Into the Woods
Sep 01, 2020 11:54AM
By David O'Reilly
The hills and forests of northern Pennsylvania and southern New York are rightly renowned for their fishing and hunting—but not all the game lurking in the Endless Mountains and the Pennsylvania Wilds wriggles and runs. Some just sits there.
So as Ben and Stephani Wallen halt their pickup on Armenia Mountain on a hot Sunday afternoon in August, it isn’t shotguns or fly rods they reach for.
“Here, honey,” she says, and hands her husband a gallon ZipLoc bag. Ben pulls tall hiking staves out of the back and hands her one. “Let’s hit as many as we can,” she says, nodding toward the countless sunlit bushes that line this gravel road in Tioga County. He nods, and starts swiping and poking his stick into the shallow gulley separating the road from the thicket.
The Wallens, whose home is a log cabin on twenty-three acres in Gillet, Bradford County, are professional foragers.
“The rattlesnakes will be under the rocks,” Ben explains to a visitor, though it’s not the timber rattlers the Wallens are seeking. Their objective today is blackberries, which Stephani will cook into a basil-infused jam and can in a professional kitchen a few days later. And maybe—just maybe—they’ll find some of those spongey delicacies that grow on decaying trees: wild mushrooms with names like golden chanterelle, lobster, black trumpet, hen of the woods, chicken of the woods, reishi, and chaga.
Both grew up in the Midwest: she outside Milwaukee, where she hunted and fished, he on a Michigan sheep farm where his parents started him foraging for morel mushrooms at age three. But they got into organically grown and healthy foods in earnest ten years ago when Ben, now forty, developed a rare lymphoma and was given just one to three years to live.
“I wanted to do whatever I could to help him get healthier,” says Stephani, thirty-nine. “That’s when I learned the power of food—especially mushrooms—to try to extend our lifetime together.”
“One of the greatest benefits of eating wild food is that it reminds us that we are fed not by supermarkets, but by the sunshine, rain, and soil,” says Samuel Thayer, one of the nation’s leading experts on foraging for wild edibles. It is “the oldest occupation of humankind,” he writes in one of his best-selling field guides, The Forager’s Harvest. “For most of our history we knew no other way of living...”
Alas, the summer of 2020 has been “abnormally dry,” across north-central Pennsylvania and New York’s Southern Tier, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. The dry conditions have yellowed lawns, dried out creeks, parched cornfields, and withered the summer mushroom crop for professional foragers like the Wallens.
Stephani frowns at today’s nearly cloudless sky. “Mother Nature and I have to have a talk,” she half-jokes.
“It’s mostly berries this year,” explains Ben, who works weekdays in the oil and gas industry. He used to split his time between an office and well sites dotted across several counties, but COVID-19 has closed the office and most of his “meetings” are now online. This time of year the Wallens typically forage together two evenings a week and one day each weekend.
They began by raising their own organically fed hogs and free-range chickens, and pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. Then, in 2018, soon after relocating to Pennsylvania, Stephani did a deep dive into the health and nutritional benefits of foraged foods—those wild edibles that spring directly from nature, unnurtured by humans, yielding themselves to those who know where to look and what to look for.
Their teachers have been Mansfield University dietitian Mary Feeney and her husband, Mark Losinger, a passionate master forager, whom Stephani first encountered in January of 2019, when she was working at the Bradford County library. She invited them to give a public talk on foraging and found it “fascinating.”
Soon after, she and Ben started Woodland Farm, a line of naturally grown, farm-to-table foodstuffs which, depending on the season, can include tomatoes, eggs, ramps, rhubarb, squash, jams, salsas, mushroom-spiced cocoas, soup mixes thought to boost the immune system, a variety of dried mushrooms, and much more. They sell mostly through Delivered Fresh, the farm-to-table home delivery service based in Columbia Crossroads.
Stephani lets out a “Woo!” as she steps off the road and into the gulley, which is steeper than she realized. She sweeps for rattlers and finds none, but moments later spies a spread of flattened bushes. “Our bear’s been here,” she tells Ben.
Black bears like nothing better than devouring berries and falling asleep. “They’re just big bunnies,” she says with a shrug, and they run away at the sight of humans. Still, the Wallens do a quick search of the underbrush for any three hundred-pound “bunnies” before starting their own harvest.
They move through the bushes, plucking the larger, plumper blackberries and dropping them into their bags. “One of the advantages of blackberries,” says Ben, popping one into his mouth, “is you can field test ’em.” The raspberry season is over, they explain. The dry summer has left the choke cherries small and the thimble berries few.
