‘the way through the woods: of mushrooms and mourning,’ with long litt woon
I HAVE ONLY in recent years tuned in to mushrooms really at all, despite much of a life spent engaged with the outdoors. So when I saw a review in late summer of a new book called “The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning”—part memoir, part primer on fungi—it caught my attention.
“The Way Through the Woods” (Amazon affiliate link) is by Long Litt Woon, an anthropologist originally from Malaysia who has spent her adult life living in Norway. It’s at once both an invitation to the astonishing world of fungi and also the personal story of a path of healing from great grief. I was treated to a conversation with Woon, about how she got started with mushrooming and where it has led her.
Read along as you listen to the November 18, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of Woon’s book, in the comment box at the very bottom of the page.
talking mushrooms, with long litt woon
Margaret Roach: Welcome, Woon, and thank you so much for making time in your travels to talk today.
Long Litt Woon: Thank you very much, Margaret, for having me.
Margaret: I love watching your travel adventures on Instagram and wow, this book has been translated into how many languages and countries already?
Woon: [Laughter.] Well, at the moment, 14. Yes, so it was quite surprising for me, yes.
Margaret: It’s a wonderful thing. It’s amazing. You’ve resonated… it resonated, which is wonderful. But so the book begins on a sad note, with the revelation that your husband, who I believe was then just 54 years old, went to work one day and did not return. And I want you to set up the premise of the book, the mushrooms and the mourning, for us.
Woon: Well, yes, you’re right. I mean, my husband dies on Page 1.
Woon: And I talk about how this sudden, very sudden death just puts me in a very, very dark place, and how very, very slowly, mushrooms saved me and brought me in a way back to life again. So that is what the book is about.
Margaret: Yes. And reflections on him come in every so often, but much of the book is about your adventure in getting to know mushrooms. So it has an unusual structure. It’s kind of two kinds of writing are in there, but the fact that, I think you say in it, “seemingly unrelated subjects such as mushrooms and mourning can in fact be connected,” and they are, they definitely are.
So you suffered this sudden loss and somehow, you found yourself at an introductory meeting at the natural history museum in Oslo, is that where it was?
Margaret: …of the Greater Oslo Fungi and Useful Plant Society. You’re very funny, by the way. You say that in the name of “the Greater Oslo Fungi and Useful Plant Society sounded like a sister organization to the Norwegian Women’s Hygiene Association.” [Laughter.] So there you were, and you were at this meeting, and what happened? How did you end up there, anyway?
Woon: Oh, it was just by chance. But basically, I was, well, after my husband died, I joined this bereavement group for people who had lost someone. And I didn’t know anybody, but I’m not used to being in this kind of group therapy sessions, but I just did it because I knew I needed something and I was desperately looking for help, for relief.
And there, well, I met people in the same situation as myself. And you could see that everybody was, in a way, at the same stage. Everybody was looking for relief actually, and so they were sharing things they’d done. Of course, some people had done yoga, others had tried meditation, and then somebody mentioned this course, and then I thought, “Yes, why not? I’ll do anything,” because I was desperate. So I just went there. But of course, I was not anti-mushrooms, but I was just mildly interested in mushrooms, and my husband was, too. So yes. So I started this course.
Margaret: Serendipity then.
Woon: That’s right.
Margaret: And so we’re then treated to sort of some of your descriptions of “mushroom people,” and you eventually learn about some of their secret places for foraging and this whole other world, this whole other community. And you say that your training as an anthropologist in some ways prepared you for this journey. Tell me a little bit about that, sort of this exploration that you ended up on.
Woon: Yes. So this was a basic course in mushrooming, but of course, people do mushrooming. So I met this group of mushroom pickers–mushroomers, the mad mushroomers. And I was just fascinated by them and of course, it’s because of my training is that the anthropologists that I became very drawn to this too. So not only the mushrooms, but also the mushroom pickers, I write about in my book.
And then of course, so this book charts the two journeys, this outer journey, my discovery of this kingdom of fungi, and this weird tribe of mushroomers, and how I started by being a novice and looking at these mushroomers from the outside, and how, through the journey of the book, I learned a lot about mushrooms, but I also become one of these mad mushroomers. [Laughter.]
Margaret: Yes. Yes, yes.
Woon: Yes. So that is the outer journey. And then of course, the inner journey is in this landscape of grief. And so the book is about how these two journeys are intertwined.
