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A new book called 'Untamed Mushrooms' could change your life

Char-grilled triple mushroom pizza

Char-grilled triple mushroom pizza Dennis Becker

Allow Untamed Mushrooms to flop open to any page, and chances are you’ll be treated to a vivid, detailed photo of a mushroom you’ve seen before.

Out now from Minnesota Historical Society Press, this book wants to calm any nerves you have about eating wild mushrooms, invite you into the woods, and see the world with new eyes. And collaborators Michael Karns, Dennis Becker, and Lisa Golden Schroeder make a pretty compelling case.

Karns has been foraging since age 11, when his family moved from Houston to the woods of Arkansas. Neither Becker nor Golden Schroeder knew a ton about foraging when they met and profiled Karns for their blog 2 Fish 1 Dish, but after that experience and the publication of their post, they were approached by Minnesota Historical Society Press to create a more in-depth book on wild mushrooms. They tapped Karns to join the collaboration, and the result is a beautiful tome that serves as introduction, invitation, rudimentary guide, cookbook, and gorgeous coffee table book.

Untamed Mushrooms isn’t a definitive identification guide for foraging wild mushrooms, the creators are clear. Instead, they focus on introducing readers to 13 wild varieties that are easily identifiable, don’t have any harmful look-alikes, and that taste delicious.

Smoked trout and lobster chowder

Smoked trout and lobster chowder Dennis Becker

Karns admits that these aren’t really a food source so much as a “food enhancer,” but for him, foraging is more about being out in the woods. Becker and Golden Schroeder captured the experience of traversing outside well in the book. Flip through the first half, and you’ll see shots of Karns surrounded by foliage, of neon orange mushrooms cascading down a tree trunk, of a dinner plate-sized pheasant back mushroom in Karns’ hands. Interspersed with the field shots are Audubon-style still lifes of the fungi. Becker captures the singular beauty (and awesome weirdness) of mushrooms with these photos, supporting Karns’ thorough descriptions of the idiosyncrasies of each.

Golden Schroeder’s recipes fill the second half of the book, moving from season to season. In developing the recipes, Golden Schroeder says, “I cooked the way I cook. I use my hands. I let the mushrooms tame me.” She tore up the mushrooms and herbs instead of cutting them, making the final photos of each dish look organic and totally appetizing.

Drawing on the many regional culinary traditions of the upper Midwest, dishes run the gamut from minced lemongrass mushroom-chicken lettuce wraps to forest mushroom and kraut-filled pierogi to creamy bucatini with charred garlic and chicken of the woods. The autumn mushroom and butternut tart is a thing of beauty; that photo will make you swoon.

Creating this book was no easy task. (What book is?). Since seasonality of the ‘shrooms guided their work, Becker was essentially on call, always carrying his camera, phone at hand, ready for a call from Karns should he come across one of the 13 mushrooms and need it photographed. Golden Schroeder had prepped around 150 recipe concepts before diving into the work of testing and refining each dish, but her work was dependent on what Karns could find and bring to the studio kitchen.

This meant Karns was out in the woods pretty much every day; then, the trio was writing, writing, writing.

That’s old hat to Golden Schroeder, a culinary consultant with lots of experience under her belt. While Karns has written plenty for himself, he says he’d never written things “out in the world.” And all this while holding down full-time day jobs. Still, Golden Schroeder says the three made quite a dream team, and that having a creative project where they got to decide the parameters was exhilarating. “We’re just pleasing ourselves,” she explains.

Forest mushroom and kraut-filled pierogi

Forest mushroom and kraut-filled pierogi Dennis Becker

This pleasure and their tight-knit collaboration are evident: The book feels cohesive and thorough, but still inviting. “I’m trying to write this for the common person,” Karns says. “I don’t want to go over anyone’s head, but I want to be thorough,” which could be his mantra. He’s someone who, if you ask about foraging as trend, needs to talk about the series of generations that led us to where we are now and what political and socioeconomic factors influence us and what we eat.

In other words, he understands that food touches every part of our lives. He’s a proponent of foraging because, “if you don’t know about food or how to get it, you don’t value it.”

Maybe you’ve only ever eaten button mushrooms. Maybe you thought they were fine or bland or not for you. This book invites you to think again about mushrooms and encourages you to consider foraging for your own (always ask permission before foraging—except at several county parks where it’s prohibited, a real pet peeve of Karns’). Becker’s photographs, Golden Schroeder’s recipes, and Karns’ recommendations are certainly convincing arguments.

When I ask what keeps Karns hunting for mushrooms—year after year, treating his clothes to ward off ticks, logging thousands of steps on his fitness tracker—he says, “Because when you eat them, it changes your life.”