Rooting Out the Dirt: A Conversation with Ryan Jacobs




HOW DO FUNGI resembling “the strange, mangled droppings of a forest troll” pull in auction prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and what are the effects of such frenzied competition on the people who work in the industry that harvests and distributes them? This is the question at the heart of journalist Ryan Jacobs’s first book, The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus.

Jacobs is a longtime crime reporter and currently an editor at Pacific Standard, so his dive into the world of truffles isn’t of the food-porn photo-spread variety. (That said, he does include several drool-inducing scenes in the book.) Through deep reporting, he builds his story from the ground up, interviewing everyone from working-class truffle hunters in damp Italian forests, to eccentric scientists in the United States seeking to understand vexing fungal secrets, to truffle moguls in gleaming tasting rooms who are selling a story as much as a product (and often not even the product they claim to be selling). Among other things, we learn about daring truffle heists, truffle-related murders, truffle dog poisonings, and rank corporate truffle malfeasance. In other words, while something special happens underground to create the unique, earthy flavors of the truffle, it never, metaphorically, escapes its origins. As Jacobs puts it, “[S]omewhere, above, another underground awaits.”

The Truffle Underground is as much about human nature as it is about a little-known corner of the food industry. In the guise of a crisply written and engaging story about a rare, astronomically priced delicacy, Jacobs has produced a contemporary morality tale about capitalism and consumerism. While he exposes the underbelly of the truffle industry, he reminds us that consumers themselves drive it. If we are what we eat, then we best not let our voracious appetites devour our better values.

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AARON SHULMAN: Since I’m always interested in how the sausage gets made — or perhaps more aptly, in this case, how the truffle gets to the plate — can you tell me how your magazine article for The Atlantic about the underworld of truffles became a book?

RYAN JACOBS: The answer is going to sound like some hokey parable about reportorial or creative persistence, but I promise it’s true. At one point, back in 2013, I considered not finishing a piece on the subject for The Atlantic. I was sitting somewhere — on a couch or in a coffee shop —  in Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, looking over interview transcripts, and thinking, “Fuck! What the hell am I doing?”

When I started reporting the piece, I thought I was going to be able to tell some grand narrative about crime in the industry, but the problem was that I didn’t have the funds to travel to Italy or France. I did the best international phone reporting job I could, and what I was left with were these brilliant little kernels and snippets from people all over the place. They were good, but I was really struggling with how to turn around and make that into a compelling piece. A lot of sources said, “Hey, if you want the full story, you’re going to have to go to Europe. Most of these guys — who are going to be able to give you the real-deal goods on these events — speak Italian and French, and they’re not going to trust someone they’ve never met who’s calling them from halfway across the world.” I really wanted to go, but financially, I simply couldn’t make it happen.

In any case, after much consternation and false starts, I determined that I still had more than enough to publish something valuable for The Atlantic’s audience. To my surprise, the first, scratch-the-surface piece received a ton of attention on Twitter and shot to the top of Digg.

Several months went by, and I hadn’t given the story much more thought until my literary agent, Cassie Hanjian, suggested I consider turning the article into a book. The prospect of having money to actually travel and truly report it out meant that I could tell this strange story that I imagined telling from the outset, so I went about crafting a proposal.

Fortunately, editor and food writer star Francis Lam, at Clarkson Potter, [an imprint of] Crown, totally understood what I was trying to do. Basically, he was like, Go get ’em dude! And so I went.

The title of your book is a powerful metaphor. I took it to mean, on the one hand, that truly unique, special objects and experiences — like the truffle — require a mysterious, hidden process in order to come into being. On the other hand, these special things produce shady, hidden underground processes ranging from violence to fraud. What are your thoughts on this duality, and how do you see the truffle relating to other topics that you’ve covered?

You’re explaining the title better than me!

But yes, The Truffle Underground tries to get at this duality. Rare, scarce, or luxury commodities and goods — basically shit well-off people like to buy — tend to come with certain fanciful stories about how they were created. In some cases, that’s part of the allure of the purchase. And in the truffle’s case in particular, there really are parts of the process that are legitimately magical, secretive, and beautiful. But in some respects, portions of the stories we tell ourselves about certain products are complete and utter bullshit, and that’s what a lot of the book gets at as well.

