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Lessons in Foraging

In Pursuit of the Wild:
Lessons in Foraging from Evan Strusinski

By Alexa Hotz
Photographed by Jon Levitt and Oliver Fernandez

For most of the year, Evan Strusinski lives in Maine, but moves “itinerantly with the seasons” from Pennsylvania through New York and New England. That’s because Strusinski is a forager, and has been foraging wild foods professionally for a decade, delivering them to the eager chefs of some of New York’s top restaurants. It’s a good gig, especially for Strusinski who got involved a young age. Growing up in rural Vermont, he spent summers learning to forage and butcher, among other skills, at a camp called Farm & Wilderness, and came under the influence of two friends “whose enthusiasm in searching for, and eating, wild mushrooms instigated an interest, which quickly turned to obsession,” he says. The seasonal rotation of fungi, roots, greens, shoots, sea plants, stone fruit, herbs, and shellfish is what keeps Strusinski going. He’s mapping the land, local plant yield, and the changes in weather, temperature, season, and cycle. While others mischaracterize and idealize foraging, Strusinski is actually in the wild, camping and canoeing and pursuing the overlooked and undiscovered.

Strusinski’s kit starts in the truckbed of his Toyota Tacoma with re-used grocery boxes (for storing mushrooms), baskets of varying sizes (he prefers the English trug to others), and a canoe on the top rack (for accessing remote locations). “One doesn’t need much for the task, but a few things make the job quicker, cleaner, and more precise,” he explains. Those things are thin-gauge cord “for slipping between the flesh of the mushroom and the bark of the tree which is clings to”; several knives of different lengths (“long blades for reaching deeper into larger mushrooms and short blades for trimming in the field”); a pair of long-nosed pruners for trimming thin-stemmed mushrooms that are “perhaps the most useful tool to have when collecting mushrooms”; binoculars to “identify mushroom habitat from afar and save us a potentially wasteful jaunt”; and a telescoping pole with an attached blade for mushrooms growing high up a tree—or, he says, “a long forked tree limb found in situ” can work just as well.

“There’s no more efficient way to learn about mushrooms than by trailing an experienced guide,” Strusinski advises. “It’ll save you so much time and will exponentially increase your success. Learn your trees (mushrooms and specific trees are often interconnected), and by extension, what habitats mushrooms prefer.” Seasoned or not, the forager should, he adds, “be discreet and selective with whom you share your secret spots or the next season when you return to harvest, perhaps someone you told will have beat you to it—or someone they told has. There’s nothing wrong with guarding your hard-won spots.”

I like being in rhythm with a place, and with the arrival and departure of a crop or creature, as part of that rhythm. Both fish and mushrooms follow patterns according to their needs, but they’re mercurial, and that dynamism makes them enjoyable to learn.

Strusinski cooks often and eats seasonally, though he notes, “not in any principled way, but because it’s a pleasure to have things come into season and go out again.” These days he’s eating Atlantic mackerel and striped sea bass sashimi, fish stock, and autumnal mushrooms like matsutake “briefly grilled over live coals, sliced very thin, and gently sautéed until it softens, then served with a dressing of Shoyu and Mirin.”

Stusinski makes spore prints from May through November. “Mushrooms have spores, their reproductive units, that leave colorful patterns on whatever surface where they rest,” he says. “This print was made by managing the spore drop of Cprinus comatus (black) and Pholiota aurivella (rust) over two days.”
Trichloma magnalivere harvested in Vermont (note the English trug).
Chanterelle mushrooms in a pine forest.

An underrated mushroom to know and cook more with? “The shaggy mane (Coprinus comatus) and field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris and Agaricus arvensis),” he says. “These are common, plentiful, easy to identify, and delicious—with rich umami flavor. These Agaricus varieties are the cousin of portabello and button mushrooms common to most grocery stores, when you most likely passed fields full of Agaricus on your way there. Shaggy mane is a lesser known wild mushroom simply because it’s fragile, perishable, and cannot be shipped.”

This time of year, late autumn, is ripe for gathering mushrooms: “choice edible species such as a variety of chanterelle, trichloma, chicken of the woods, hen of the woods, inky caps, oyster, blewits, and a variety of both boletus and field mushroom,” Strusinski notes. “I enjoy the challenge that mushrooms present and the hustle that comes with the ephemerality of mushrooms. When a mushroom species presents itself it’s all-consuming, and all hours are spent in pursuit.”