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Mushroom drought

This drought. It is not just the corn. It is not just the trees.

I have no pictures from my recent reconnaissance at Picnic Point. If I did, you might weep.

I know of a stump right next to the trail which, for the past two years, has overflowed with honey mushrooms and maitakes. Nearby are several trees which have been reliable sources for more maitake than most enthusiasts could even fit in the freezer.

What I saw on this trip was a single bloom of maitake, as brittle as crackers; a couple sparse bunches of honeys, already too old. Hard to imagine that honeys are some of the biggest organisms on the planet, looking at these sorry specimens. Some of them had been taken. Normally I’d pout, but in this case I was glad that someone had gotten something.

I have never seen a fall this dry.

Mushrooms on layover

W. and I congratulated ourselves for escaping the Anchorage airport yesterday after 13 hours or so of travel. We took a cab to Kincaid Park. A place that suggested it might have morels, based on the presence of this:

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That could have happened in Madison. This probably couldn’t:

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Those smudges are bear pawprints. A fellow forager: the hummingbear!

Road-trip reminiscence: Slab City, Salvation Mountain, and chorizo with eggs.

If you’ve been following Madison Forager, you’ll remember the several-weeks’ silence last month during which I was driving from San Francisco to Madison via Yuma, Ariz., so as not to hit snow. I never did tell you, like certain people I know, about all the things I found to eat, on account of my hard drive having eaten everything I photographed. But now that there’s little to forage in Madison save slush, I’m developing a richer mental life.

First of all, I should mention that if you happen to stop in Niland, Calif., you will find some excellent chorizo and eggs at the Mexican restaurant there. I wish I could have eaten two orders to prolong the experience. Also, my breakfast burrito came with complementary chips and salsa, even at eight in the morning, and—another mark of an enlightened establishment—it was assumed that I would be drinking coffee. That is also where I met Leonard.

Perhaps you do not know about Slab City. A nomadic artist fellow in Oakland told me about it. It is an old military base reduced to concrete slabs in the desert, reborn as the last place people can live for free and avoid having to follow any laws other than Respect. Continue reading

Waiter, there’s tetrachloroethylene in my water … should I be worried?—On the toxic industrial chemicals in Madison’s public water

Leaky.

Each morning a nasty white precipitate appears in my coffee water. I’m too cheap to filter it, and I know it’s just harmless minerals. But would that filter even work on the tetrachloroethylene?

As part of its Toxic Waters series, the New York Times has posted Environmental Working Group contaminant data for lots of public water systems. A lot of places post this data online for the public. But as someone who’s sifted through these kinds of records many times for stories on water issues, I can tell you they’re tough to translate — so this is a major public service.

The upshot is that American drinking water standards are outdated, and millions of people’s tap water is legal but still unhealthy. Here’s the NYT’s full page on Madison; or, if you live somewhere else, search for your water data here.

Madison’s water system Continue reading

The raw and the cooked: Trouble in Dairyland

A tall glass of milk. It’s a fearful quantity I haven’t drunk in years. This I gulped down completely, nervously, my own guinea pig. It was cool, rich and delicious. Though … to be honest … no more so than a high-quality milk like Strauss Family Farms in the Bay Area, or Blue Marble here in Madison. And, dear friends, for those of you curious about the digestibility of the raw versus the cooked: it still produced what I will call some Inner Turmoil.

Of course, the fight over raw milk isn’t about my belly or my palate. It’s about personal choice thwarted by an agency that way overstates the risk of a nutritious food. Or it’s about not allowing people who are misinformed to feed a risky substance to kids, who can’t choose for themselves. Depending on whom you ask.

I’ve been asking lots of people about it, as I report a series on raw milk for WORT-FM, Madison’s volunteer-run radio station. (Back on the radio! You can hear the first story with this download: I’m around 23:00.)

The head of Food Safety, Steve Ingham, told me he’d had raw milk once. He was 20, and it was an awkward family situation, and he was nervous about it but figured he’d make it. I also met a research cheesemaker at UW-Madison who grew up drinking raw milk and now is leery of it, saying he knows too much now.

Not all the germ-savvy fear raw milk. I just learned of a farmer-microbiologist who does his own bacteria testing.

