Thomas Chulick has foraged in the woods, year after year, looking for mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, watercress and wild sorrel to use in recipes at Back Door Café, his seasonal restaurant in Johnstown’s Cambria City neighborhood.
John “T.J.” Jackson picks mushrooms to sell through his Pittsburgh-based business – Real Fungi.
Adam Haritan posts educational videos, via his social media channel “Learn Your Land,” about plants that can be found in western Pennsylvania for home-cooked meals and medicines.
Other individuals study edible plants for scientific reasons.
Some take photos of the wild plants.
For many folks, searching for the wild food is “a treasure hunt” that makes time in the woods more enjoyable, as explained by Cecily Franklin, president of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club.
“There are so many different things,” Franklin said. “People can have truly different things they like that don’t even overlap with people or multiple things that overlap.”
Jackson, a former Westmoreland County resident, spent his childhood days harvesting mushrooms, mostly morels, with his grandfather.
Nowadays, when he sells his products to restaurants and individuals, customers often recount similar stories to him about picking and eating wild mushrooms as children.
“Probably one out of 10 customers now – it used to be more – will stop and spend about a 10- or 15-minute period of time telling me a story about their grandfather, or grandmother or going out and picking them when they were a kid with Uncle Jim or whoever,” Jackson said.
“Very sentimental. The morels especially.”
Morels, which are meaty, earthy and nutty mushrooms that are not farmed, and usually grow from March through May.
“Initially, with the morels, people went crazy for them,” Jackson said. “Getting them into some of the other mushrooms was kind of tricky. I probably have given away more mushrooms in the time I’ve been in business than I’ve sold. But, now, people know what they are, and they enjoy them, and come back for them, and look forward to them every year.”
Jackson, who forages and gets supplies from about three dozen harvesters, has seen his sales to restaurants significantly drop off during the current COVID-19 pandemic due to those businesses being limited to takeout and delivery. But online sales have increased, as the time of year approaches for chicken of the woods, porcini, chanterelles and black trumpets.
“Every one of them is completely different in taste and texture,” Jackson said. “There is some mushroom out there for everyone, although some people wouldn’t agree with that statement. I think if they actually tried them they would find that would be accurate. I think part of it is the rarity and the allure of it. And another thing is a lot of people are becoming vegetarians and vegans now, and they’re looking for flavorful protein substitutes for their meals. And these are things they haven’t had access to. It’s new.”
‘Show them off’
Chulick gathered mushrooms in about a 50-mile radius of his restaurant, going into Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Westmoreland and Indiana counties.
He then incorporated them into soups and sauces, providing a depth of wild taste impossible to get from store-bought mushrooms, he said.
“Certainly the umami that is afforded the flavors in a dish from wild mushrooms is phenomenal,” said Chulick, who recently announced he plans to sell Back Door Café and retire.
“It adds just a whole other flavor profile and takes it to another level, in my opinion. It’s difficult sometime to integrate the wild ingredients into a regular dish.”
Chulick has foraged for four decades, sometimes going three or four times per week – or maybe once every three or four weeks – depending on the season. “It’s part of what I do,” he said. “I make the time, I find the time to get out as often as I can.”
He has also shared his knowledge with other foragers throughout the years.
“The first thing that everyone needs is a mentor, and I’ve been able to help quite a few people get started, especially with mushrooms, as a mentor, someone who knows the location and the kind of habitat,” Chulick said. “Almost every mushroom grows in and around different kinds of trees. Some grow in and around live trees. Others grow in and around dead or decaying, rotting stumps. Others grow right out in the middle of a field.”
‘Whole new world’
Ten years ago or so, Haritan took a guided nature walk in Pittsburgh’s South Side and, for the first time, learned about all of the edible wild plants growing around him.
“It just opened up a whole new world for me,” Haritan said.
“I couldn’t believe that I had been passing by all these plants and most of them that this person was teaching me – it was a group walk – I couldn’t believe they were edible. You could literally eat these things.”
Haritan is now the person providing the education with online courses, writings and videos on subjects that include “Wild Blueberry – North America’s Great Superfood,” “Stinging Nettle For Breast Cancer, Wounds, & Vitamin C,” “4 Things You Didn’t Know About Garlic Mustard” and “6 Scientifically Validated Reasons To Eat Mushrooms” at learnyourland.com.
“I want to reach as many people as I can,” Haritan said.
Along with teaching people about the foods around them, Haritan also enjoys preparing his own meals with plants he gathers from the wild.
“Whenever I go out there and I pick something that I know what it is, and I know that it’s edible and I bring it home, it’s empowering and it’s invigorating as well,” Haritan said. “And there’s a story attached to it. So when I eat something, it just brings me back to that moment almost every single time of where I was, what I was doing, what I was thinking, what bird song I was hearing, what the weather was like, what the wind was like, what wildflowers were blooming – all because I picked a certain plant, or all because I picked a fruit, or all because I picked a mushroom.
“Unfortunately, you don’t get those stories when you shop at a grocery store.”
Haritan continued: “I think it’s in our DNA that we want to know where our food comes from. It’s necessary. I think it’s almost as fundamental to human biology as is breathing, as is being part of a community, as is loving, as is walking, as is drinking water. All of this stuff is necessary. And I think knowing where your food comes from fits in there perfectly.”
Trained foragers all agree on one very important point for beginners to understand – never, for any reason, consume a wild plant that has not been 100% identified as edible.
Franklin, an Allegheny County, Pa., resident, listed guidelines in an article titled “Edible or Dead-able?”
Her tips, as directly quoted from the piece, are:
• Before you eat a wild mushroom, be absolutely sure your identification is correct and that the mushroom is a safe edible.
• Don’t pick mushrooms from areas known to be treated with fertilizers, weed killers or other sprays.
• When in doubt, throw it out.
• Don’t worry about touching mushrooms; none will hurt you to handle them.
• Do not eat any Amanita species.
• Avoid Little Brown Mushrooms (LBMs).
• Cook all wild mushrooms.
• Don’t serve wild mushrooms to children, the elderly or the sick.
• Always start with a small amount.
• Don’t drink any alcohol with a new species.
• Keep a whole, uncooked specimen in the refrigerator in case of poisoning.
Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, an organization with about 1,000 members, helps educate pickers. The group provides monthly meetings, speaker presentations, nature walks and access to local foragers who know about the foods and the state rules (wpamushroomclub.org/education/mushroom-picking-rules-regulations-in-pa/), which limit picking on private property without permission and many public lands.
“When people want a mushroom expert, they call us,” Franklin said.