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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.

Wednesday, Mar 18 2009
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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.

This being was to prove elusive for Rabins and Schwarz, who parked the car and wandered into the woods above Soquel Creek, their shoes crunching over mats of dead fern branches and maroon scrolls of madrone bark. The air was cool. Water from the past week's rains dripped from the boughs of redwood trees. After a time, an excited whistling struck up somewhere in the woods.

It was Schwarz. He had found what would be the day's sole edible mushroom: a black trumpet, or Craterellus fallax, an earth-colored bugle of a fungus, typically sautéed, admired for its smoky flavor. After a moment spent admiring the mushroom, Rabins and Schwarz resumed the hunt, with no further luck. Eventually they gave up. Schwarz cast the black trumpet into the woods. "Go," he said softly. "Spread your spores. Please."

On the way back down the trail, Rabins lit a cigarette. Schwarz walked ahead with long strides, whistling "Silver Bells."


The cult of mystery surrounding the mushroom is only enhanced by its aura of danger. Most people know that eating the wrong wild mushrooms can make you see strange things or kill you. What they don't know is just how outlandishly potent some of these naturally occurring poisons are.

About The Author

Peter Jamison

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