He could be out there now, combing the woods under a canopy of pine, his footsteps muffled by needles on the forest floor. This hunter needs neither rifle nor bow to bring down his prey, and he never returns home empty-handed. He dives headlong under a rotting cottonwood and emerges victorious. His catch is lumpy, brownish, and smells like soil, but it has a distinct nutty aroma. This is a Blonde morel, one of the most prized edible mushrooms in the world, and Graham Steinruck is the mushroom man.
“I talk to a lot of people, and when I mention mushrooms to them I get one of two responses. Either, ‘Oh you mean the kind that make you laugh really hard and get all tripped out?,’ and I’m like ‘No, not those mushrooms.’ Or, they look at me like I’m insane,” Steinruck chuckles.
Steinruck is on a mission to dispel mushroom misconceptions and let the public in on a secret that’s long been held by mycologists: Colorado is a great place to find wild, edible mushrooms—far better than either France or Italy. What’s more, mushrooms aren’t just tasty treats; they could be the answer to some of the world’s most vexing environmental problems, such as cleaning oil spills and treating toxic waste.
The wiry, bespectacled 27-year-old co-owns Mycotours, a company that—for $35 per person—will take you deep into the Colorado wilderness to hunt for some of the choicest edible mushrooms on earth. “It’s a fairly arid climate,” Steinruck concedes. “But mushrooms don’t care about that. There’s just a season for them.”
Steinruck chases spring up the mountains every year, searching in damp meadows and under decomposing logs for porcinis, morels, and chanterelles (these varieties can sell for up to $170 per pound). He recognizes that eating delectable wild fungi is a good way to introduce people to the mushroom world, but edible mushrooms are only a piece of the puzzle.
“You can clean up oil spills with mushrooms, you can clean water with mushrooms, and you can clean toxic chemicals,” he explains excitedly. “A lot of people just scratch the surface of understanding what mushrooms are!”
Renowned mycologist Paul Stamets is Steinruck’s hero. In one experiment, Stamets demonstrated that oyster mushrooms could consume toxic pollutants. He sprinkled wood chips coated in oyster mushroom mycelia (the vegetative part of the fungus) on piles of soil contaminated with petroleum waste and compared them to similar piles without mycelia. After six weeks, “all the other piles were dead, dark, and stinky,” Stamets recalled of the control groups. “Our pile was covered with hundreds of pounds of oyster mushrooms.”
This is the stuff Steinruck loves. “It all comes down to the fact that they’re the decomposers, and they’re the ones that are recycling all the nutrients in an ecosystem,” he boasts. “They’re like the digestive system of the planet and we’ve been ignoring it.”
Steinruck is sure that in the future we’ll be astounded that humans missed out on the capacity of mushrooms to solve problems for so long. His faith shines when he holds up a clump of crinkly orange fungi, chanterelles, and grins. These particular mushrooms won’t detoxify the world, but they’re great in a soup.
Steinruck has always had a foot in the culinary world. “I’ve always been into the weird, especially with natural things, like you know, fruits and vegetables,” he recalls. “If there’s one of them I haven’t tried, I always want to try it. I want to know what it tastes like, you know?”
A fascination with weird-looking edibles is a must for Steinruck since, to the untrained eye, some of the most prized wild mushrooms look like blobs of brown protruding from rotten logs. To Steinruck, they are a masterpiece in the making. “Don’t think of them as the side dish; think of them as the star of the dish,” he says “A lot of people think ‘Oh, it goes next to the steak,’ and I’m like ‘No, it is the steak.’”
However, unlike steak, porcinis, morels, and chanterelles must be harvested wild, since there’s no successful technique for cultivating them on a commercial scale. So on sunny spring days, Steinruck is in the mountains with his dog-eared copy of “Colorado Mushroom,” a field guide by Vira Evanson. He’s out to share his passion and show people the extraordinary versatility of the fungi he adores. “Foragers, this is what we came from,” he tells a group he’s leading on a foray. “We just walked around in small groups and picked things to eat. It’s kind of like going back in time, but in the future when you have all these cooking techniques and fun things you can do with them.”
For Steinruck, mushrooms are the past and the future. They make tasty meals and are solutions to some of the most pressing environmental problems. Plus, they’re just plain fun.