Mycelium and Instagram. One is a sprawling underground network of fungal thread that branches out and links mushroom colonies together and the other is the popular photo sharing platform. But both are webs that connect living beings to information. Mycelium plugs mushrooms into the root systems of trees and provides them with food to keep their immune systems strong; kind of the same way that social media expands human knowledge and keeps people informed about their surroundings.
Now in the 21st century, the culture of Instagram meets the millennia-old culture of foraging. On Instagram information is shared, such as hot spots where ramps, chanterelles or black trumpets are flourishing or help identifying an amanita flavoconia.
Russell Skiles, a cook at the Horse Inn, regularly takes to his Instagram account (@russellskiles) to post pictures of foraged food and network with other foragers.
“If someone is having a hard time identifying a plant or mushroom, social media helps. It creates this open forum,” says Skiles. “Everybody’s got their secret spots. I’m fortunate to have some good homies, like I shared some morel spots with somebody who gave me the most ridiculous ramp spot.”
Skiles developed an interest in foraging from his love of hiking and cooking and plans to pursue a foraging certification. He’s been working in Lancaster kitchens for more than two decades; long enough to recall the mythical Mushroom Man – a grizzled one-legged forager (whose leg met its unhappy end in an accident with a shotgun and a handful of psilocybin mushrooms) who used to suddenly appear at the backdoor of local restaurants with a bag full of beautiful specimens of chanterelles, morels, maitake mushrooms and other species of edible fungi.
At the Horse Inn, wild foods and herbs are occasionally used to add fresh flavors to entrées, desserts, syrups, sodas and cocktails. Chefs have been incorporating regional wild foods into their menus forever, but it’s become especially trendy in the past decade or so, as restaurants want to show off hyper-local ingredients – ingredients that grow in the forests, along the sidewalks or even your own backyard.
But, before you grab a basket and a shovel and head out to forage for wild foods, you need to make sure you know what you’re doing. Foraging can be dangerous– especially when it comes to mushrooms, some of which can be toxic enough to kill you.
“Go out and learn the plants before you pick anything. Never ever eat anything unless you’re 100 percent sure what it is,” says Skiles.
Mike Andrelczyk: How did you initially get into foraging for wild plants and mushrooms?
Russell Skiles: I’ve always loved hiking. Mushrooms are what really got me into it. Obviously, ramps are super cool. Ramps are like wild leeks and they’re delicious. But, if I wasn’t a cook I probably wouldn’t give a shit if these things were edible or not.
MA: How do you stay up on the wild mushroom scene?
RS: I think it all kind of starts with social media. I know that social media can be silly and kind of stupid, but, at the same time, it’s such a great tool. Literally the way a hashtag can bring attention to somebody else with a similar interest, like, you hashtag something like “#boletemushroom” or “#chanterellemushroom” and there’s a guy who likes your picture, and so you follow him, and the next thing you know you guys are chatting and sending each other pictures or helping each other identify (different mushrooms).
MA: How do you guys use wild foods here?
RS: Most of the time we’re buying cultivated mushrooms, because the cultivated versions of certain mushrooms are, I think, better than the wild versions. There are hundreds of Polypore mushrooms and virtually none of them are toxic. You can eat all of them. One of the easiest ones to identify is the laetiporus sulphureus – “the chicken of the woods.” It’s a beautiful mushroom – bright orange on top and bright yellow underneath and it’s super-mild tasting, which makes it approachable for anybody, and the texture is just like chicken breast.
We also pickle ramps and redbuds. It’s cool because we’re in the dog days of summer and these are ingredients that we picked in springtime. So when something is in abundance you can figure out a way to – like canning, you know? Brilliant. People are still into canning. There’s a book called “Canning for a New Generation.”
MA: It seems foraging and canning have become more of a trend in the past couple years.
RS: It’s huge. This dude named Rene Redzepi does this neo-Nordic cuisine and his entire menu includes ingredients that are found within 15-20 miles of the restaurant. He’s even taking edible things that don’t taste great and finding an application for them. He’s like a rock star. He definitely made foraging more accessible. It’s so weird though – you can buy ramps from Cisco. That’s a bummer.
MA: What draws you to cooking with wild food?
RS: Just being able to go out there and procure these ingredients for myself – that’s the most fun. It does help that they’re free. A lot of these wild ingredients get expensive. I remember a couple of years ago, ramps were like $25 a pound or something, because the demand got so crazy.
MA: Yeah, a couple years ago ramps were like all you heard about.
RS: It’s crazy. Ramps have been around forever. In Appalachia, ramps are the first nice, spicy, leafy green that pops up in the spring. So, after a tough winter in the Appalachian Mountains, drinking white lightning and moonshine and eating cured country hams and not a lot of vegetables, this beautiful green, spicy-but-sweet onion is kind of like a blood tonic for them.
MA: Can you find edible plants growing in the city?
RS: Tons. You can find purple dead-nettles. Those are awesome in the springtime. You can find tons of things in the mint family. Creeping Charlie smells pretty neat. You can find Cornelian cherries. You can find these awesome fruits called Kousa that grow on Korean dogwood trees. Redbud trees get these awesome, like, pink blossoms and 99 percent of the time (Redbud trees are) treated like an ornamental plant, but it’s in the same family as peas and beans. It kind of tastes like a sweet and sour pea. You can eat every part of a daylily. You can eat the tuber, the shoots, you can eat the buds, the flowers.
MA: What kinds of techniques are useful to find edible plants or mushrooms?
RS: With mushrooms, the words is mycorrhizal. There is a symbiotic relationship going on between trees and the mycelium. So, like, morels like dead elm. Around here in Lancaster County, we find more morels around tulip poplars. They’re easy to identify. The leaf looks like a tulip and it has this cool green and yellow blossom with an orange circle in the center of it.
MA: What should people know before they go out?
RS: Get books. The mushroom bible for us is the Audubon mushroom book. There’s a whole series by Falcon – like the 50 best hikes in PA. They do books on edible plants by region. If you’re not sure, maybe take a specimen home and research it or find a botanist on social media. Never eat anything without having a positive identification.
Also, be sustainable. Don’t take more than 10 percent of what’s there. And then go back when things are bolting and spread the seeds. We want these things around.