Alan Muskat is someone who does. Perhaps the best-known of a handful of commercial mushroom foragers in the Asheville area, Muskat earns a good portion of his living from what the woods provide. And there are few woods better to go looking for mushrooms in than our region's: From the morels of early spring to midsummer's chanterelles to fall's chicken-of-the-woods, they're host to some of the greatest diversity of mushrooms in the temperate world.
On a recent Sunday morning, Muskat and two friends, Tatianna Woydak, 10, and her sister, Sovah, 5, gathered up the tools of the mushroomer’s trade -- split-wood baskets, paring knives and paintbrushes -- and took to the woods. A string of drizzly afternoons promised to coax something out of the soil. And they had; the trio had no sooner parked the car and clambered out than they found a good-looking stand of fungi.
"Honeys," Muskat said. Tatianna crouched to pick some, passing each one to Sovah, who dusted their tops off with a small paintbrush. As a final treatment, Tatianna trimmed away the toughest part of the stem with a knife before depositing them in her basket. Muskat had a basket of his own, which he was filling with impressive speed.
The honey mushroom is a choice edible, one that ranks among Muskat's "top five," given its abundance and flavor. It has a pronounced nutty quality and a faint tang of acidity that holds up well to sautéing and simmering.
Nearby, a dead hemlock tree lay on its side, spanning a depression in the forest floor. All along it, jelly-like fungi had sprouted, each one the color of a soft-boiled egg yolk. Muskat called them "witches' butter." He tasted one and spit it out.
Few living things have more cultural baggage than mushrooms. A whole folklore has sprung up around them. The fly-agarics of eastern Europe reputedly give the sensation of flight when eaten; the British call dubious mushrooms "toadstools"; and the medicine men of southern Mexico sought out certain mushrooms for their power to produce visions.
But despite reputations, and given the breadth of mushroom species, comparatively few are poisonous. The ones that are, however, tend to be so with finality. The destroying angel, pure white and common in Western North Carolina, attacks the liver and can bring death in a few days.
Local chefs have come to trust Muskat, and for good reason: His knowledge of what's edible and what's not is something approaching comprehensive, right down to the smallest details of their gill shapes, veils and spore prints, the colored patches left behind when mushrooms shed their spores. With honey mushrooms, for example, the print is white; if the mushroom in question leaves a trace of brown spores, you've got something else on your hands.
Across the road, Muskat and the girls entered a patch of woods where they expected to find lobster mushrooms, another choice edible. Sovah came up with Yogi Berra-like aphorisms in support. "I think we're going to find more over here," she said, "than we found when we didn't find any."
Her faith was well rewarded. There were lobster mushrooms, lots of them. "Oh," said Tatianna, "I can smell 'em." Here and there the forest floor was lifted up in perfect, round patches of duff and hemlock needles, like bumpers in a pinball game. Underneath each one a lobster was hiding.
The lobster mushroom gets its name from its color, a bright cinnabar red. In fact, every lobster mushroom is two funguses. One, a mold-like fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, attacks a milkcap mushroom, consumes it and erodes its features. By doing so, it also changes a no-account mushroom into gourmet fare. Along with their dandy color scheme, lobsters are thick, meaty, and have a ripe, woodsy odor, characteristics that translate well to the plate.
Each mushroom, edible or otherwise, has a close relationship with a host plant. Some, like the honey, are parasitic, but most others are symbiotic, expanding a tree's ability to collect nutrients and water. In return for its services, the fungus nibbles the carbohydrates sloughed off by the tree's roots. Morels are partial to burnt-over woods, old orchards and groves of tulip poplars. Chanterelles thrive in the company of both conifers and broad-leaved trees. Lobster mushrooms depend on the generosity of hemlocks and pines.
The woods at Coleman Boundary are productive, Muskat suggested, because they have a sort of middle-aged temperament: stable and nurturing. "You won't find this kind of productivity in a young forest," he said. "It's part of the argument for conservation."
And while foraging for mushrooms isn't exactly the most reliable source of income, on good days, for an hour's work in the woods accompanied by the sound of the wren and wood thrush, Muskat can make a few hundred dollars.
But there's a lot of legwork, too, and Muskat is only one mushroomer. "The fact is, I can't cover them all," he says. "I have spots everywhere. I have one log in, like, Oteen, or a stump, say, in Fairview that's productive, but I can't be everywhere at once." And while he keeps a running list of restaurant clients, every sale also requires a dance of phone calls.
Back at the car, Muskat set the baskets in the hatchback and took a drink of water. Sovah climbed into her car seat. Tatianna looked out the window absently. As the foragers drove off, the sun filtered through the trees above and touched off the bits of mica in the road dust behind them.
The hunt wasn't over, yet. A quarter-mile down the road, Muskat slowed the car to a crawl and edged toward the left side of the road, which fell away abruptly to a stream below. "There's a log down there that's sometimes covered with oyster mushrooms," he said, leaning out of the window to get a better look.
"Not today," he added, and drove on.