The problem is that the economy and systems of production don’t care about the stories marketers, salespeople, and consumers tell. Businesses care about making money and getting stuff to market. That means there’s a lot we don’t know about what we consume. There are entire unregulated submarkets and criminal markets attached to the production and distribution of products people tend to equate with integrity. That doesn’t mean those industries are bad — it means some people within those industries or even outside them have found odd, illicit, and occasionally repugnant ways to compete and cash in.

I’m really interested in those hidden worlds and who profits from them. I think that most people probably figured that voluntary carbon credits — the kind that big companies buy to offset emissions and presumably protect swaths of forests in the Amazon — are mostly legit. But some of the scams I looked into in that marketplace for The Atlantic are breathtaking.

Of course, there are certainly some industries or products where you’d expect a certain baseline level of criminality and kind of standard run-of-the-mill crimes. I am intrigued by the strange, completely unexpected targets of criminals — the really weird ones who decide to build whole schemes around products that you’d need to have a pretty esoteric understanding of to pull off. Who does that? Why? And why do the victims — some who’ve really been personally, brutally harmed — remain in the business? That’s what I attempt to answer in the book.

From what I know, you’re mostly a crime reporter, not a food writer. How had your previous experiences prepared — and not prepared — you to write this book?

I’ve always enjoyed food and wine and had a fascination with both, but they weren’t ever something I thought I was in a particularly good position, expertise-wise, to write anything about. If there was no crime in the truffle business, I don’t know that I ever would’ve tasted — let alone written a book about — truffles. But this position helped me see angles and subjects that food writers wouldn’t necessarily be looking for or be very interested in. There was a sense of wonder and surprise that I don’t know if a seasoned food reporter would have had. And I also knew that, on the other side, there were crime reporters who never would have touched this story because it’s just too weird. This gave me a degree of creative latitude throughout the project, which kept me engaged.

I wasn’t prepared to sit down and try to describe the taste of high-class food in a compelling way. But I think the newness of that experience was one I wanted the reader to have along with me. That intoxication is one of the answers to the mysteries presented in the book. My hope is to make food lovers feel quite differently about eating truffles, and to give true crime folks (and those who don’t care about food as much) an entertaining tale and maybe an excuse to splurge. Either way, knowing more about your food gives you a more powerful experience at the table.

I have a feeling you have a lot of good stories related to your reporting (hounding people, strange experiences, uncomfortable moments, memorable characters) that didn’t belong in the book but are nevertheless entertaining. Could you share a few?

There were many.

On hounding, I tried with all my might to get the lawyer of someone in a French prison to let me visit him, but ultimately he refused to respond. Part of this is in the book, but while I was in France, I went to the prisoner’s old home, where the convict’s wife and family still live. I actually trespassed onto the property, knocked on the door (no one answered), and snooped around a bit. At about the time I was staring at their chickens, I saw headlights at the end of the driveway. The fate of the last person to trespass on that family’s property was not a pleasant one, so for a minute I really began to worry. With the help of my French translator, I had a fairly tense back-and-forth with the woman in their yard. She basically looked at me like she wanted me to spontaneously combust.

Once I left, the attorney and his office avoided several of my attempts to run questions by the inmate. The sense I got is they just wanted to be done with the case, but I still don’t know if any of my attempts actually made it back to the guy sitting in prison. I just wanted to give him the opportunity to respond to what happened, to give us a sense of the danger he felt at the time of the incident in question. But I ended up having to rely on publicly available court testimony for that.

We cut a fairly memorable guy from the science chapter of the book. He was an early Silicon Valley engineer, went to Stanford, later had some pretty high-profile positions at big corporations. And then one day he decided he was going to give up all that and try to figure out how to grow truffles in the United States. It was a fairly strange pivot, and he called himself a CTO, chief truffle officer, which I thought was an entertaining dad joke. I think he’s having a little success, but the bottom line is we’re nowhere close to having a real growing industry in America.

