WASHINGTON — David Spahr is in his backyard, on the hunt for a mushroom he calls the forest flounder. It’s a new one to him, even though as the author of “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada: A Photographic Guidebook to Finding and Using Key Species,” Spahr is the state’s authority on local edible mushrooms.

He’s maybe 50 yards from his house when he spots one, pale, small and growing under a white pine. “They only grow under white pines,” Spahr says, carefully but firmly separating the mushroom from the earth and then holding it out for a feel.

“Is that slimy?” he asks.

Spahr, who is self-taught, literally wrote the book: “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada: A Photographic Guidebook to Finding and Using Key Species.”

As he promised it would be, it is as slimy as a cold fish. Spahr is delighted. The mushroom has other names, including its Latin one, Hygrophorus flavodiscus, and the more prosaic Yellow-centered Waxy Cap. But he’s named it for the fishy flavor that emerges when he browns this variety of mushroom just right. Spahr’s cooking is nearly as legendary as his foraging skills; the latter makes him very popular as a supplier to some of Maine’s finest restaurants. “This is a really great mushroom,” he says.

How did he miss the forest flounder in past years? It grows late, starting as this one did in early November, surviving cold and even frost. “I just never got out this late in the year,” he says. “Most people quit mushrooming too early and that included me as well.”

His property, even now, heading into the season of Thanksgiving, is dotted with things worth nibbling on. The wasabi-flavored seeds of the sea rocket he cultivates in a raised bed. The rainbow chard, still vibrant despite the frost thanks to a sheltering tarp. On his kitchen counter are a pile of American chestnuts from the trees he’s planted around his property. He left some Brussels sprouts in the ground, to sweeten as winter comes on.

“They taste better in January and February,” Spahr says. “It mellows the flavor a lot.”

PANTRY POTENTIAL

For the self-taught Spahr, the Maine landscape is a giant potential pantry. He might know too much.

The first time I called to ask a few mushroom-related question, back in damp September when Maine social media was blowing up with photos of crazy-looking mushrooms people were stumbling over in the woods, his discomfort was obvious. I could feel him being paralyzed by his realization of how little I knew, and how much it was going to take to get me up to speed, and how wrong I would likely still get everything.

David Spahr stands in a garden bed in front of his home in Washington.

It was clear Spahr was not a person you could call for a quick chat about mushrooms. It would be like calling Martha Stewart to ask if she could toss off some ideas for making a pretty centerpiece for a holiday table. Plus he was at the height of his busy season, leading walks into the woods to teach people how to find mushrooms and other things. In September he spent nearly half the days of the month rambling around Maine with students.

Eric Topper, the director of education for Maine Audubon, has been booking Spahr for autumnal walks at Fields Pond in Holden for about five years. “His programs for us routinely sell out at 20-25 attendees,” Topper said in an email.

For Audubon, these walks represent a way not just to teach people to feed themselves off the land, but a way to connect. “People who see, hear, smell or even taste the benefits and bounty themselves will hopefully be inspired to join us in conserving and defending these precious resources,” Topper said. And Spahr, he added, “always seems to draw new folks out.”

Ditto for Merrymeeting Adult Education programs, which Spahr says gets him many of his “gigs.” Spahr’s students also include groups who book three-night stays at Le Vatout, a bed and breakfast in Waldoboro, and spend their days with him, gathering everything from cattails to chanterelles. On the last night, Spahr cooks with the group, an eclectic menu based on what they’ve gathered.

Spahr with a mushroom he foraged in woods nearby.

“It’s like ‘Chopped,'” Spahr says, referring to the reality cooking show.

Dominika Spetsmann, who co-owns Le Vatout with her partner, said Spahr’s events book solid with guests ranging from a homesteader who wanted to brush up on his skills to urban dwellers looking for a new experience. “We’ve had opera composers, massage therapists and stock brokers from New York,” she says. “He is a great teacher and they love him.”

Spetsmann is German, and grew up foraging. She didn’t know much about running a bed and breakfast when she bought Le Vatout a decade ago. “But I knew one of the things I wanted to do was expose Americans to wild mushrooms.”

In Germany, she had been a confident forager, but she was cautious in this new landscape.

“I started looking for books that would help me identify mushrooms that were edible and delicious,” Spetsmann said. “None of the books did that. They identified every single brown mushroom, and nobody was talking much about eating. David’s book was very different.”

Spahr’s mushroom guide is now in its fifth printing, and his publisher, North Atlantic, describes it as a strong seller.

For Spahr, publishing the book changed his life, inspiring him to think more deeply – and politically – about foraging, something that has been part of his life since he was a child.

“It was an epiphany between two book covers,” he says.

MASSACHUSETTS MUSHROOMS

Ironically, he’s also created competition for himself. Some of those “newbies” using his book to track mushrooms in the woods are also harvesting to sell to restaurants. Especially this year, when a dry summer finally yielded to a wet fall, and mushrooming Mainers were crowing about all the maitakes (hen-of-the-woods) they were finding.

“Some knucklehead wrote a book that tells everybody how to find the mushrooms,” Spahr says.

