On Saturday I joined Doug and his friend Jeff for another day of picking.
Hanging out with this pair reminded me of the sort of male camaraderie that develops in close quarters. You’ll find it in school dormitories, on fishing boats, in hunting camps. Old pals, they knew each other’s foibles and weaknesses all too well and exploited them in an ongoing banter of inside jokes, ragging, and general good-natured BS.
We drove a ways north on the Olympic Peninsula to check out a chanterelle patch only to find out another picker or crew had beaten us to it. But while settling for the dregs—only about eight or nine pounds worth—we stumbled on a few king boletes that had just come up. Kings grow fast, much faster than chanties, and it’s likely they hadn’t even broken through the duff when the competition had cleaned out the patch a couple days earlier. This was a key piece of information. We made tracks for another nearby patch.
A king bolete patch in full flush is a lovely sight to behold. Chanties are beautiful nuggets of gold in the dark woods, but kings are something special. I get a thrill with each find—and this thrill would come a hundred times over on these few acres of second-growth timber. This was the patch where Doug had picked 35 pounds of kings earlier in the week and another 75 pounds with the help of Jeff two days later. Here we were only a day after that haul filling our buckets again with tight no. 1 buttons, about 45 pounds in all.
This was a “day saver” (as Doug called it) for the pickers after getting scooped at the last patch. We loaded up the baskets and drove back south to Raymond to meet the buyer, Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles, who was en route from Seattle to buy mushrooms from several Raymond-area pickers, most of them Cambodian immigrants.
Sang was in the process of cleaning his pick when we arrived. It was his house and for the use of his kitchen he’d receive a commission at the end of the night. Other nearby pickers started showing up at the back door with baskets overflowing with boletes.
Jeremy worked quickly to grade everyone’s pick—he still had stops to make in Elma and Centralia. First he separated the no. 1’s from the no. 2’s and no. 3’s. A no.1 is a firm button with a cap that hasn’t fully opened. These are considered the most choice. A no. 2 is generally larger and softer than a no. 1, and no. 3’s are known as “dryers”—they’re better suited to dehydrating and sold dry.
Next he cut every mushroom in half to check for worms. A type of fly known as a bolete gnat lays its eggs on the mushroom and the larvae can reduce a perfect looking button into a wormy mess in a matter of hours. After cutting the mushrooms are graded out, weighed, tallied, and the picker paid in cash on the spot.
This is the moment of truth for the pickers and some can’t bear to watch. A cluster of wives looked on as their husbands’ work for the day was added up.
It was after 10 pm when we were finished loading up Jeremy’s van with baskets of kings. Now he had to make a stop a few blocks away to pick up a hundred or so pounds of white chanterelles, then on to his other rounds. He wouldn’t be home for a while yet, and even then his work on tonight’s buy had only just begun. Back in Seattle—more than two hours away—he’d need to haul all the mushroom baskets into his basement walk-in for the night and start packaging up his restaurant deliveries the next day.
For their part, the pickers all went home with cash in their pockets to get some sleep before tomorrow’s pick, when the whole process would repeat itself.