On Sunday, Man of La Muncha and I went to the Ballard Farmers' Market. Each of us had a goal - he wanted to find back fat to pursue his goal of making lard, and I wanted to talk to the foragers and find out more about the found food that they sell.
Once we got to the farmers' market, I made my way to the foragers' stall and introduced myself to Jeremy, the owner of the stall. Below is our conversation, based on notes I made as we talked.
Butter Bitch: How long have you been at the farmers' market?
Jeremy: 9 years.
Butter Bitch: Have you noticed more interest in your products lately, in light of books like The Omnivore's Dilemma?
Jeremy: No. There's always been a huge and consistent interest in wild mushrooms.
Butter Bitch: How did you become a forager?
Jeremy: I was a forestry major in college. Later, I was a chef at The Herbfarm (Butter Bitch notes: The Herbfarm is one of the premier Northwest restaurants focused on local, sustainable, and organic foods).
Butter Bitch: Are people surprised by what's edible? I came by earlier this year and was surprised by the sea beans. I bought some and they were very tasty, but it's not something I would have thought to eat if I had come across it in the wild.
Jeremy: People are surprised. There's food all around us, everywhere we go. People have chickweed in their yard, but they're still buying lettuce in the store. You should eat the chickweed--it comes up in March. People are oblivious to the food all around us.
Butter Bitch: Have you ever had any questions or doubts about identifying something as edible when it's not?
Jeremy: If I'm doubtful about anything, I'll leave it alone.
Butter Bitch: I ask because my husband and I were out for a walk earlier this week when he saw some bright red berries growing on a vine alongside the road. He was reaching for them when I commented that the plant looked like nightshade. He pulled back and we kept walking, but talked at the time about how easy it would be to eat something that looked edible, but wasn't.
Jeremy: For most poisonous plants, you need to eat a lot before they'll make you sick. The exception is hemlock root, which will kill you pretty quickly. Hemlock grows in creek shallows, alongside roads, and in ditches - it's often found alongside watercress. If I find hemlock growing with watercress, I'll keep moving and look for watercress without hemlock nearby.
Butter Bitch: Are you here all year?
Jeremy: I can find mushrooms nearly all year around. I can start finding greens (Butter Bitch notes: like miner's lettuce and the aforementioned chickweed) in March and April, while berries come in beginning in July and run through mid-September or so. I do end up doing some mushroom foraging in California in February.
Butter Bitch: I've read elsewhere that some mushrooms only grow in burn areas. Is that true?
Jeremy: Chanterelles and morels grow in burn areas. Chanterelles also don't really grow well in old growth forest. If the trees in a particular area are older than about 30 years, I won't bother looking for chanterelles.
Butter Bitch: Are you secretive about your mushroom spots?
Jeremy: Well, I wouldn't bring competitors out with me, but it's all about an ability to find the mushrooms. If I were to take you out, and you were to go back to the same location a week or a year later, you likely wouldn't find anything. You need to know what you're looking for.
Butter Bitch: Do you see yourself continuing to forage in the future?
Jeremy: Even if I end up doing something else, I'll always do this as a side business.
Butter Bitch: Are there other foragers? Do a lot of people forage professionally?
Jeremy: It's a huge business. Costco sells mushrooms, for example, even ones that can't be cultivated and have to be foraged.
Butter Bitch: I remember reading a few years back about mushroom foragers destroying the forest. Do you see that as a problem?
Jeremy: In the nineties, you saw some moss bed damage from people looking for matsutakes, but moss grows back in three years. There's no long-term damage done to the forest by foragers. Clearcutting and building condos destroys forests. Golf courses destroy forests. Not foragers.