It’s hot work, and the bears and birds and racoons have already been feasting in this field. After about ninety minutes of picking they call it a day. His bag is about one-third full, hers about one-quarter. “I was talking too much,” she explains. He laughs.
It’s not a big yield, but the Wallens agree that an essential part of the foraging experience is simply immersing one’s self in nature. “This is my Zen place: being in the woods,” says Stephani, whose T-shirt reads Kinda Hippie, Kinda Country. “In the woods I’m in the middle of nowhere. I hear no cars or people, just the birds and the water and the wind.”
“It’s just being in the woods with my wife,” says Ben, “and the peace and quiet, and hopefully finding food to eat.”
Still, they are enthusiastic about the health benefits of wild edibles. Those, together with the other organic and pesticide-free foods they raise and consume, have made a “hundred percent difference” in his health, Ben says.
Many wild edibles present bigger, brighter, or deeper flavors than their cultivated counterparts, says Stephani, because the soils in which they grow are so loaded with nutrients.
That nutrient load can make some edibles seem sharp or bitter, says Debbie Naha-Koretzky, a nutritionist and master forager based in central Pennsylvania. “What we’ve done over many years as we cultivated greens, for example, was breed out the bitter components to make them milder tasting. But we bred out things like anti-oxidants that made them so nutritious. Bitter greens, like them or not, are good for us.”
Stephani agrees. The Maitake soup she makes for Ben from hen of the woods mushrooms “doesn’t taste the greatest, but it’s an excellent immune boost,” so she tries to make it more palatable. “I cook it with chicken bone broth and lots of garlic and wild onions.”
After returning to their pickup, the Wallens head down the mountain about half a mile before turning onto a narrow dirt road and into dark woods. “Mushrooms don’t like the light,” she explains as Ben cruises at about five miles an hour. He’s searching left. She’s searching right, but they aren’t optimistic. Mushrooms need moisture to grow, and this summer’s dry spell has drastically diminished their mushroom-based product line. “No chanterelle cheesecake this year,” she laments. “No chanterelle rose hip jam...
“Even turkey tails,” she continues, a normally abundant, fan-shaped mushroom used to make medicinal tea, “have been hard to find.”
Ben spies a chicken of the woods, but it’s growing on a dead hemlock. That chemistry creates a mushroom that causes gastric distress, especially when ingested with alcohol. They keep going, scanning stumps and trunks and leaf mounds. The woods feel dark and mysterious, as if in waiting.
“This is where we also find reishi and chaga,” Stefani explains, and moments later Ben halts the truck to point out the black, fourteen-inch spore ball of a chaga about eighteen feet up the side of a green birch. Prized for its antioxidant properties, chaga has no nutritional value in warm months and is harvested only in winter, when the host birch has gone into dormancy. “It’s hard as a rock,” she says. “You need a special saw to cut it.”
They park the truck and clamber down a ravine toward a creek where they often find reishi mushrooms—they’re large, mahogany colored, and kidney shaped—but the normally rushing stream is a trickle today, and they find only a gray-topped mushroom of the russula family with no nutritional value. Then it’s back to the truck, which Ben turns around carefully.
Moments later he steps on the brakes. “There’s a mushroom,” he says. That’s an understatement. The object of his attention is white and solitary, about three inches tall, some fifteen feet inside the woods, poking out of a low leaf mound by a rotting stump.
Only a few dozen of the thousands of mushroom species found in the United States are edible, and seven in Pennsylvania are poisonous. The Wallens have just found an Amanita bisporigera, or “destroying angel,” one of the deadliest of all. Ingesting just half the cap will shut down the liver and kidneys, and there is little hope of recovery without intense treatment at a hospital.
“Make sure you know what you’re eating,” says Stephani, who shows off the “angel’s” distinctive white veil that covers the gills on its underside. “It also smells like potatoes,” says Ben, who offers a sniff. He’s right.
Like most states, New York and Pennsylvania require certification of anyone selling wild-found mushrooms. In June of last year, the Wallens took a two-day course in State College conducted by Mushroom Mountain University, based in South Carolina, which certified them after they passed an identification exam.
Their advice to anyone wishing to learn foraging is to take hands-on courses or train with teachers who take them into the wild to point out where species grow, their visual characteristics, when to harvest, and how to harvest sustainably—leaving the roots in place, for example.
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, meanwhile, urges beginning mushroom harvesters to avoid mushrooms with gilled caps (such as oyster and shiitake) because they can be confused with others “that are seriously poisonous and deadly.” Wild harvested mushrooms should be thoroughly cooked and never consumed raw, according to the PDA, and not show any signs of spoilage or insect infestation.
