Kent State art professor digs up fame as “The Mushroom Hunter”

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Mushroom- MCT Campus

Adam Cook

Don King is uncovering a world underfoot that many of us overlook; He is the Mushroom Hunter.

An adjunct faculty professor in the Art Department at Kent State, King has kept an eye out for mushrooms since he stumbled upon a PBS cooking show 10 years ago.

The show featured “an Irish husband and wife who went into the woods and gathered a basket full of odd-looking and very colorful mushrooms,” King said. “I decided I wanted to do that.”

That chance viewing led King down the path of mycology—the study of fungi—and along the way a social media following grew.

His website now attracts visitors from around the world and his Facebook page is nearing 6,000 likes.

“Mushroom hunters are passionate and love to see what others are finding,” King said.

Despite finding renown as the Mushroom Hunter, still, for King, the thrill is in the hunt. King picks mushrooms two to three times a week and leads a handful of group picks throughout the year.

“The main draw is to be in nature, outside in a peaceful environment, right at the peak time,” King said.

In addition, King pops up at festivals and nature centers across Northeast Ohio to give presentations on mushroom hunting. This past spring, he gave a talk at the Ramp Up Peninsula, a festival celebrating the ransom, a wild leek.

“Kent, and the midwest in general, is great for mushroom hunting,” King said. “We have dozens of edible species that grow throughout the year.”

According to King, a good tip for the beginning mushroom hunter is to set out with a particular mushroom in mind.

“Know what’s growing in the season, know what you’re hunting, and then, know where to look,” King said. “For instance, many people don’t know there’s a symbiotic relationship between chanterelles and mature oak trees.”

Ohio State Parks Naturalist Erin Shaw said that, in recent years, the popularity of mushroom hunting in state parks has increased as the prominence of mushroom hunting on television has increased.

A mushroom hunter herself, Shaw teaches mushroom hunting classes. Above all, she stresses mushroom hunting etiquette.  

“It’s a fun thing to get out and enjoy nature; to be at the right place at the right time (and) explore, but be aware,” Shaw said.

A mushroom is a glimpse of a larger organism; the spore-bearing fruit of a large fungus that exists within the recesses of the soil.  Each mushroom is connected to a vast network of subterranean tendrils known as mycelium.

“Mycelium is connected to tree roots, stepping on the soil compacts the soil and that could potentially destroy habitat,” Shaw said.

Good mushroom hunting etiquette involves limiting mushroom picking to high-impact areas—such as campgrounds and picnic areas—and avoiding low-impact areas like nature preserves that might harbor protected species or be ongoing-research sites.

King contends mushroom hunting etiquette is important, but admits that blurred boundaries are often frustrating for mushroom hunters that find themselves in a patchwork of state parks and municipal parks and criss-crossing property lines.

For that reason, he urges people to contact the parks in their area to sidestep any potential issues.  

King certainly likes to get his hands dirty; He is also a mixed-media artist, occasionally teaching sculpture at the Kent State School of Art.

“I can’t say that mushroom hunting has affected my teaching, but I’m sure that I have influenced a student or two to become interested in wild edibles,” King said.

Instead, the mushroom hunter’s excursions into the forest feed another passion, cooking.

“I have been cooking since I was a kid,” King said. “With all of the mushrooms and other wild edibles that I find, my culinary landscape has definitely expanded. Wild ingredients offer a huge variation in flavor and texture, and I love finding new ways to cook them.”

Mushrooms and other foraged foods were the inspiration King needed to become a three-time winner of the Vegan Iron Chef competition, sponsored by downtown Kent’s Standing Rock Cultural Center.

“It’s my mission to dissuade people’s fears and to show them that they can safely forage for delicious wild edibles, as long as they do it with care,” King said.

That self reliance is a common theme for King. A little further up the path, he hopes to release a cookbook that includes mushrooms and other foraged foods, but forgos the recipes.

He envisions a cookbook that is really about teaching people to cook without the book.

“I taught myself to learn to cook that way,” King said.

With all that King does, whether as the Mushroom Hunter, a teacher, an artist or a chef, it all “exists on a continuum.”

“Whether a beautiful, delicious plate of food or a drawing or sculpture, they are all manifested through introspection and intuition,” King said. “Yes, it is a cathartic experience to create them, but ultimately, they exist for the enjoyment of others.”

Contact Adam Cook at [email protected]