Having grown up in Pine-Strawberry, Zach Graham took a culinary class offered at Payson High School, which led him to a career in cooking.
Besides cooking, Graham has a passion and fascination with foraging.
He is currently cooking at the PieBar in Strawberry, but his self-taught love of mushrooms brought together 15 local folks willing to follow Graham into the woods recently.
The culinary industry takes in the fringes of society, he said, as we lead the caravan to the top of the Mogollon Rim.
“I have a natural affinity for it. I like the structure and the room for creativity,” he said of cooking. He enjoys the creative side, the mixing of ingredients, and the learning.
His interest in food led him to an interest in health and healthier eating, which led him to discover mushrooms.
That passion put him on a journey of learning how to forage for and identify edible mushrooms, an endless quest based on the amount of mushrooms available.
He admitted a bit of nerves as we ventured north, but those seemed to dissipate once he was in his element as he educated us all on foraging for mushrooms.
As the group unloaded from their vehicles about a mile east of Highway 87 up on the Rim, Graham gave us directions on what to look for.
Mushrooms like the soil near Pine trees. Since we are in the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest, what a better place to look, he said.
Take small steps and look down. Look for a small mound of pine needles, sometimes only an inch or two high and maybe as much in diameter. Brush the needles away and you’ll find a mushroom, he instructed.
Much like delighted children on a field trip, the group was almost instantly showing Graham the mushroom they’d found. Is this poisonous? Is this edible? What is this one called? The questions came rapidly.
The group found a rhythm and never strayed more than a mile from where we parked. Everyone brought home at least a pound of mushrooms.
Graham sat in the meadow as excited students would bring a haul of mushrooms to be identified and sorted.
Mushrooms with spots or “pox” on them are generally poisonous. One group started taking pictures with their mushrooms, smiling if it was edible and frowning if it was not.
As a group, more than a dozen different mushrooms were found, about half edible. Some Graham had to go home to his books to identify as there are hundreds of variations. The colors were fascinating, the shapes diverse, and the amount discovered was incredible.
“I enjoy the full circle of it,” Graham said of the foraging, collecting, cleaning, learning, preparing and, of course, enjoying the mushroom that you found in the woods.
“It’s a satisfying process.”
A process he shared with the group.
“I learned I am good at teaching what I know,” he said.
The mushroom group agreed.
He’s continuing to share his knowledge and help other beginning mushroom hunters. You can join the Facebook group Rim Country Mushroom Guild to see pictures and ask questions. Graham will lead a mushroom hunt for $25 per person. If your interested, get a hold of him on the Facebook page.