfitters (the company had hired her to lead a nature hike), and I thought of her as a kind of Martha Stewart of the forest. She'd been foraging in the woods near McCall since she was five years old and is currently putting a lifetime of mushrooming knowledge into Cooking with Wild and Exotic Mushrooms, which will be her 19th cookbook.
What I like about Williamson is that there is nothing New Age about her. When you're dealing with fungi that have deadly look-alikes you can't afford to be flaky or spacey, and Williamson is a dedicated naturalist who is always expanding her knowledge of the plants that grow in the forests near McCall. "Even last year I found new mushrooms in the area," she told me. "Blue chanterelles and blue-green Clitocybes that taste like licorice, which I dry and add to cookies." I thought I would like to get to know her better even if I didn't want mushrooms in my cookies.
But what if she didn't like me? One poison mushroom slipped in my soup and she could commit the perfect crime. In the end, I made up my mind to trust her: she has a kind of intense, self-sufficient quality that people get only when they spend a lot of their time alone. Besides, I decided that even if she found me exceptionally irritating, there wouldn't be any real reason for her to bump me off until after I had written my article about her, and by then I would be safely back home in New York City.
In McCall, I checked into the charming Shore Lodge, which looks out over Payette Lake. Williamson was already out in the woods scouting mushrooms. The next morning she told me that she had found 30 pounds of morels. "Morels were selling in New York at about $25 a pound when I left," I said. "So you could make...uh...a lot of money, if you want to fly to New York." She looked skeptical. It turns out that she doesn't sell any of the morels she finds: she either eats them herself or gives them away to friends. I can't really picture Williamson in Manhattan anyway. She's too quiet.
According to Williamson, the area around McCall is one of the best-kept secrets in the mushroom world. In more famous hunting spots like Lewiston, Michigan, or Mount Hood, Oregon, the competition among foragers can be fierce, even violent. Yet, while McCall has at least as many mushrooms as those places, Williamson sometimes walks for six miles or more without meeting any rivals.
Williamson and I headed off into the forest with our baskets. The woods in May were full of yellow dogtooth violets, purple and white trilliums and minute pink lady's slippers. A rich vanilla scent wafted from the ponderosa pines and mixed with the sweet turpentine smell you find only in a clean fir forest. "When the white trilliums turn purple, you find morels growing nearby," Williamson said. In reality, it was a bit more difficult than this. For one thing, not every area around purple trilliums is popular with morels. In addition, I didn't actually know what a morel looked like in the wild.
Then she pointed. Still I saw nothing. I followed her as she bent low to the ground and moved away a twig. "Feel it," she said, drawing my attention to what appeared to be a tidy little homunculus sprouting beneath a few stray leaves. "You pick it by giving the stem a twist," she told me. "You don't want to injure the roots or it won't come back. Underground is the actual fungus plant--the mycelium. It looks like a lot of threads. The mushroom is the fruit."
"Is that it?" I said. "A morel?" It was a sassy little mushroom that might have come straight from a starring role in an animated Disney classic. "It should be firm, not dry or slimy," Williamson stated. "Inside, hollow." She twisted it from the ground and handed it to me. The fragrance was intoxicating, unlike anything I had ever smelled before--an ancient aroma, as if the essence of the forest primeval had been squeezed into one rooty nugget. I couldn't stop inhaling it.
"Where there's one there's almost always more," Williamson said. "Sometimes the best place to look is along a game trail, a path worn down by deer or elk. A deer often kicks a mushroom out of the ground and spreads the spores."
Williamson knows everything there is to know about the forest. When she isn't mushrooming, she leads forays to study and collect Native American medicinal plants or to gather wild herbs that can be used to make soap or healing ointments or tranquilizers or antibiotics. She also sells or barters her own tinctures. As we were walking, she pointed out Saint-John's-wort. She dug up a valerian root. She knew the names of all the plants and flowers and which type of tree bark to eat if you want to make yourself throw up.
The quest for mushrooms was addictive. Wherever Williamson went she found morels. Wherever I searched I found nothing--until I spotted a big pile of frothy beige goo on a twig. "Hey, look at this!" I said. "What is it?"
"Wow," Williamson replied placidly. "You found tapioca slime. It's edible." I gave it a sniff. It smelled exactly the way you'd imagine frothy beige goo would smell. "Go ahead and taste it," she suggested.
It was so pleasant wandering through the forest in search of morels that I hardly noticed when it began to rain. I wondered if perhaps there was something genetic about the pleasure I got from foraging. There is a long tradition of picking mushrooms in Europe. Perhaps my satisfaction derived from my Polish ancestors--or, tracing it back even further, from the cave people, those prehistoric hunters and gatherers at the base of everyone's family tree. A great sense of peace and tranquillity swept over me. Maybe it was just all the oxygen.
Later, at a site where there were many rotting spruce logs, Williamson found wood-ear mushrooms. If I had spotted these gelatinous, protruding little lumps on my own, I would have admired them and moved on. With Williamson's guidance, however, I squatted down and plucked them from the crevices in the bark, again taking care not to disturb their substructures. "I've never found so many on one tree!" she said. Even though she's hunted for mushrooms her whole life, she seemed as thrilled as if this were a new adventure. Her excitement was contagious. I was beginning to understand why so many people I know, even city dwellers, get a faraway look in their eyes when they talk about foraging.
That night, at the Bear Creek Lodge, just outside of McCall, we ate a lavish feast prepared with Williamson's harvest. I devoured it all, without even a twinge of fear. As I watched the sun stream in through the huge windows, I realized that things would be different back in New York. While I could always spend $25 a pound for morels at a store, I knew that these elusive, peculiarly alien growths of the forest floor would never taste quite the same to me unless I had first experienced the thrill of the hunt.
Text by Tama Janowitz, who will publish her sixth book, A Certain Age (Doubleday), in July.