“Oh, I know Mike,” seemed to be the first sentence off every persons’ lips when I asked how they found Gentleman Forager’s Lobster Mushroom Jamboree. Upon reflection, it makes sense to know the founder of the foraging business before showing up with a car full of camping supplies in Swanberg, Minnesota to spend two nights in a tent with the promise of a mushroom foraging expedition and six meals prepared by Minneapolis Chef Taylor O’Brian. General admission to the event—which ran from August 13-15—cost $300, which included camping, all meals, live music and guided foraging from the Gentleman Forager himself, Mike Kempenich.
Jamboree goers had all sorts of reasons for their interest in mushrooms. Some were invested in the sustainability of local plant-based meat substitutes—which foraged or home-grown mushrooms have increasingly been in the spotlight for. A school nurse and mother of three told me she considered herself a “lifelong learner.” Halfway through an online graduate program, she decided she’d enjoy a long weekend in the woods and pick up a new skill before school starts back up.
Universally, it appears everyone experiences a kind of rush at the potential of finding their dinner growing on a fallen tree in a public park.
“I always think that’s how I’ll die,” joked career forager Jaime Rockney; “I’ll just be driving and think I see Chicken of the Woods (a large yellow-orange mushroom) in one of those trees and get in a car accident.” I laughed from the passenger seat as she drove me and three others into the woods for a convoy. Rockney, who has three certifications for the identification and selling of mushrooms, offers guided foraging expeditions, articles and insights on the foraging scene in Minnesota at her website, chickofthewoods.com.
But mushrooms aren't just a fungus in the forest—a large portion of their appeal comes from being an eco-friendly alternative to meat. Producing a pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of water and generates only 0.7 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions, according to a Mushroom Council Study. But a pound of beef produces 14.8 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions, according to Scientific American. Additionally, up to 1 million pounds of mushrooms can be produced on a single acre of land. As deforestation becomes increasingly problematic, a mushroom obsession doesn’t seem so odd after all.
“I wanted to find something that was a little more rewarding on a personal level,” Kempenich said. “All these years later sitting around like this on a morning reminds me, ‘Oh, I kinda did that.’”
O’Brian was slathering maple butter onto apple pie French toast as 30 early-to-rise foragers were talking as they lined up, compostable cups of coffee in hand, ready to start the day. Kempenich’s calm sense of satisfaction felt earned in every way.
With the addition of catering business Forager Eats, the new mushroom products like shiitake logs and ongoing identification classes, Kempenich likely won’t be catching his breath any time soon, and certainly won't be deficient of fungi.