Margaret: Yes. So you’re confessing to be a mad mushroomer, are you? [Laughter.] [Above, the mad mushroomer in her element, from Woon’s Facebook page.]
Woon: Yes. Well, I was madder before. But yes, I’ve been very, yes, mad. But now, more just normal mad. Yes.
Margaret: So let’s talk about some of the things that you or someone who would go to such a class would learn in that first class: What’s a mushroom. Animal, vegetable or mineral or none of the above? What’s a mushroom?
Woon: None of the above. And that shocked me, too, because I thought, mushrooms, you go to the supermarket, you find them among the vegetables. So you think that, I thought it was just a strange type of vegetable, but no. So mushrooms, they constitute their own kingdom and has its own evolution in this whole evolution of life on our planet. It has its own separate, its own kingdom. So it’s neither one or the other. It is, yes. This is the kingdom of fungi. Yes.
Margaret: I laughed out loud, you have just a little line in there somewhere where you’re talking about learning whether they’re animal, vegetable, mineral or none of the above, where you mentioned that Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, he’s trying to classify them, what, in the 1700s or something, and he placed them, some of them at least in Chaos with a capital C? [Laughter.]
Woon: Yes. So this, a lot of people have been thinking about this for a long time.
Margaret: Yes. He was so frustrated trying to categorize them. Even he who was the one who was supposed to make order. He said, “I can’t.”
Woon: Yes, “I give up.”
Margaret: He kind of banished them to this other place. [Laughter.] So how diverse are the fungi compared to, say, mammals? I think you used that example in the book. How much of the population of the number of species on the planet are in this kingdom?
Woon: Oh. Now you put me on the spot.
Margaret: I think you said 20 percent versus mammals?
Woon: Yes, yes. And much, much more than mammals.
Margaret: Mammals are like less than 1%, I think. No?
Woon: Yes, or 2 or something like that. So it’s much, much less, yes. We are surrounded by fungi. [Update: In the book, Woon writes that fungi are almost 20 percent of the world’s species, and mammals less than .2 percent.]
Woon: But of course, a lot of them are tiny. You don’t see them. You think of mushrooms as the cremini, the button mushrooms you see in the supermarket. But of course, I mean, we are surrounded by mushrooms.
Margaret: And they, like you just said, I mean, we think of the ones in the supermarket in the vegetable section that have a cap and a white stem, and they look like a “mushroom” iconic shape. But once you tune in–and through a friend, a neighbor who’s a mycologist, I’ve been going on walks and learning a little bit, not like you–but once you go out and allow yourself to start to see them, you see them everywhere.
Woon: Exactly. Yes. And that is what has happened, too, with this book because, O.K., I have a lot of editors around the world now, and now, they are sending me pictures of mushrooms that they see on the way to work. [Laughter.] I mean, they’re not really interested in mushrooms before, they’re just interested in this book as a piece of literature. And now, they are seeing mushrooms all over the place.
Margaret: Yes. In between the cracks, when we had a wet spell recently this fall, up where I am in New York State, and between the cracks in the pavement, in the shady areas, little knobby flat things in clusters, and then other places, there’s a big gleaming, glistening orange thing. What is that called? The, mm-
Woon: Chicken of the woods?
Margaret: … Jack o’lantern, Jack o’lantern…
Woon: Ah, Jack o’lantern. Yes. Yes. [Above, the Jack o’lantern mushroom, Omphalotus illudens, in Margaret’s garden. It is not edible.]
Margaret: … mushroom. And another place, there’s those ones that are melting with the black ink dripping down, the inky caps, and the puffballs. And none of them, they don’t look like a “mushroom,” a lot of them; they don’t. Do you know what I mean?
Woon: I know, I know. And when you start learning what you can eat, and cooking them separately, the edible mushrooms, you discover very quickly that they all taste very different and they have different textures, consistencies. And so there’s nothing, I mean, to say that something smells “mushroomy” is sort of like, I think only people who do not know enough about mushrooms would say a thing like that because, yes, because they smell very different.
Margaret: So here we are in this beginning class and we learn that they’re in their own kingdom and that they’re very diverse. So then, we want to start looking, maybe we go out on a walk with the instructor, and we see one and we want to get to know it. Where do you even begin? I think you say in the book that to know your mushrooms, you have to sort of use all your senses. You have to… so you’re out on a walk or you’re taking people on a walk, what do we do? We dig it up? We look at it? We smell it? What do we do?
