We traveled to a top secret mushroom foraging spot in the greater Portland area with forager Keagan Hammond Rule.
At the dawn of civilization, food was an ever-present need. Its sources were well known and understood. With the passage of the millennia, and establishment of the supermarket, many of us have lost that connection to our food. But Mainers have retained a long and proud history of living off the land—and so has Keagan Hammond Rule.
Taught the basics in the woods and fields surrounding her childhood home by her mother (who in turn had been taught by her mother), Hammond Rule grew up at ease in nature. When it was clear to Hammond Rule that foraging was her calling, she officially apprenticed under her aunt, another skilled forager.
“You have to put in the time, study, learn from others in the woods. You can’t just go out on a guided tour,” says Hammond Rule, who lives in Portland. For the entire first year of her apprenticeship, she studied only what not to pick. “She made me learn all the poisonous ones first,” she says. “When in doubt, throw it out.” Only after Hammond Rule had become proficient was she allowed to move on to collecting edibles, a trade she has been practicing now for more than 10 of her 32 years.
Life as a forager moves to its own rhythm. “It’s all weather depending. If it looks like it’s going to be nice, I get all my baskets together and head out. I can usually pick about 20 pounds of mushrooms in a week.”
Hammond Rule’s knack for finding the tastiest edibles, as well as her attention to detail (not all foragers wash and trim their product as she does), has earned her many loyal customers. “I sell mostly to restaurants in the Portland area. I get a sense of pride when I see my produce on menus of nice restaurants. People go out to eat to enjoy themselves and it makes me happy to be able to enhance their dining experience.”
Hammond Rule, who operates under the name Wild Foraged Maine, is also now selling her product to North Spore of Westbrook, which in turn brings her mushrooms to local farmer’s markets. “So now anyone at the market has access to my mushrooms,” she says. “That makes me really happy.“
While mushrooms make up the bulk of Hammond’s business, she also forages for spring fiddleheads, fresh greens, rose hips, sumac flowers (“they make excellent tea, super high in vitamin C”) and cat tails. “The stalks are edible and delicious, but they are becoming endangered in Maine due to being pushed out of their natural habitats by invasive species of marsh grasses…so I will only harvest them if there is a healthy population.”
Climate change, overharvesting and habitat loss, as well as the growing tick population, create difficult challenges for the future of foraging, but it is clear that Hammond Rule loves her work. “It’s so satisfying to really know where your food comes from and how to find it. It just tastes better for some reason.” Many satisfied diners agree.
Heather Martin lives on the coast of Maine with her honey, two sons and assorted animals. When she’s not working with various museums, art programs and nonprofits on community building, she’s usually off causing mayhem with the above mentioned crew.