Out of the Wild

Iso Rabins' foraged food is the toast of San Francisco's gourmet set. Health inspectors and environmentalists aren't so thrilled.

"Christian," he said. "This is Iso. We're on our way down. Where would be a good place to meet?" After a moment, he hung up and smiled. "They've got me pulling over to make phone calls," he said, shaking his head. "The Man's got his foot on my neck."

At first glance, he seems a less-than-likely target for the Man's subjugation. Rabins is a lean, bearded 27-year-old of middling height, with warm brown eyes and short brown hair. Like some of the foragers with whom he does business, he has led a nomadic existence. He was born in Santa Cruz to parents he affectionately describes as hippies; the product of Russian Jewish forebears, his first name means "shoreline" in Japanese. He lived in different spots as a child — Philadelphia, Vermont — and attended the Buxton School in western Massachusetts, a small boarding school where students split the wood that heated their buildings. He studied film at Emerson College in Boston, traveled in Italy and Mexico, and, like so many other East Coast émigrés, fell in love with San Francisco on a drive up Highway 1. He moved here in the fall of 2007.

Rabins' paying jobs have always been restaurant gigs, and after he moved to the city he started bartending at Fresca, a chain of Peruvian restaurants. While visiting his father a year and a half ago in Willow Creek, an inland hamlet of Humboldt County near the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, some family friends brought over a gift of wild, edible mushrooms plucked from the local hills. "I was like, 'No fucking way,'" Rabins recalled. "'Really? You actually forage for wild mushrooms?' It was this amazing moment. I was like, 'You have to teach me this.'"

Soon Rabins was networking with mushroom foragers in Mendocino County, buying in bulk and selling to chefs at famous Bay Area eateries like Chez Panisse. As a mushroom middleman, he began confronting some of the logistical issues faced by any food buyer. At one point, a 100-pound shipment of wild mushrooms worth about $1,500 rotted over the weekend in a UPS shipping warehouse. ("They'd actually started to compost in the middle," Rabins notes dispassionately.)

He also began getting familiar with the eccentric ranks of those who know the woods well enough to find hundreds of pounds of mushrooms in the first place. Rabins remembers in particular a late-night rendezvous with a gentleman in the parking lot of a Burger King in Willits. "I felt so much like a drug dealer, it was insane," he said. "I pulled up and he pulled up in his pickup truck. It was just packed with mushrooms. We spent about an hour weighing them."

ForageSF already offers direct product sales, and this month will launch a small batch of CSF wild-food boxes that will range in price from $40 to $80. Rabins hopes to start with 20 subscribers and build the service over time. He also wants to include an educational component to the business, with foraging tours and talks. It was to that end that he was headed to Santa Cruz, where he was to meet Christian Schwarz, a budding mycological scholar whom Rabins hoped to bring to San Francisco to offer presentations on mushrooms.

There would be no darkened Burger King parking lots for Schwarz, who requested that Rabins meet him outside a bagel shop downtown. A rail-thin 20-year-old with luxuriant dark hair and a ghostly complexion, Schwarz is an ecology and evolution major at UC Santa Cruz. He became a mushroom enthusiast in his early teens, in the way that other young boys develop obsessions with skateboarding or baseball statistics. But his hometown, San Diego, was not prime fungal territory. Attracted by the Central Coast's moist, forested hills, he came to UCSC.

"My interest in mushrooms is mainly academic," Schwarz said. When talking about mushrooms, he frequently betrays an abstract turn of mind; at one point, discussing the fatal "death cap" mushroom, two ounces of which make a lethal dose, he remarked, "People who have eaten it and survived said it tastes really good."

As he and Rabins drove into the hills of Soquel, where they were to go on a recreational mushroom hunt — the equivalent, in foraging circles, of unfamiliar executives meeting for a round of golf — he expounded upon America's relative dearth of mycological traditions when compared to such countries as Russia or Italy.

"Here in the U.S., we don't have a long foraging history," Schwarz said. In China, he said, citing research by renowned mycologist David Arora, one infamous strain of wild mushrooms provokes an identical hallucination of xiao ren ren, or "little people," among all those who eat them. Many do so by accident — for example, after eating the culprit fungus in a dish prepared at a restaurant — and the resulting visions stir no more alarm among Chinese diners than an upset stomach.

The fungal kingdom is a living rebuke to biologists, who still know astonishingly little about mushrooms — how long they live, why and how they spring up when they do (a mushroom can mature in a span of time from several hours to several months), or how they propagate. The mushrooms we eat are the fruiting body of extended, nervelike networks of the organism mycelium, which attaches itself to the roots of trees or to decaying vegetative matter. The vacuum of hard knowledge surrounding this subterranean entity has invited a plethora of pseudoscientific observations; at least one prominent mycological expert, Paul Stamets, theorizes that the mycelium is a sentient being.

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