Note: This is the second part of a three-part series about Minnesota communities and their enthusiasm for wild edibles.
“Russian,” she says, unpacking her mushrooming gear. “I know the haircut.”
We’ve just arrived at a stand of second- and third-growth pine on state forest land. A night of heavy rain has left the air eerie and thick with suspended precipitation.
The only sound is the wind hissing through the high pines and our soft footfalls on the thick layer of pine needles and moss.
Beneath our feet, however, the forest is a riot of life. Lichen colonies exploding off tree stumps. Bright yellow fly agaric poking up from hummocks. Yellow and red russulas knocked over by those who came before us, and, if we’re careful enough to spot it, the mahogany-brown glisten of a pine porcini cap.
Johnson isn’t alone in the autumn woods, however. Far from it. Long after peak camping season, the fall rains come, and with them, a dedicated group of mushroom hunters, many with roots in the boreal forests of Russia and Eastern Europe.
This year, the inundation of rain from late summer on has led to a stampede to Minnesota’s northern forests.
Johnson, who grew up in Kiev, Ukraine, felt the tug. In mid-September, despite an intensely busy work and family travel schedule, she could no longer bear to stay out of the woods.
On quick trips Up North, she found trails of giant boletes visible from forest roads, pale mushroom stumps as thick as her arm left by other hunters and, by morning, a fresh round of buttons growing nearby.
“I’m dancing,” she texted after one day in the woods. “I have no idea where I am. I mean, it’s a square, I’ll find my way out, but it’s insanely quiet here.”
The pull of the North Woods is also strong for other Minnesota immigrants. At the CSPS Hall, in St. Paul’s West Seventh neighborhood, a trio of Czech friends met recently at the cultural center to talk about the family tradition of mushroom hunting.
“In the Czech Republic, mushroom hunting is a competitive sport,” said Linda Maxey of Cottage Grove, who immigrated to Minnesota last fall with her family.
Forests in the Czech Republic are publicly accessible and well-maintained without the underbrush and dead trees common here, said Blanka Brichta of Burnsville.
In the fall, it’s common to see people boarding trains very early in the morning with wire baskets and their rybicka, or fish-handled mushroom knives. The train offers access to small villages where visitors can walk to the edge of town and into the forest for a morning of mushroom hunting.
“If you don’t go early, you miss it,” Brichta said. By 8 a.m., hunters are returning with full baskets, to spend the day cleaning the bounty, filling the house with strings of dried mushrooms — or, in her family’s case, mushrooms drying on newspapers on every available surface.
And if you don’t know a good spot? Just ask around. While mushroom hunters can be secretive, “After the third beer, everybody talks,” Maxey said.
Jitka Sebek, who lives in Edina, said she didn’t expect to find the mushrooms she knew from her childhood when she married a Minnesotan of Czech descent two decades ago.
At first, she only saw the mushrooms sprouting in her neighbors’ lawns. But then the couple attended a Boy Scouts reunion near Itasca State Park. It was late August and the woods were full of boletes.
“I just cannot leave the mushrooms there,” she told her husband. After talking to the camp cook, she and her husband made a huge batch of mushrooms and eggs, a common Czech dish. None of the Americans would try it.
“I get it, it’s unfamiliar,” she said. “But my husband and I were showing them, ‘Here, we are eating it, we’re OK,’ and they wouldn’t try.”
All three women said mushroom hunting connects them to memories of family vacations in the woods — during years when travel outside the Czech Republic was restricted — and also to deep sensory memories of cooking and preserving food.
“Smells stay in the long-term memory,” Sebek said. “The smell of dried mushrooms reminds me immediately” of childhood.
The quiet hunt
Johnson didn’t expect to find herself back in the woods when she first immigrated to the United States in 1994.
But on a trip to Banning State Park in Sandstone, Minn., a decade later, with her second husband, an outdoors-loving Minnesotan, the Chanhassen woman saw honey mushrooms fruiting prolifically.
The mushrooms triggered memories of fall trips her father had organized for his coworkers to a dense forest belt on Ukraine’s border with Belarus. Families would spend a day in the woods picking mushrooms that they later pickled or dried.
“It was a meat extender,” Johnson said. And a treat to offer visitors.
During her first years in the North Woods, she saw few fall mushroom hunters. But recently she’s had more competition on state forest land — where it’s legal to collect berries and mushrooms. Whole families, from grandmas in babuskhas to little kids, turn out to hunt Eastern European favorites such as slippery jacks, birch boletes, and, of course, porcini.
On Johnson’s early October hunt, four to five groups of Russians cruised by.
Still, she ended the day with a full basket, satisfied with her “quiet hunt.”
For her, foraging is time spent in the woods with intention. “You do everything you do for the regular hunt. You look for the weather, you stalk, you walk and then you get the ultimate prize — a huge mushroom,” she said.
“In the end, being in the forest just absorbs everything.”
Trisha Collopy is a multiplatform editor at the Star Tribune.
(Part 1: Deeply held traditions for some in the Hmong community)