Diaries, journals, manuals, ledgers, newspapers, magazines…a world of human science that documents knowledge, history, and the memorializing of the social commentary of the day. This seriously academic view of printed words segues to the here and now—why would we revere books in a time of electronic communication? We have instant access to whatever we want to know or share with the click of a key. But creating a printed book—and hunting for a publishing deal—is nearly as elusive as discovering an epic patch of morels.
It’s been a bit of an odyssey since August of 2015, when we trailed after friends in the know, on the trail of unraveling a few of the mysteries of uncovering wild edible mushrooms. Long sleeves and pants, rubber boots (I was happy to don my favorite wellies, embellished with a floral pattern unrecognizable in nature) and walking sticks…high grass, boggy patches, crumbling logs, and unexpected swarms of wasps ushering us along.
Our time with Michael Karns and his mushrooming kindred spirits, Todd Overland and Ryan Schoen, illuminated the excitement of discovery—we were totally awed. And we relished every chance we got to jump knee-deep into the immediacy of the seasons, Dennis capturing every aspect of our experiences and my frantically jotting notes, so I could recreate some kind of cohesive narrative below his images.
Our original story about Michael, who’s a certified mushroom forager (in addition to being a photographer, designer, and digital technology guy), resulted in taking us to the Minnesota Historical Society Press. A wonderful friend and mentor of mine, long-time newspaper food editor Ann Burckhardt (who ended up doing a bang-up job on our book indexes) suggested I reach out to them. It fast-tracked us into a conference room with soon-to-be-our-editor Shannon Pennefeather, who homed in on the visual impact and inviting tone of our 2fish stories. Stories that Dennis and I just wanted to tell because we liked our subject or were fascinated or inspired by the topic. Stalking wild mushrooms was by far the most intriguing venture we’d embarked on. And Shannon thought it had the most promise if the Press brought us into the publishing fold. And as Michael says, foraging is having a real moment.
The process of developing a book, unlike a blog post, seems overwhelming on a macro level, but like any lengthy project it’s really about breaking it down into manageable bites. Though in the case of a subject that can be invisible, taunting, and unpredictable at turns, we spent nearly two years on the hunt. The captivating part of what wild mushrooms are all about is also what kept us in a state of anxiety—rather than adhering to our carefully laid out plans, we jumped to their tune. Michael scoured the woods almost continually over the course of the seasons, while in between times he anchored himself to his computer. I was continually impressed by the electronic field journal he accessed on his phone—years of photos and notes about successful forays (or days that were turned upside down by unexpected finds) that he shared at the end of each species chapter.
Dennis and I knew that we could get a call at any moment to make the most of every discovery—Dennis packed up photo gear that went with him everywhere. I was ready to leap into action with a long list of recipes for each season—often testing, tasting, and shooting them on the same day (we had some great lunches). Large basketfuls of morels? A bumper crop of lobsters? An eye-popping specimen of a chicken of the woods that fairly glowed from afar, or a perfect king bolete standing proudly off a State park trail were not going to wait for us to make time for them.
One day Dennis got the call from Michael to hop into his car and zip out to where he and Todd found a stunning Hericium erinaceus (or lion’s mane). But it took an hour’s trek on ATVs to find it again in all its glory. Dennis got the shot that's featured in the book. Michael and I often snapped pics of Dennis lying on the forest floor taking photos “from an insect’s point of view.” These kinds of images help tell the real tale of accurate identification out in the woods.
Buoyed up with some woodsy confidence, Dennis proudly stumbled onto some incredible fruitings of hen of the woods when out walking his dog. While our friend (also a photographer and avid mushroom hunter) Brittany Johnson saved us literally moments before our manuscript was due with a beautiful giant puffball—it wasn’t a great season for them last fall and we needed to shoot a few more recipes using them.
One Sunday morning Michael, who regularly monitors online mushrooming forums, received a hot tip about a huge fruiting of shaggy manes. The phone rang and we met up to caravan out to a series of large soccer fields, where there were incredibly perfect clumps of shaggies. Perfect for photo, but not so much for eating since the grass was regularly fertilized. Getting those shots in the field, harvesting enough of each species for both recipe development and studio shots, and eking out time to pound out words became all-consuming.
