Inside Ben Maleson’s Mushroom Mini-Empire

mushrooms
By Steve Holt • Photography by Michael Piazza

In a famous story from the Old Testament book of Exodus, the Israelites, famished from their wilderness wandering, ask God to send them something to eat. They ate better as slaves in Egypt, after all. As the story goes, God responds by sending his grumbling chosen people a strange but satisfying food with the morning dew—a food the Israelites named manna, literally translated, “what is it?”

Ben Maleson disagrees with those who say this manna was madeto-order and never to be seen again—he claims it was mushrooms.  But what makes him so sure?

And who is Ben Maleson?

Knowing a bit about Ben likely will explain the man’s peculiar theology.  Ben is a mushroom forager. His ability to locate rare and edible fungi is appreciated widely in restaurant kitchens throughout Boston and Cambridge. Over the last 30 years, the bearded, gray pony tailed Maleson has built himself a mushroom mini-empire and become arguably New England’s foremost authority on its “fleshy fungal fructifications.” He collects, brokers and sells mushrooms to some of the area’s most highly touted kitchens: L’Espalier, Trattoria di Monica and Evoo, among others.

In mushrooms, the 58-year-old Maleson has found much more than a profession—they are his life.

He met his wife because of mushrooms. He regularly attends mushroom conferences. (who knew those existed?) His library contains over 50 books just on mushroom identification. He nearly died in his early 20s because of them, albeit indirectly. Heck, when I first meet him, he’s even wearing a black mushroom T-shirt.  How did a professor’s son from Newton become The Mushroom Man, a self-described fungophile? Ben always starts his story the same way: “I was a hungry boy.”

A family friend in Vestal, New York, took the hungry boy and his entire family on their first foraging expedition in the woods, an experience that piqued the interest of both Ben and his mom. Ben still remembers the first little walk they took together back in their own neighborhood after their Vestal foray.

“She showed me one particular mushroom—the fairy ring—which is easy to identify,” Ben recalls. “I learned I could pick those on the way home from school for lunch and make myself a little sandwich.” A little less hungry now, Ben became a student of mushrooms, receiving identification books as gifts, talking to staff members at Boston’s Museum of Science and competing with his mom in absorbing mushroom trivia.

Ben continued to collect and identify mushrooms as a hobby, but it wasn’t until he was a broke leatherworker in his 20s that he realized he could feed himself with what he found.

“They were still plentiful [back then],” he says. “Nobody was really interested in them, so there was no competition at all. There was an abundance.”

A few years later, a friend saw Ben with some mushrooms and said, “I wouldn’t eat those if I were you.”

“Why not?” Ben replied. “These are the most popular mushrooms in the world.”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” his friend said. “I think you could sell those.”

Ben began selling the mushrooms he foraged for pocket cash. As Ben tells it, he went from being broke and only able to afford eating mushrooms to being broke and not being able to afford eating mushrooms.  Then, one ill-fated afternoon would change Ben Maleson’s life forever.

And you guessed it—mushrooms were involved.  It was 1985. Ben was on his way back to Boston from a foraging expedition in upstate New York with the trunk of his tiny car full of morels and false morels. Ben made the 6½-hour drive on that cold day forgetting that morels give off a toxic gas that, in its concentrated form, makes one sick.

Arriving back at his house in Boston feeling nauseated, Ben went to make a cup of tea on a small alcohol stove on his porch. As he explains it, “I didn’t light it the right way, and I never got that cup of tea.”

In the hospital with full-thickness burns over much of his body, Ben’s temperature shot up to 107° at one point, and he nearly died.  When he was finally released from the burn center at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, Ben’s doctors told him he would never use his hands again to work with leather.

“When I got out of the hospital, I just sort of slipped into what was still possible for me,” he says. “I could still pick mushrooms.”

A Fungal Excursion

Ben was right on time to pick me up. As I exit the Forest Hills T station, I see that he’s parked in the circle drive waiting. He’s in a two tone minivan with the middle seat removed. Collecting baskets are strewn about in the back seat, and the smell of mushrooms is thick.  It’s 9 on Sunday morning, and we’re going foraging.

“So, where are we headed, Ben?” I ask.

“I don’t know if it’s string theory or whatever, but we’ll hit several different spots,” he answers. “The plan is to eventually end up in a park in Randolph, but I always get distracted.” As we pull away from the station, we find ourselves on a quiet, residential back road. Only when I notice Ben’s eyes darting back and forth along the roadside as we drive do I realize we’re already foraging.  Ben can identify what he calls indicator spots along the road where mushrooms may be growing.