Risk, worry, step aside for tasting notes. The milk was merely as excellent as any other. But the cream! The cream was yellow and so thick it required a spoon to pull it out. The butter, made by the farmer’s friend, a golden mass, sweet and strong, making the store butter I live on seem like plain pale wax in comparison. At the French Laundry, I remember, there was a butter in-between course, a sort of palate cleanser. Two tiny dishes we passed around the table; one salted, one not; two very different flavors. It was an awakening, a reminder to pay attention to the simple base of your food. The raw butter was like that. But what how would that same cream, from the grass-eating, name-bearing, loved cows, have tasted had it been pasteurized first? Would it be any less delicious?

In Africa I grew to appreciate the taste of boiled milk. (Though, in context, I also came to enjoy whole-milk powder, Nescafe and La Vache Qui Rit.) So I do not trust my own judgment.

Bill Anderson ought to know; he’s an assistant cheesemaker at Bleu Mont (of Private Reserve fame. Dear lord, that’s good!) He says tasting pasteurized-milk versus raw-milk cheese is like listening to trumpet versus whole symphony.

I’ve dulled my senses with mulled wine for the moment — after all, it’s a snow day — so further taste trials will have to wait.

Fridges of the future, tell me your secrets

I do enjoy looking in other people’s fridges … They are places of privacy. Our failed experimental marinades, still “good” in theory if not fact. Our self-improvement attempts despite busy schedules—stacks of individual fat-free yogurts. Bachelorhood, poverty, decadence, obsessions. All speak when you open that door. But what places remain private in the modern age?

I have a vision of a Foodbook, an app in which our Bluetooth-enabled refrigerators with food-recognition software list the exact contents of our fridges for all in our social networks to see. Would it shame some of us to clean it more often? (It would for me.) Provide a way for some to display their superiority through the proxy of the finest cheese, just as with personal devices? That could be annoying.

I just looked in mine, and it said I could keep up better with the vegetables. Let’s all look!

More than you wanted to know about me.


Ignoring the condiment door—

Six kinds of cheese, none more than $15 a pound; two cheddars, a blue, a swiss, a chevre, a parmesan. A log of chocolate cookie dough. Mushrooms, dried, from the last harvest of the log down the street, now so long ago. Some unidentified red berries that W. picked (W., ?). Three quarts of pickled peppers, a half-pint of pickled onions, a quart of apple butter. Soy marinade?, date uncertain. Two half-pints of roasted tomatillo salsa and a jar of cornichons. Pomegranate molasses, outside covered in same. Porter mustard. Half-and-half. Two yogurt containers of unattractive pumpkin-pesto pasta leftovers, circa one week ago, nearly through the mandatory guilt-shedding waiting period before it can die. One yogurt container of yogurt. Wilting parsley, wilting cilantro. One leaf of chard, wilting. Two scallion stalks, wilting. Two-thirds of a cucumber, flaccid. A half-bag of spinach—not wilted (hooray!). Eight grapefruit, five satsumas. A pan of roasted beets. A half-can of tomatoes, recent enough to still be of service. The largest item is a tub of salted lemons, made in Alaska and hauled to Wisconsin with the rest of my stuff, now half-eaten. Who can live without salted lemons? Not I.

The snapshot is never the whole story. After all, you might be mistaken from mine that we subsist on pickles and cheese. In fact we have greens growing in the yard, and a variety of meats, from ham hocks to coon, in the freezer. And we just happen to be out of beer; this must be remedied hastily. You would be right to conclude, however, that we are obsessed with pickles and cheese. That we buy basic ingredients rather than prepared things. And that, like doctors, we are conservative when it comes to declaring the moment of death. All fair, all true.

On hiatus, at restaurants.

Madison Forager is on vacation for the next two weeks while I ride my motorcycle back to Wisconsin.

For the moment I have seen no mushrooms sprouting from the concrete and must forage in Bay Area restaurants. I think I’ve satisfied my burrito desires, to the extent that is ever possible. The achiote tofu at Papalote is the only tofu I have ever craved. I have also stood in the line for a Tartine croissant. There will be tacos and pupusas, banh mi and rice ball salad. (Presumably I’m doing something to deserve all these calories. Oh, groans my legs and back, I am.) All with my dear friends. Of whom, like the rice ball salad, I really never get my fill.

Later there will be a long ride and lots of wind, with I can only hope some sopapillas along the way, and daily beers for health. Then I will reunite with W., and see if any mushrooms have survived November in Madison, and start thinking about plans for ice-fishing. Today it seems like a long way.