On a recent evening, Ellen Bischoff was driving home to West Philadelphia from her job at a Main Line travel agency when a flash of color in the woods caught her eye.
There, not a dozen yards from the road, was an enormous downed oak tree and, growing from it, about 50 pounds' worth of orange-gold chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms.
It was, she said, the "mother lode." So Bischoff, 42, pulled over and got to work. "I had a pry bar. Some of those sections were like two feet across. They were huge!" It was enough not only to fill her refrigerator but also to sell (for an amount she declined to disclose) to friends, strangers on Facebook, and even a local restaurant.
Foraging may be an old-fashioned hobby, but it can now also bring serious money, thanks to Philadelphia's restaurant boom and to chefs who are embracing wild foods. Mushroom hunters — ranging from amateurs like Bischoff who happen upon edible treasures practically in their own backyards to professionals who sometimes travel hundreds of miles in search of virgin territory — are increasingly knocking on restaurant kitchen doors to turn their fungal finds into fast cash (or at least to barter for a free meal).
The maitake and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms now in season can be a particular bonanza for part-time foragers because they are easy to identify and can often weigh more than 30 pounds apiece. Perhaps because of above-average summer rainfall, foragers say this has been the best year in recent memory for chanterelles and now for this autumn bumper crop that's filling the Instagram feeds — and the pockets — of the mycologically inclined.
"A lot of people will find these huge 10- or 15-pound mushrooms and then drive around the city, trying to sell them. It's like a get-rich-quick thing," said Andrew Wood, chef and owner at Russet in Center City. "There's a little bit of freewheeling bartering that goes on. Most of those guys are not professional negotiators. They're out there for a completely different purpose. For them, it's about the hunt. It's about finding a mushroom."
Such a windfall of maitake, also known as hen of the woods, was the gateway for Tug DeLuce of Kennett Square.
"I posted on Facebook and said, 'I found 50 pounds of hen of the woods. Does anyone want any?' " he said. "A guy I went to high school with was a chef in Philadelphia, and he told me to come down. He paid $200 for one mushroom. I told him I had 40 more pounds in my car, so he said, 'Go talk to this chef, and this chef.' "
Today, DeLuce sells foraged mushrooms to restaurants across the city; this year, for the first time, he has a distributor, Green Meadow Farm. He also runs workshops for other aspiring foragers.
"The wild mushroom industry on the East Coast is really new. On the West Coast, it's been around for 30 or 40 years, so there is an infrastructure for it. I started selling to restaurants five years ago, and I only knew of one or two other people doing it," he said. "Now, I've taught a lot of people — and a lot of my go-to spots that had been relatively untouched have been getting chopped. I'm training my competition."
DeLuce is OK with that. He's been working to grow an interest through prolific postings to his @two_gnomes Instagram account and to Facebook, where his Chester County Mycological Association page is now filled with posts seeking to crowdsource identifications — or just to show off impressive bounties.
Unlike DeLuce, most of those posters are strictly amateurs.
"Often, it's someone that has a love of hiking or hunting or fishing and they start noticing mushrooms and learning more — and it becomes an auxiliary income stream and a hobby," said Matthew Sicher, who started foraging when he was 15, hanging out in the woods with his future wife, Jesse Tobin. "It becomes the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There's this rush."
Now, Sicher and Tobin run Primordia Farm, a Berks County mushroom farm that also sources foraged mushrooms from hunters all over the country.
This time of year, Sicher is flooded with calls and texts from hopeful sellers — often with photos of their finds, carefully cropped so as not to reveal the location.
"Everyone has got their spot, and they're careful. Sometimes, it feels like a spy novel," he said.
"I have my spots, too. If people ask, I'll just facetiously say, if it's a windy day: 'You see that cloud over there? Just walk under that cloud.' "
Still, you may not have to look far to find edible mushrooms.
Bischoff has friends who stalk puffballs in Woodland Cemetery in West Philadelphia. Sicher has heard of foragers in Fairmount Park, and even New York's Central Park.
"A lot of it has to do with learning the tree associates," DeLuce said. "I can see oak trees for miles, just by the silhouette at the top of the forest. Then, you walk to the tree and check it out." Some of his friends even use Google Maps' satellite view to spot oaks, which have a "broccoli" look from above.
Skilled hunters can reap big rewards. DeLuce said he recently harvested 100 pounds of hen and chicken of the woods in just a few hours — potentially $2,000 worth of mushrooms.
But not every mushroom is salable.
Sicher said he has to be able to trust that the forager knows what he or she is doing, though certain varieties including maitake and chicken of the woods are considered foolproof because they have no toxic lookalikes that grow in this area.
And, he said, "often, I have to say: 'I'm sorry, but I can't accept this. It's too dirty or too far gone. And I can only work with you on this, this, and this variety, because it's on my back to make sure they're safe and correctly identified.' "
Tobin said restaurants look to foragers mostly for mushrooms that aren't easily cultivated.
"Chanterelles only exist in symbiosis with living trees, and it's hard to do that in a pole barn. Or, for puffballs and for chicken of the woods, it's just silly to cultivate them when you see how prolific they are seasonally," she said. Though, she added, Primordia hopes to start cultivating chicken of the woods soon to meet the growing, year-round demand from vegan restaurants.
Wood, at Russet, prefers maitakes — as in his celery root and goat cheese ravioli with braised maitake and browned butter.
Now, DeLuce is working to sell Wood and other chefs on the many lesser-known varieties he finds across Southeastern Pennsylvania.
"In the summer, I could find 100 species of edible mushrooms, and they range across the rainbow — purple, red, green, orange, even blue," he said. "I want to bring interest to these obscure mushrooms you wouldn't know are edible."