PIERMONT, N.H. — Autumn is a busy season for Nova Kim and Les Hook, who are scanning forest floors for abundant treasures, as they gather mushrooms, greens, berries, and other natural woodland delights.
The pair sell their wares — about 65 pounds a day this time of year — to Vermont restaurants, at farmers’ markets, and in CSAs. They even have a mushroom-of-the-month club through their company, Wild Gourmet Food (their website reads “Wild . . . the original organic!”). That’s on top of lecturing at colleges and leading mushroom tours (tickets, $50 a head, include lunch). They regularly present at food conferences around the world and Judith Jones, the longtime Julia Child editor and a part-time Vermont resident, is among their patrons. Not bad for Kim, who is 70, and Hook, a year her junior. The two are not married but can count on one hand the number of times they’ve been apart in 34 years.
On a recent mushroom walk with 20 participants in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley, just over the state line from their home, a constant banter fills the crisp, dank air. The two frequently interrupt one another to finish a story, every sentence addressed with a term of endearment. They dress alike, too: maroon shammy shirts, weathered pants, a single braid, Native American medicine pouch necklaces. Even their collapsible eyeglasses match.
The woods are abundant with yellow-footed chanterelles, white matsutake, hen of the woods, and often up to a dozen other varieties. The duo keep meticulous records of what was collected and where. Of the 26,000 native North American species, they comfortably identify about 150, putting back what they don’t know.
Their encyclopedic knowledge is mostly self-taught, for Kim at least, who is half Osage and grew up on a Wyoming ranch with scarce water and greenery. Her Native American bloodline isn’t what sparked wildcrafting, she says, though she became interested in herbal medicine after suffering three heart attacks in her 30s.
Hook grew up in rural Vermont, where his father taught him to gather before he died when Hook was 8. For years Hook hunted and trapped, giving it up after catching a coyote’s leg in a trap meant for a fox. “I knew I’d have to put him down but he just sat there, very calm, looking right at me,” he says. Hook shot him and stopped trapping. He and Kim ran a successful ginseng tea business, selling in 260 stores, including the British department store Harrods.
Early in their gathering career, at a food show in Boston, a gentleman asked if he could smell their porcini and was surprised to learn they were from Vermont. The duo later learned he was the French-born chef Jacques Pepin, himself a wild mushroom gatherer. “That interaction gave us confidence,” says Kim.
She used to hate all mushrooms, even cream of mushroom soup. Now she likes most varieties and can’t get enough of abortive entoloma, which she and Hook termed the “snow shrimp,” a name they’ll tell you proudly is on some fancy menus. “If you eat a lot, you’ll sleep like a puppy,” says Hook.
Tom Bivins, chef and owner of Crop Bistro and Brewery in Stowe, Vt., has worked with the couple for 15 years (the three created The Wild Food Gatherers Guild & Cooperative to educate would-be wildcrafters). “They are definitely the most expensive people that I buy from,” says the chef, “but with that I get assurance and peace of mind.” Other gatherers might show up in his kitchen loaded with, say, fiddleheads. “I don’t know where they got them. I don’t know who they are.” He’s not buying.
But Kim and Hook put demands on their chefs. “They don’t like you to buy mushrooms from other people because they don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s mistake,” says the chef.
And whatever you do, don’t call them foragers. Connotations associated with the name date to Medieval times, when vagabonds survived scrounging up whatever they found. Even today, Kim and Hook equate foragers with people who don’t show adequate respect for the land. Wild gathering should mean taking only what you need. “From the beginning, we’ve told all the chefs we work with, ‘”We’re both going to take care of the woods together.’ ”
Besides Bivins’s bistro, the couple sells to Twin Farms Resort in Barnard, and Pane e Salute in Woodstock, both in Vermont. Days are long; they often aren’t home before midnight and they’re putting 40,000 miles a year on their Dodge Grand Caravan (an old Subaru had 365,000 miles).
Vermont winters are becoming increasingly difficult for the gatherers. They began to make retirement plans — teaching college courses, starting a school, writing a book — but haven’t followed through. For nearly seven years, the pair has not been rained on while they’re in the woods. They decided that would be their cue to slow down. Says Kim: “Les just says, ‘OK, the next time we get rained on, we’ll stop.’ ”
One day they’ll wake up and announce to each another, “OK, that’s it.”
Amy Augustine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.