I was introduced to Jean Yarbrough at a party several months ago.

Scratch that. I introduced myself to Jean Yarbrough at a party several months ago. A lot of local food world celebrities were there, from caterers to cookbook writers, cider makers to chefs, but in a far corner of the room, Yarbrough – petite, elegantly dressed, her face lit up with pleasure – caught my eye. Several people stood around her in a knot oohing and aahing as she showed them photos of something on her telephone. I crossed the room to see what the fuss was about.

Yarbrough, who I later learned is a government professor at Bowdoin College and the author of books on Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt, was showing other guests pictures of mushroom tarts and mushroom soufflés she’d baked with wild mushrooms she’d foraged in the woods near her Harpswell home.

It was just after she turned in that book on Roosevelt, in fact, in 2012, that her relationship with wild mushrooms took a serious turn. As a reward for 12 years of work on “Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition,” she promised herself two things: One, she would learn to kayak (she did). Two, she would learn to forage for edible mushrooms.

Jean Yarbrough harvests near her home in Harpswell. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

She already knew how to identify chanterelles, a golden mushroom much sought after by cooks. She’d been harvesting those from the woods around her home ever since a Bowdoin colleague told her they grew there and taught her to spot them. “Chanterelles were the only game in town for me. I just thought, I want to know what else is out here.”

Up until then, her late husband, Richard Morgan, who taught constitutional law at Bowdoin, was the outdoorsman in the family, an avid fly fisherman, bird hunter and a Registered Maine Guide. “I never really liked the woods,” Yarbrough said, “and it wasn’t until I discovered this mushroom thing …”

She set herself a goal of learning one edible mushroom a year, a timeline that has accelerated as her expertise has developed. She bought herself books. She joined the Maine Mycological Association and a Maine mushroom club on Facebook. (“It’s the only thing I do on Facebook,” she said.) She went on mushroom forays, learning from “really kind, helpful people who were generous with their knowledge.” She mastered spore prints; studied Latin names; taught herself gills, pores and smells. Early on, she hired David Spahr, author of “Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms of New England and Eastern Canada: A Photographic Guidebook to Finding and Using Key Species,” to walk her land with her.

An academic whose field is political philosophy, Yarbrough is a slow and careful reader. “You can’t just skim it. You are working with texts of the greatest philosophers in the world,” she said. Mushroom identification requires similar care. Today, she can identify some 50 mushrooms, edible and non, though she only harvests and eats a fraction of those, among them black trumpets, hedgehogs, maitake, oyster mushrooms, porcinis, yellow-footed chanterelles and – this year’s grand discovery – “the elusive matsutake.”

“I’m a cook and I forage for good taste. I’m very narrow in that sense. I don’t feel that I need to know every mushroom in the woods,” she said. Unless it’s a bad year for mushrooms – and this year was an exceptionally good one – she doesn’t even bother to gather those the field guides classify as “good.” Surrounded by what they rank as “choice” mushrooms, why bother?

Yarbrough on the hunt. Foraging has changed her attitude toward the weather. “People who forage want more rain, and they want it at the right time. You hear about a tropical storm coming and you say, ‘Oh yes, please.’ If you’re a sailor, not so much.” Derek Davis/Staff photographer

A ‘VERY NICE HOBBY’

Yarbrough first foraged for mushrooms she was a little girl, tagging along with her Lithuanian great-grandmother. She has vague memories of her mother cooking up big orange mushrooms from those expeditions. Were they chanterelles? She’s not sure. But when, as an adult, she first discovered chanterelles on the trail, “It was as if something deep in the DNA said, ‘This is you. This is your calling.’ ” She laughs.

Now she is teaching her own grandchildren to forage. “The funny thing is they all enjoy the hunt for the mushrooms, but none of them really enjoy eating them.”

That’s something she understands. As a youngster, her idea of eating a mushroom was to visit her grandmother, “and she would allow me to open a can of button mushrooms. I thought that was just fabulous.” Today, Yarbrough dismisses supermarket button mushrooms in a single word: bland.

Yarbrough came of age in the era of French food, eating at fine French restaurants and learning to cook the classics. She talks about cheese soufflés, mushroom tarts, velouté sauce, butter (melting, it’s the sizzling soundtrack to some of this interview). As a graduate student, she’d take breaks from studying to sauté onions and make stews. Today, if she is puzzling over the direction of an article or a lecture, she does so while chopping mushrooms or making bone broth, a four-day affair. Cooking is distraction, aroma therapy and profound pleasure.

