The Journey

Above Tanner Hammond sits in his backyard, holding his homegrown pink oyster and Phoenix oyster mushrooms. Photos by Chad Riley

“I have people send me pictures of mushrooms almost on a daily basis,” says Tanner Hammond. It makes sense. If you have a mushroom-related question, chances are, Hammond — better known to devotees and social media followers as Mushroom Man Tan — has an answer.

Several years ago, Hammond was just about as unfamiliar with mushrooms as anyone else. His interest in fungi stemmed from his culinary background. “I got into all this because I worked at Dragonfly, both in Fairhope and Daphne, for 11 years,” he says. “I was into smoking meats as a hobby while I was a chef, and that led me to want to source the best-quality meat, which got me into the woods. I didn’t see any deer out there, but I came out of the woods with pictures of around 30 mushrooms.” While some would have shown off their pictures and left it at that, Hammond didn’t stop there. “I told my stepdad, ‘I’ve got to be able to eat one,’” he recalls. “He told me to buy a book. So, I bought a book and ended up in the wormhole. And that’s what turned me into the mushroom man.”

Now, there’s no going back for Mushroom Man Tan. He’s all in. “I’m doing a million things,” he says. “I can’t stop myself.” He’s a frequent face at markets around the area, selling his mushrooms, tinctures and grow kits. Other times during the week, he spends a couple of days delivering across Mobile and Baldwin counties, sometimes enlisting the help of his wife Sarah, who has earned the nickname Little Miss Mushroom. If you don’t hear from Hammond one morning or afternoon, he’s likely out in the woods leading a foraging trip. That’s right; in just a few years, he has gone from a newbie to an educator on all things mushroom. “I teach foraging classes about every two weeks on wild mushrooms. I didn’t grow up doing public speaking or anything,” he says. “Literally the first forage I did, I was walking with my hands in my pockets because they were shaking. It took a while to get used to it. I love teaching now though. Sometimes I still get butterflies, but I just take a deep breath and once I say five words, it’s all good.” He has the credentials to back up his teaching, too, as a certified wild mushroom ID expert through the Health Department of Alabama. His classes take participants on a hike in the woods (Bayfront Park in Daphne or Medal of Honor Park in Mobile are their frequent meeting spots), teaching them the steps of mushroom identification, the difference between edible and toxic varieties and best practices for harvesting and transporting foraged mushrooms. “What I love about it is that the mushroom world brings the most diverse groups of people together,” he says. “I sell out of my forages regularly and there’s not a particular group of people who show up. It’s the most unexpected group of people hanging out in the woods just talking. It’s just everybody.”

As Hammond’s interest in mushrooms grew, he had to try his hand at growing them himself. “When I first started, I just had a small shelf that I wrapped in plastic wrap,” he says. He then expanded to an entire room in his house. Now, his crop grows in a climate-controlled shed in his Daphne backyard. “I can grow everything all year,” he says. “I currently grow 10 mushroom varieties all year round. It’s easier than growing plants because mushrooms are going to do their thing. I’ve grown all kinds of stuff, and, by far, mushrooms are the easiest.” Mushrooms grow fairly rapidly — even the slower-growing varieties take only a few months to produce. “Yeah, we don’t eat the grocery store mushrooms anymore,” laughs Hammond. After he harvests his produce, he sells it to customers and local restaurants. Some of his current clients include Locals, Red or White in Fairhope, Sebastian’s, The Wash House, Char 32, Southwood Kitchen and Fisher’s in Orange Beach. His homegrown mushrooms make up most of his restaurant supply. The leftover fraction is made up of what he forages. “The foraging part just became legal last year, to harvest wild mushrooms and sell them,” he says. “I was the second person in the state to get the certificate to do it. I’m still the only person in South Alabama with that certificate to legally sell them; there are maybe about 10 people in the state with the certificate but they’re all north of here.” As far as which wild variety is Hammond’s bestseller, there’s just one option. “Chanterelle mushrooms are pretty much the only variety that I forage and sell. They grow in the summer for about three to four months, and they grow in the hottest and most
humid time of the year,” he says. Chanterelle mushrooms grow prolifically, meaning they produce abundantly. “I’ve picked about 50 pounds in one day before,” he says.

Hammond created a climate-controlled shed in his backyard where he grows many of the mushrooms he then sells to his clients.

Staying true to his culinary roots, Hammond puts on cooking demonstrations and hosts private dinners to show off how to cook different varieties in a showcase of their versatility. And since his foray into foraging began with a focus on food and its origins, it’s not surprising that his work also emphasizes holistic wellness, through both food and medicine. “I do the cooking side of all of it as well as making medicinal extracts for the health benefits,” he says. The extracts, also called tinctures, are made from both homegrown and foraged mushrooms. Hammond employs a double-extraction process involving alcohol and the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms and water, which makes the mushrooms easier to metabolize. Different varieties come with a host of unique health advantages, from immune support to reducing inflammation. “All the tinctures have different benefits,” he says. “I just put some in my coffee in the morning and my sparkling water at night.”

“I’m working really hard on building a community down here, an outdoor community of people who get together and harvest things from the wild and make medicines and food,” says Hammond. One step in that process was starting the first Gulf Coast Fungi Festival this past October. Hammond recruited experts across our Southern region who specialize in foraging, mushrooms or native plants. The festival hosted education sessions, lectures and demonstrations. Education, he says, is his favorite part of being the local authority on mushrooms. After all, that’s how he came to be the mushroom man, by researching and educating himself. “I like to get people familiar with mushrooms because they’re just such neat things,” he says. “You almost have to find somebody that’s into it or it’s kind of a hard thing to study on your own. And people are just really interested in everything mushroom right now.”