“Lot of times I’m looking for big trees, because they support different kinds of mushroom growth,” he says. In this area, he says, oak and ash trees are typically indicator spots.

Ben often forages from the car out of necessity as he drives between pickups and deliveries. Besides the occasional longer trip to a forest or a park, Ben tells me, he typically gets in two hours of foraging a day, if he’s lucky. The rest of his day is spent buying mushrooms from the market, cleaning and drying mushrooms he’s foraged, and then fulfilling orders to some of Boston’s premier restaurants. He says he tries to use the weekend to catch up on paperwork, but many times he ends up getting pulled back into market visits or restaurant deliveries.  Welcome to the rock star life of a mushroom forager.

“It’s madness,” he says.

Suddenly, we pull off the main road and park. Hiking up a small embankment into a lush patch of forest, Ben is closely examining the base of each tree he passes. No mushrooms. Too hot and dry, he says.  As we traverse the hill back to the van, I perk up when I see a fungus growing on a stump at my feet. “What’s this?” I ask.  “Good eye!” Ben says. “Those are turkey tails.”

He immediately pinches off a piece and sticks it in his mouth.  “Here,” he says, handing me a piece. “If you chew on this, it tastes like Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup.”

He’s right. Ben tells me that turkey tails are one of the many kinds of mushrooms that are widely believed to boost immunity and prevent tumors. Besides medicine, Ben tells me mushrooms can also be made into ice cream—chanterelle sorbet is his favorite.  Believe it or not, we’d make it all the way down to Foxborough—by way of Milton and Stoughton—without finding another edible mushroom. Some dried up chicken mushrooms and a few parasitic varieties on trees, but nothing “worth the gas to drive and find it,” as Ben puts it.

Still, foraging with Ben Maleson further underscores just how mushroom-centric the man is. Nearly everything—from road signs to shop names—reminds him of mushrooms. Twenty years ago, Ben even wooed his wife Mei-Ching by writing down the Japanese and Chinese names of mushrooms then taking her foraging.  We pass Foxfire Street. “Foxfire,” he says. “That’s what we call the light that glow-in-the-dark mushrooms give off.” He seems unable to resist hunting for mushrooms. He crams in these foraging drives whenever he can, even when he doesn’t have the time. Over and over, he goes back to his “spots,” places he has found several huge chicken mushrooms or containers-full of black trumpets. He is fairly secretive about where he forages, though. To people who ask, he tells them, “I could show you, but then I’d have to feed you poison mushrooms.”

He’s joking. (I think.)

“Part of the food team”

After his accident, Ben began building his business, one restaurant at a time. Cambridge mainstay Upstairs at the Pudding (now Upstairs on the Square) was one of his first clients, and word-of-mouth spread from there.

“The kitchen community is kind of interconnected, so a line cook becomes a sous-chef, then becomes an executive chef, then leaves and starts his own restaurant—or any number of permutations of that scenario,” Ben says.

Today, Ben balances around 30 chefs at any given time. Mei-Ching, a floral designer, helps him stay organized on the business end.

Many of the chefs Ben works with have become mushroom advocates as well. T.W. Food is inviting mushroom lovers to the home of the great food writer James Beard on October 20 to sample Ben’s early fall bounty at a five-course tasting of mushroom dishes and wine. L’Espalier also host periodic mushroom dinners, at which Ben delivers several short mycological lectures introducing each course.  L’Espalier, Ben’s biggest client, serves “modern French-New England” cuisine. Deeply committed to local foods, Chef Frank McLelland prepares many of his dishes with organic vegetables, free-range poultry and pork, and fresh eggs from his Apple Street Farm in Essex.  For the mushrooms, though, he turns to Ben. McClelland features no fewer than three mushroom dishes on his menu at any given time and even took Ben on a backpacking expedition with his kitchen staff to forage for mushrooms.

As is the case most places where Ben delivers, each day he’s met with a cacophony of greetings from the wait and kitchen staff.  “It really is a community, the kitchens—the sous-chef, the front of the house staff,” he says. “I’m part of the community, and people treat me that way.”

James Hackney, who has been the executive chef at L’Espalier for almost 10 years, says he appreciates Ben not only for his knowledge, but also for his passion and humor.

“He keeps us all entertained in the kitchen,” Hackney says.

Mushrooms fall into three main groups: mycorrhizal, saprophytic and parasitic. It’s not surprising that Ben’s favorite is mycorrhizal, a type that form a symbiotic relationship with nearby plants and trees to help each other thrive. Mycorrhizal fungi receive nutrients—sugars, mostly—from chlorophyll-bearing plants and in turn give back micronutrients, minerals and moisture to the roots of the plants.