During mushroom season, Yarbrough spends as much as an hour a night cleaning her haul, then sautéing the mushrooms in butter and freezing them. Chanterelles with chanterelles, porcinis with porcinis, like with like. “I have literally a whole freezer full of these things, and I will cook with them all winter long,” she said. She also dehydrates mushrooms to use later. (It’s not safe to eat wild mushrooms raw.)

When you visit her kitchen, it’s not hard to guess at Yarbrough’s self-described “very nice hobby.” There are mushroom coffee cups, mushroom dish towels, mushroom salt and pepper shakers. She is at the receiving end of umpteen mushroom-themed tchotchkes. “I am so easy to buy gifts for.”

I asked Yarbrough if I could tag along with her when she went foraging. What was I thinking? I barely know her. Worse, I am a journalist. “The problem is that no forager I know would ever take you to the prize places they have discovered,” she replied in an email. Later, when I asked her where she finds mushrooms, generally speaking, she took me at my word – generally. “In the woods,” she said, and joked that she would have to kill me if she disclosed her hunting grounds.

“But although I won’t tell anybody where I find my mushrooms, I give away mushrooms all the time,” she said. “And it makes people very happy because these are mushrooms you can’t buy. It’s something people get excited about as opposed to, say, a bottle of wine from the supermarket.”

HER MOBY-DICK

Until last month, Yarbrough was a neighbor of Michael Sanders, an editor and author who has written books about food in France and in Maine – and, as it happens, a mushroom forager. Sanders and his wife moved to France this September. Before he left the U.S., he divulged some of his secret spots to Yarbrough, including where she might find matsutakes.

Large, meaty, pungent, phallic-shaped, storied and very expensive, matsutakes are said to smell like a blend of dirty socks and Red Hots. They have never been successfully cultivated. Yarbrough first tasted one five years ago, a gift from another forager. “I was over the moon. I was so excited. I said, I want to find this. It’s hard to find because most of it is underground.”

But with Sanders’ bestowal, she unearthed a patch this fall, and since then, having gained confidence, she’s discovered them elsewhere, too. The find has changed her perspective.

“I’m sort of done now,” she said, “by which I think I mean I’ll just take it as it comes. This was my white whale. This is the one I really wanted to learn. What’s next is just hoping next year is half as good as this year was.”

Sautéed maitake mushrooms that Yarbrough harvested near her home. Derek Davis/Staff photographer

MAITAKE BREAD PUDDING

Recipe from “The Wild Table: Seasonal Foraged Food and Recipes” by Connie Green and Sarah Scott. Jean Yarbrough says this is “a wonderful recipe … that I have made for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, and I’ve passed it on to students, and they send me pictures when they eat it at their Thanksgiving tables.”

Serves 4 to 6

About 6 ounces brioche, crusts trimmed, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (4 cups)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for the baking dish
3/4 pound maitake mushrooms, cleaned and torn into large petals
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch green onions, white parts and some of the green, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh chives
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
4 large eggs, well beaten
1/4 cup grated Asiago
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

Yarbrough holds a maitake she’s just harvested from the base of a tree. “I hope I come across as being careful, but not crazy. Obviously, (foraging) is a mildly dangerous thing,” she said, “but I think there is risk in life and I am prepared to take calculated risk.” Derek Davis/Staff photographer

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish. Have a larger baking dish that will hold the 2-quart baking dish nearby. Bring a large pot of water to a simmer while preparing the pudding.

Place the brioche cubes on a baking sheet and toast until just golden brown, 8 to 9 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Heat the butter in a large sauce pan over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted and bubbling, add the mushrooms, tossing to coat evenly with the butter. Add 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, 1/8 teaspoon of the pepper, the green onions and the garlic and mix well. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released their liquid, then continue cooking until the pan is almost dry. Add the white wine and cook until it has evaporated. Stir in the chives and set aside to cool.

Stir together the cream and milk in a large bowl. Whisk in the eggs, the remaining half teaspoon salt, and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Add the Asiago, 1/4 cup of the Parmesan and the cooled mushrooms and mix well. Add the toasted brioche cubes, gently stirring them in, then press them into the liquid to fully moisten them. Set aside for 10 to 15 minutes while the brioche absorbs some of the liquid.

Pour the brioche mixture into the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the top evenly with the remaining 2 tablespoons Parmesan. Place the dish inside the larger baking dish. Pull the rack partway from the oven and set the stacked dishes on it. Pour the simmering water into the larger dish until it comes halfway up the sides of the pudding dish. Bake until the top of the pudding is puffed and golden brown, about 1 hour. Remove to a wire rack and let the pudding sit at least 10 minutes before serving.

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