Foragers should only reference guidebooks written by qualified experts, continue the Wallens, and put little reliance on websites created by amateurs. “There’s a lot of old and bad information out there,” says Stephani. And get permission before foraging on private property.
On the way out of the woods they stop at a dead hemlock that has sprouted several reishi mushrooms at its base, but the near-drought has rendered them brittle and dry. “There’s nothing to harvest here,” says Stephani, but she pats the tree affectionately. “We’ll be back next year,” she tells it.
The Wallens concede they are “pretty good when it comes to mushrooms,” but “we’re still learning about plants and berries,” says Stephani. “There’s so many we’ve still never seen.”
Half the fun of foraging, says Ben, “is finding something you’ve never seen. Then you come home and put your nose in a book for half an hour learning about it.”
Still, nothing beats having mentors in foraging, and for that Ben and Stephani still turn to their friends and original teachers, Mark Losinger and Mary Feeney. Their simple house, somewhere between Asaph and Westfield, fronts a dirt road high in the hills and backs onto state forest.
“He doesn’t bite!” Mark shouts as their giant German shepherd, Zap, bounds off the front porch to greet a newcomer. Zap just wants you to pull the plastic chew toy out of his mouth, but Mark has a better idea. He pulls up a chair on the porch and plops down opposite. He sports a trimmed beard and a braided, hip-length, chestnut colored ponytail.
“You’re gonna taste our yard!” he announces, smiling broadly and instantly displaying his near-messianic passion for foraging. “There are flavors your tongue has never tasted and cannot buy in any store.”
Mary, who’s standing nearby, nods in agreement. “There are just some foods you can’t describe to say ‘this tastes like asparagus, or a green bean,’” she says. A Ph.D. dietitian, she’s director of the nutrition program at Mansfield University, where she teaches nutrition and epidemiology.
The lack of rain has made this “the worst summer I can remember for mushrooms,” says Mark, but he can barely contain his excitement over the treat he does have in store. He lifts a cloth napkin from a plate to reveal seven oblong yellow fruits the size of kumquats.
“This is North America’s finest fruit that no one knows about,” he says.
“In our opinion,” says Mary.
“This is a mayapple,” he continues. “It doesn’t ripen in May and it’s not an apple. That’s the part of the wild food thing—they get these names.” Mary explains that the plant, known as American mandrake, “shoots up in spring when we’re looking for morels, but doesn’t ripen until mid-August. And all of the plant except for the ripe fruit is poisonous.”
In a typical summer they harvest mayapples by the bushel but—thanks to the lingering dry spell—the seven on the plate are all they have this year. They want to share one, but foraging protocol dictates that a forager first samples any wild edible he or she is about to offer. Mark cuts one in half to show the fleshy white pulp and seeds, and sucks these into his mouth. He savors the gooey flesh and spits out the seeds.
“It’s the best!” he exclaims. “I mean, unequivocally.” And he can barely contain himself as their visitor bites into the skin of one and sucks in the goo. “Banana?” he asks. “Pineapple? Mango? Peach?”
He’s right. It’s amazing. It tastes like all of them at once.
Moments later he’s crushing the hull of a little beaked hazelnut with the butt end of his foraging knife to share, and reminiscing about the spruce tip ice cream he made early in the year. “It tasted like green springtime.”
Then it’s down off the porch to sample some of the bergamot leaves, or bee balm, growing near the house—it tastes like oregano—and into the woods to see “a plant you’re not gonna see in any book.”
With Mary and Zap on the path ahead, he crouches over a cluster of low, whorled leaves rising out of the ground on a string-thin shoot. These are “Indian cucumbers,” he explains, and cuts at the base carefully before pulling up a white, inch-long root as thin as cooked spaghetti. He breaks off a bit, pops it in his mouth, and hands over the rest. It’s crunchy and tastes, yes, like a burst of cucumber.
We sample sheep sorrel’s lemony tang, but ignore the oxeye daisy leaves that grow in abundance in their lawn, whose flavor he finds uninteresting. “I could eat half the stuff here,” he says, “but I don’t want to.”
To the untrained eye, he observes, the kings of the forests might seem the physical giants, like oaks and hemlocks. “But look down at the things like bloodroot,” which can grow for hundreds of years and yields compounds used in a variety of important medicines.
“There is so much regarding wild food,” he says, “that most people have been trained to neglect.”
Readers who wish to contact the Wallens may do so at [email protected]. Contact Mark Losinger at [email protected]. He also hosts the Pennsylvania Foragers Club on Facebook. Debbie Naha-Koretzky is at (908) 456-1681 and on ;Facebook.