The Mushroom Man

foraging for wild morels

Blue Ridge Country
September/October 2006

Sporting a t-shirt that reads “Fungi to Be With,” Alan Muskat peels back the lid of a plastic container to reveal chunks of peach-colored lobster mushrooms.

“This is the blue cheese of mushrooms,” he says, pouring a stream of olive oil into a hot cast-iron skillet. “This is twice the fungus. Just like blue cheese is moldy, this is a mushroom that used to look like this.” He holds up a fat white specimen.

“It gets parasitized and colonized and deformed, and that makes it tasty.” Moments later, I am sampling the ‘shrooms, amazed at just how much salty/sweet flavor and crisp/tender texture are packed into one little bite. Even more impressive is that Muskat picked the exotic delicacies in a forest near his Asheville, NC home.

For more than 10 years, the “Mushroom Man” has been touting the virtues of edible fungi at the North Carolina School of Holistic Herbalism, on guided tours, and at conferences and festivals. He sometimes ferrets out gourmet mushrooms for upscale Asheville restaurants and, in his own kitchen, cooks up everything from puffball pudding to parasols in white wine.

Muskat is in his element in the cool, moist environment of Western North Carolina; this is, after all, a mushroom mecca for 3,000 to 4,000 types, including leatherbacks, oysters and chanterelles. Prime hunting season runs through October.

To those who’d like to scout native ‘shrooms, Muskat offers these tips: The best time to find them is about five days after a good rain. Cook the fungi since they’re “all indigestible to some extent.” Most importantly, be sure you know what you’re eating. Deadly mushrooms are rare but some can make you sick.