Similarly, Ben gives the greater Boston culinary community insight into a food that most of us know little about. Ben’s passion for mushrooms is almost evangelistic, a trait he probably learned from his mother. At the farmers markets years ago, Ben says she’d convert kids from mushroom skeptics to true believers, simply by suggesting they try different types until they actually liked one.

But are they “the perfect food”? This is when Ben launches into his unusual exegesis of Exodus 16, the biblical story of God providing the Israelites manna from Heaven. He’s methodical in his interpretation.

“If you read the description in that section, it says the manna was like hoarfrost on the ground, which describes the mycelium [the vegetative part of a fungus],” he explains. “[Manna] was like the birds came down to rest on the branches—like hen of the woods or chicken mushrooms. It was sweet, like honey wafers, like the taste of raw porcini. God told them not to set it out overnight or else it would turn to worms—the same thing happens to mushrooms when you leave them out.This wilderness that they were wandering in was a wilderness of cypress and cedar trees at the time, so that’s a perfect environment for mushrooms.”

He makes a pretty convincing argument. I can certainly testify that when I’m famished and get a whiff of sautéed chanterelles or portabellas—even some run-of-the-mill white buttons—one word comes to mind: divine.

Typical 16-hour day for Ben “The Mushroom Man” Maleson 5:00 am: Gets up and calls market. “Can you hold on to six boxes of porta bellinis?” he might ask. “I’ve got a special order.” 5:15am: Goes back to bed thinking, “I hope they don’t just write it down and sell it to somebody else anyway.”

5:30am: First alarm. Hits snooze.

6:30am: Second alarm. Gets out of bed. Boils water for coffee. Starts cleaning mushrooms. Goes through mushrooms from day before to remove bad ones. Put bad mushrooms in compost.

8:00am:Makes list of things to pick up at the market, the importer and the Chinese suppliers. Makes list of everybody who called for mushrooms the night before or who he anticipates will call. Decides where to go to forage for his own mushrooms.

9:00am–noon: Goes to the market for early procurement.

2:00pm: Kitchen deliveries. First chefs arrive at around 2pm. “Some don’t get in until 3 so I’m always having to juggle my schedule to adapt to what the chefs need. If I get there too early, I’m just wasting my time. I’m going around from kitchen to kitchen and I only have a Thermos of coffee from the morning or maybe my wife made me a sandwich. I’m seeing all this good food, and I’m hungry and kind of going crazy.”

4:00pm: Gets call from anxious chef wondering where he is. Contemplates checking on a mushroom spot a few blocks away, then thinks better of it. Goes anyway.

5:00p.m.: Finally takes mushrooms to anxious chef. “What are you doing coming in at this hour?” he barks.

7:00pm: Returns house. Unloads mushrooms into refrigerators.  8:00pm: Cleans mushrooms. Completes a few other odd jobs. Is exhausted, with no time to do paperwork.

Restaurants To Sample Ben’s Mushrooms

Erbaluce, Boston
Chuck Draghe, chef-owner
What Ben says: “Our favorite chef for clean presentation of outstandingly fresh food ingredients. He will educate you on every aspect of the dishes he prepares.”

Evoo, Cambridge
Peter McCarthy, chef-owner
What Ben says: “One of our oldest clients and biggest proponent of local products. Peter made news buying a 50-pound hen of the woods while chef at Seasons’ kitchen.

La Morra, Brookline
Josh Ziskin, chef-owner.
What Ben says: “Our local favorite for a meal with friends. Josh apprenticed in LaMorra, Italy, and really appreciates the mushrooms in classic Italian cuisine.”

L’espalier, Boston
Frank McClellan, chef-owner
What Ben says: “Probably our best account, he hosts special mushroom dinners a few times a year.”

Trattoria di Monica, Boston
George Mendoza, chef-owner
“Our North End favorite. Monica’s always uses the freshest ingredients in simple, straightforward food. He only buys the highest quality mushrooms and truffles.”

T.W. Food, Cambridge
TimWeichman, chef-owner
What Ben says: “Another mushroom lover who especially appreciates artisanal local collections. T. W. Food is presenting a menu of mushrooms for the James Beard House in October.”

RECIPES

MARINATED MUSHROOMS WITH BLUE CHEESE

MUSHROOM RISOTTO

HARVEST VEGETABLES AND PENNE IN A WILD MUSHROOM BROTH

YUKON GOLD POTATOES STUFFED WITH EXOTIC WILD MUSHROOMS

Steve Holt is an East Boston—based freelance writer and “fun guy.” Fall—with its foliage, fairs, and first frost—is his favorite season by a nose over summer. You may contact him at steve@thebostonwriter.com.