Running in parallel with creating the content for the book, were thoughts about what we wanted the book to look like. We had an idea of who we wanted to collaborate with, a friend and longtime local book designer and award-winning nature illustrator, Dave Spohn. Dennis and Dave were colleagues in book publishing years ago—and Dave generously illustrated the logo for 2fish1dish when we first got started. So we pitched Dave to the MHS Press, but it took little prompting (he spoke briefly with Dan Leary, the design and production manager for the Press, and was hired on the spot) for him to be brought on board.
Soon Dave began illustrating the mushroom species we wanted to feature, working from photos Dennis gave him—resulting in eye-catching design elements to punctuate the text. Now that our team was complete, we began to pursue our vision of what Untamed could be. Dennis and Dave worked almost in lockstep, sharing manuscript files and images almost daily for months. Michael and I weighed in on how things looked, kibitzed on fonts (he and I are a little buggy on this topic), and I fussed about how to format the recipes.
From the start we wanted Untamed to be a welcoming guide and visual touchstone for identifying and harvesting 13 very specific wild fungi PLUS be a full-size cookbook (unique in the world of wild mushroom books). Michael was wary of using the word “guide”, as our goal wasn’t to challenge hard core field guides. We wanted to give readers enough information to instill the proper respect and caution, while being inviting enough to lure them outside. Dennis’s photos, while not unlike other field handbooks while out in the woods, took a hard turn into Audubon-style still lifes of each species that highlighted in large relief the textures, shapes, and colors that help identify the unique character of each fungi. Once Michael’s words revealed bankable info in each mushroom chapter, we strode purposefully into the kitchen. I wanted to give very specific handling and care information, but then take readers (and successful hunters) on a seasonal ride.
While Dennis and Michael worked hard to capture the best “in the wild” photos, there were plenty of photos taken in the studio. Dennis’ experience as a commercial food photographer made him a natural for creating beautiful compositions of both the freshly harvested and preserved mushrooms—making the most of Michael’s extraordinary collection of dried fungi from years of hunting. Early in the book process Dennis created an available light space in his classic warehouse studio, mounting an old factory window he’d found (urban prop hunting at its best) in a sturdy frame on wheels that he can easily install in a garage door opening as needed. Giving us the chance to shoot the vast majority of the recipe photos in natural light, which just felt right for our wild subjects.
My years as a food stylist for corporate clients set me up to happily cook and shoot fast, with only our own rules. Dragging bins of fresh herbs from my garden to the studio, I spent most of last summer either grilling out back in the parking lot or putting the studio range through its paces, while Dennis' studio pup Maizee kept watch for anything that fell accidentally to the floor. We composed and shot freshly plated food immediately on the available light set. We used lots of plates and bowls we’ve collected from favorite ceramic artists and dipped into my embarrassingly large collection of vintage silverware (finally justifying their cost).
I really pushed myself to work up recipes that enhanced each mushroom species, from their texture and flavor to the time of year they tend to appear. Being published by a regional press also influenced my keeping local with ingredients—though I did stray on occasion. I’m just as much inspired by global flavors as anyone these days, so I captured combinations of tastes that reflect distant places but still used ingredients from close to home. I learned to cook each mushroom just so—coaxing out each flavor, pushing their doneness to bring about caramelized, crisp edges or slowly cooking them to ease out their flavorful juices. And finding the right pairings—there is a good reason that golden chanterelles meld well in a creamy Swedish meatball sauce. The richness of the sauce, the meat, and the mushrooms creating an extraordinary sum greater than the parts. My POV took over as a cook—I needed to wander away from just good butter and a hot skillet.
Now that we have a real book in our hands we’re pretty thrilled. We’ve really enjoyed talking about it with anyone who’s interested, but we’re a challenge for interviewers: most aren’t accustomed to a team of authors. But it’s the only way this project became what it is—another case of the sum being so much more than the parts. We each brought our own strange corner of expertise to the fore and everything seemed to mix up well.
For more information about getting signed copies of Untamed Mushrooms and to learn about all sorts of fun events (including our own cooking classes and walks in the woods), head on over to www.untamedmushrooms.com and get on our mailing list. See you soon!