Woon: Well, first, you have to spot the mushroom. And sometimes, they are not so easy to spot because they could be under some leaves or other organic matter. So first, you have to find the mushroom, and then it’s good to go on such a walk with somebody who knows about mushrooms. So don’t just go out there with a field guide in hand. In fact, don’t do that [laughter], go with somebody who knows, a local person, and preferably, as part of a course, a local course, so you are part of a group and you can discuss, everybody will have questions and you can learn your mushrooms one by one.
And basically, you have to go out because this is not theoretical knowledge, this is practical knowledge if you’re ever going to want to pick them and eat them. Because, very often in books, they look perfect. And they don’t all look like that out in the woods. And also, they look very different when they are young and when they are middle-aged and then when they are very old, they look all very different—the one same species. So you need to go out to, yes, if you want to learn anything about mushrooms.
Margaret: Yes, with someone who can mentor you.
Woon: That, too.
Margaret: Yes. So you’ve referred to the edible aspect or not, and the sort of “Can you eat it?” question. It comes up early in the experience of anyone who goes mushrooming and also in the book. And yet, throughout the book, there seems to be, from time to time, a little bit of a tension around… you have one chapter called “50 Shades of Poison.” There’s all these horrible stories of mushrooms. They are feared and this darkness about them. And so there’s a little bit of, maybe, defensiveness. But that must sort of… do people just ask about that all the time, about “Can you eat this? Can you eat that?”
Woon: Yes. People do that. And of course, people have this fear of mushrooms, which I think is very good, because the reason why people fear mushrooms is because they’ve heard about all this poisoning, they’ve heard all these poisoning stories, and they know that some mushrooms are deadly. So I think it’s very good that people are afraid of mushrooms.
But however, the point is that they are afraid because they do not know their mushrooms. Because if you know your mushrooms, you would know what to pick and you can pick them confidently, and you would not be afraid. The reason why you’re afraid is because you do not have the knowledge. But for a start, I think it’s good that people are afraid because then, that will stop them from just picking anything and putting it into their mouths.
Margaret: Yes. I was surprised that, in one of the anecdotes, you’re on a walk, I don’t remember exactly where in the book but I think early on, you’re on a walk with the club or some leader, and the people pass around the mushroom and everyone takes a sniff of it, smells it. And then, there’s this wonderful section about the scent of mushrooms. And just trying to describe scent is virtually impossible [laughter]. The chemistry of scent is so tough.
And how some of the descriptors of how we’re supposed to figure out the idea of a mushroom partly by what it looks like, and what its gills look like underneath the cap, if it has them, and the color and the size and the this and the that and where it is, but then also the scent. And then there’s these words in the scent descriptions in the old guidebooks that I don’t even know what those words mean, let alone what it smells like. Do you know what I mean?
Woon: Yes. And that is why I have this whole chapter, because this was so difficult for me. And I felt too that, well, actually, we do not have words for smell. We have very few words. We always use similes. So we’ll say this smells like a strawberry, or this smells like apricots, or this smells like a raw potato. We don’t have a word for that particular smell. And smell is also very individual, and individuals themselves, too, would smell things different.
Our sense of smell changes, too. If you’re on medication, it could affect your sense of smell and so on. But smell is very important. And this is one of the ways, the connection between mushrooms and mourning. Because when my husband died, I felt as though all my senses were just knocked, just shut down. And I didn’t feel like eating because food tasted like paper, had no taste and so on.
But being out in the woods and being forced to use all my senses in order to identify these mushrooms, sort of woke me up again. And sort of flicked the switch on of my senses. So that was definitely one of the ways in which these two very disparate topics are connected for me.
Margaret: Yes. So I mentioned at the beginning that you travel a lot, and I like seeing where you’re at on your Instagram and so forth. So does that mean, though, that again and again, every place you go, if then you go out mushrooming, are you returned to the position of being a beginner mushroomer, because you have to meet the local population at each new place? Or are there some sort of global species or some… do you know what I mean? Because you started in Norway.
Woon: Yes, you’re right. I mean, you’re right. Because local knowledge is very important, and I write in the book about how, very, very often, the people who get poisoned by mushrooms are immigrants, no matter which country you’re in.
Woon: So yes, because they go out mushrooming, like in Norway, they go out mushrooming and they find something which looks very much alike what they know from home and which is a delicious mushroom and if you’re really unlucky, this is a deadly mushroom in this other new place. Yes. So that’s why local knowledge is very important.