The knucklehead came to it naturally. Spahr, 68, grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, the son of an engineer with a yearning to be a farmer and a mother who regarded the landscape in much the same way her son does. “My mother was the type of person who would walk around and see things and say, ‘Can you make wine with that?'”

Spahr has relocated wild blueberry bushes around his home in Washington.

“My parents were the original permaculture people before the word was created,” Spahr says. They lived in two memorable houses in his youth, one a dairy farm, the other a Victorian home with formal gardens and an orchard. He was the oldest of three boys (both his brothers have died) and had a “free-range” kind of childhood. If he got hungry running around with the other kids in the neighborhood, they knew how to help themselves to wild raspberries, apples, pears and so on.

“Half the foraging lessons I learned as a kid I learned from other kids,” Spahr said.

His early cooking skills were an offshoot of that; his mother would greet her 7-year-old as he came through the door with a pile of fish he’d just caught and direct him to clean and cook it himself. One of his brothers grew up to be a chef in New Orleans. The other had the mechanical gifts of his father and was the first of the family to relocate to Maine. That was the 1970s. Spahr’s parents had divorced, and his father bought 118 undeveloped acres in Washington. Spahr has lived on that land since 1972.

The opportunity to write the life-changing book dropped from the sky, he says. Spahr had a friend with a cultivated mushroom business who had a book contract to write about mushrooms, but was shutting down his business and asked Spahr if he’d like to fulfill the contract. Spahr told the publisher he wanted to do something different, closer to Mushroom-Collecting, his website he’d been building to teach people what they could eat and how. He had the photographic skills to illustrate the book as well (Spahr was for many years, a commercial photographer).

North Atlantic said yes. He’s still collecting royalty checks. He’d happily revise it, but he’s got another book he’d like to write, about foraging more generally. “It will be a political book,” Spahr says. “I am trying to get people to relearn skills that have been lost.”

“Across this swamp of time of human existence, foraging was how humans lived,” he adds. “We’ve only farmed for the past 10,000 years.”

Spahr leads walks into the woods to teach people how to find mushrooms. He has led autumnal walks for Maine Audubon and for Merrymeeting Adult Education, and also leads foraging expeditions with guests at Le Vatout, a bed and breakfast in Waldoboro.

He sees a society divorced not just from foraging but from the outdoors. Spahr thinks about the number of children who are food insecure in Maine, nearly one in five, and how hard it is for even the most engaged food banks and community groups to shift that number.

“And children are the most insecure during the summertime,” he said. During the school year, they can depend on regular hot meals. “But during the summertime, there is food everywhere you go.”

He wants to write a book that encourages people to look for it.

“I am going to be telling people not only how to feed themselves but how to get money,” Spahr says, “how to get something out of nothing.”

Like the wild violets he picks by the hundreds, packages carefully and brings to restaurants, including Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rockland, where chef/owner Keiko Suzuki Steinberger incorporates them into her menu. “I get $7 for a hundred of them,” Spahr says. “I can pick five to seven hundred in a couple of hours.”

ON THE CHEAP

Not only does Spahr seek out free food growing everywhere, he brings it home and cultivates it.

“I’m a compulsive experimenter,” Spahr says. The signs of that are scattered around his yard. He had some old stove bottoms from when his father was a stove dealer. He turned them upside and filled them with soil, and plants, which gives his garden a distinctive look (and handily segregates his crops). Maybe he’ll take that uncleaned mackerel his son Sam left in his freezer a while back and stuff it into the soil of his wood-framed raised bed to improve it over the winter. He grew tomatoes in a pile of hay this year. The results are inside, dehydrated and stashed in the freezer, “candy” for the winter. There’s another hay pile nearby that he used to grow potatoes. Why hay? He was inspired by author Ruth Stout’s “no-work” gardening books advocating mulch. Plus, it is cheaper than amending his rocky, thin soil with dirt. He also blows as many leaves as he can onto the pile before putting down the hay.

“Square one for me on every project is how can I do this for the least possible money?” he says. Ideally, he’ll spend no more than $200 a year on his garden, from seedlings to amendments. He gets cheap wood chips, hardwood preferably, and puts them down to keep down the weeds and encourage the mushroom spawn he innoculates his property with. He digs high bush blueberry bushes out of his woods and brings them to his patch of sun. He’s also grown about 40 beach plum bushes from seed.

As he checks on his plants he is dismayed to see that some of his new sand cherry and red elderberry bushes have been chewed off by something or rather, someone. (Spahr has dined on at least five porcupines who have dined or attempted to dine on his gardens. “Porcupines are, in fact, delicious,” he says.) These are the breaks when you’re cultivating food outside.

“Plant projects take a long time,” Spahr says.

This is on his mind because he’s just been through a few years of what he calls “medical insults.” Advanced Lyme disease for one, which was miserable, especially for someone used to walking miles every day. In 2016 he was treated for lymphoma.

“I’m a short-term cancer survivor,” Spahr says. “My long-term existence is not assured, trust me.”

Lessons though, they last.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols

 

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