When her two kids were little, Diane Summers-Yelton would frequently spend time with them outside, far away from the TV, exploring the natural world.
Then living in New England, the young mother would carry one child in a backpack and lead the other by the hand and head off on a nearby park trail. “I would say to my son, ‘Let’s stop and roll this log over and see what’s under there. Oh, some bugs and snakes and other lifeforms.’ Then we’d turn the log back over gently to keep their habitat safe.” When they’d run into a spot where a mushroom was growing, her son would inevitably say, curiously, “What is this?” She’d pull him away with the warning, “That’s poison!” And they’d keep moving. Along with the lessons she taught her children, Summers-Yelton soaked up the time connecting with the outdoors. “I’m happiest when I’m in the woods, at peace.”
Flash forward 15 years or so. Summers-Yelton’s kids are grown, she’s given up her corporate career and she and her husband are settled in the Milwaukee area. Her love of nature and “huge thirst for knowing what I don’t know” has turned a hobby into something much bigger. In the course of those double-digit years of MKE living, she’s become an expert in the world of edible fungi, turning what for some might be a personal diversion into a full-fledged business – called The Mushroom LADY LLC (all caps in honor of the few “rock star” women who forage avidly in the area). She has delivered hen of the woods, morels, pheasant backs, chanterelles and many more species into the hands of over 30 restaurant chefs from Milwaukee west to Lake Country and north to Sheboygan.
Trusting a forager takes time. There are no diplomas she can show a chef to prove she’s legit. But she doesn’t take no for an answer, and she built her clientele through full immersion in the craft – from near-incessant study (“I read one book in particular for 10 years. It’s like a bible”) and spending as much time in the woods as some people do in an office. The occupational hazards are numerous. She has been stared down by a coyote, nearly attacked by a bobcat, and has gotten lost more times than she can count. And things are nearly as treacherous on the business side. Summers-Yelton calls mushroom foraging a “ruthless” business, and prefers not to name her chef customers for fear that competitors will try to steal her clients.
Home cooks can buy from her directly through her Facebook page, The Mushroom Lady LLC, or at the Whitefish Bay Farmers Market in summer. And during truffle seasons, she operates a steady import business, bringing in the prized black and white truffles from France and Italy.
In spring – in three layers of clothing, carrying her lucky backpack (packed with, among many useful things, two compasses, a silver marathoner’s thermal blanket, emergency whistle, lighter and magnifying glass) and often accompanied by her hound dog Marshall – she ventures to places that aren’t overrun with professional and amateur foragers, seeking out certain indicator plants to find the beloved morels. She admits to not typically finding many of them. But she always has plenty of mesh mushroom bags and large trash bags in tow in case she finds a “mother lode” of any species.Early spring also finds her in pursuit of the pheasant back mushroom (or dryad’s saddle). From April to November, “each month reveals a few different wild edible mushrooms,” she says. This month, we’ll begin to see Mother Nature preparing to reveal her bounty. Of the Mother, Summers-Yelton says, “She never disappoints. She delivers, and I take – respectfully.”
You like truffles? The Mushroom Lady is stocked with various delicacies, including imported black truffle oil, handmade black truffle butter, handmade pink black truffle salt, and black truffle honey imported from France. To buy them, contact her via her Facebook page.