Of course, I’m not a beginner the way I was when I started because now, at least I can place… if I find a mushroom, I can place it in a group or in the family. I’ll know where, which type of mushroom we are talking about. But I would never be 100 percent sure of the species. I really would need a local person, a local guide.
But the good thing, of course, when I’m traveling right now with my book and talking about it is that a lot of local people want to show me their secret spots. [Laughter.] So I’ve been mushrooming all over the place now, and people are happy to show me their spots.
Margaret: Yes. I was interested—and again, I’m in the Hudson Valley of New York State, so not in Norway—and yet, I saw you mention mushrooms that I’m familiar with, I believe. I think, is it shaggy mane or inky cap? [Above, the edible shaggy mane at Margaret’s, and when “inky” or deliquescing, below.] Is that what it… is it Coprinus? Is that what it is? Coprinus comatus?
Woon: Yes. Yes. Coprinus is the group, yes. [More on shaggy mane.]
Margaret: Yes. And I think you mentioned the puffballs, you mentioned Jack o’lantern. And so, is that because in parts of Europe and parts of North America, we have species in common, is that the case?
Woon: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Margaret: It is the case. O.K., I see.
Woon: Yes. And I have this little anecdote in my book about the matsutake, this mushroom that the Japanese love and which the Norwegians do not love.
Woon: And it took a while before scientists discovered that we are actually talking about the same mushroom, the same species. So yes, I mean, you can find mushrooms, the one, the same species could spread worldwide. In fact, there are maps. If you go into the internet, you can find maps-
Margaret: Distribution maps? Range maps.
Woon: … that show you how certain species, how they spread and how widespread they are.
Margaret: Yes. Huh. So in the last few minutes, I wanted to talk about eating mushrooms, because one of the main reasons, you say in the book, “one of the main reasons I got into mushrooms was that I like eating them.” And then you talk about how maybe the way we approach cooking them isn’t to melt some butter in the pan, put the mushrooms in and fry them up—maybe that’s not right after all. So tell us a little bit about other ways to approach enjoying mushrooms, cooking mushrooms.
Woon: I do have a chapter in the book with some recipes and I will not say that it’s not right. I mean, you can do whatever you want with your mushrooms. It’s just that…
Margaret: Yes, but it’s not the only way.
Woon: Yes, it’s not the only way, that was my point. It’s not the only way. And in fact, going back to the matsutake again, I found out that maybe the reason why Norwegians do not like the matsutake is because they’ve been cooking it wrong, because they fry it in butter. And the taste, the taste molecules in the matsutake, they’re released only in contact with water, not with fat. So that’s why the Japanese cook it in soups, or they put it in their rice, or things like that. So anyway, that’s one thing.
And the other thing about cooking mushrooms is that we are used to thinking about them as savories, you have salt and pepper and you have it in a pie or something like that. However, there are some very creative mushroomers in this Norwegian club, mushrooming club, and who love cooking.
And one day, I was at a mushroom party and somebody brought a cake, a mushroom cake, made from porcini. And what it had was, O.K., this was a take on a classical Norwegian cake, which is called the Tosca cake, Tosca is in the opera, and the Norwegian Tosca cake has a top, like the crème brûlée, it is like croquant, it is crispy on the top, hard, and then you can hit it with a spoon and then it will crack. And the Norwegian, the normal Norwegian Tosca cake has got almonds on the top, so it’s like almond brittle. However, this woman had come with a cake and she had used porcini, what you call boletes, the king boletes.
Woon: She used that as the brittle on the top of this sweet cake, and it was amazing. So after that, I started looking for other recipes where you could use mushrooms in desserts. And of course, I mean, more mushroom taste, it’s just a taste, you could stretch it to the left and make it savory, or can take it to the right and make them into desserts. So, yes, I have some recipes for chanterelle ice cream and stuff like that. Yes.
Margaret: Well, I loved the book.
Woon: Oh, thank you so much, Margaret.
Margaret: Long Litt Woon’s “The Way Through the Woods: Of Mushrooms and Mourning.” I loved the book, and I know that listeners and readers of the blog are going to love it, too. So I’m so glad you made time to speak today, and thank you. And happy travels. You’re on many adventures and I hope you see all kinds of new life-list mushrooms. [Laughter.]
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the November 18, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).