On a less serious note, I ended up drinking a lot of wine and smoking a fair number of cigarettes with some of my sources. Not that that’s particularly spectacular, but I don’t smoke cigarettes! With some of the tougher Italian truffle hunter types — who are more working class, rougher around the edges — I felt like sharing a smoke helped establish some rapport. At one point, I ended up in a smoky banquet hall in a tiny village in Italy, with a bunch of game hunters and truffle hunters, who love to shit-talk each other. All of us were guzzling table wine and laughing, and they were tickled that I had come there to ask them questions. They couldn’t quite believe how an American guy had even ended up there: like a lot of places in the book, this place was really far off the map. They kept asking me when I was going to return. That was pretty fun and memorable, but it didn’t really fit in the book — just this shared experience of humanity with men who didn’t speak my language, who were welcoming me into their village, who were helping me and inviting me to come back to eat and drink with them again.

While reading, I was reminded at moments of Michael Paterniti’s fantastic 2013 book The Telling Room, about a mythical Spanish cheese. Were there any particular books that guided you while writing?

I’ve heard so many good things about that book — I’m going to go buy it now.

I think all narrative nonfiction writers say this, but Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief (1998) is one of my favorite books, and it’s something I returned to several times while I was writing. Partly to remind myself what good writing and characters look like, and partly to reassure myself that other people had told strange stories about rare markets before. Sometimes, when you’re feeling helpless in the writing process, you need a comfort blanket. Orlean’s writing about orchids was that.

I’ll say something else about Orlean. She has proved that, if you report hard and well, research like hell, and write with verve, the most obscure subjects can make for really magical reading experiences. When I was covering global affairs at The Atlantic, I made a habit of hunting down odd international crime stories, especially ones that had hardly anything to do with the news cycle. My editors let me do it, but in a certain sense, I felt like that freedom was a gift from Orlean. She had carved out a space for all of us where weird stuff could matter. I’m sure hundreds of reporters and writers feel the same way.

The extremely important — and rather dark — message of this book, which you speak to directly near the end, is how the intensity or pleasure of a consumer experience can cause us to look the other way ethically. This problem has probably been around since the dawn of civilization, but it’s especially visible in our current century (blood minerals and cell phones, for example). Any thoughts on how to reckon with this issue?

This is a difficult one. We all know it’s possible to make smart, humane decisions about what we consume — it just takes some research and a little work. But I don’t want to pretend I’m some kind of paragon of good consumer habits — sometimes pleasure and convenience are more powerful motivators than morality.

As a consumer, you can’t care about everything, unless you want to be the most impossibly boring or pedantic person. But I tend to think that it helps to select a few things to care about, buying-decision-wise. And the things that you decide are worth your time and moral attention, I think you should commit to quite passionately. And maybe your passion will change other people’s minds, and so on and so forth, until the world is just a little bit better.

With that all said, I think even just informing yourself about the inherent evils is better than interfacing with your pleasures blindly. Better to know what you’re dealing with.

How has writing this book influenced the way you cook and/or eat out?

At the grocery store, I do look at ingredient lists more closely, especially in comparison to the labels on the front of products. I tend to ask more questions of servers or people I’m buying from, especially when a menu is overly specific or intentionally ambiguous. Like, where did this product come from? What area? Does the chef know the supplier? Et cetera. Generally, it’s made me a slower grocery shopper and a more dubious (and probably more annoying) restaurant patron. 

Do you cook with truffle oil? And if so, since obviously there are so many fraudulent products out there, which one do you use?

I don’t. Like sources in the book, I tend to agree that fresh truffles are so good that you shouldn’t spoil that experience by using oils, a lot of which contain synthetic chemicals. However, there is one guy who I trust makes fresh, organic truffle oil, and he’s in the book. If I were going to buy a truffle oil, it would be from him. That’s Rosario Safina and daRosario Organics.

What was the best meal you ate during your research?

I’m a little embarrassed to say that it was the one that comes at the end of the book. That was among the best meals I’ve ever had, both in a professional and personal capacity. The tablemate and setting were so surreal, given all that I knew at that juncture, and the white truffles were mind-bogglingly delicious. I definitely felt like I had stepped into some kind of strange Wes Anderson film. The scene practically wrote itself. People will have to read the book to figure out why I’m being so vague.

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Aaron Shulman is the author of The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War (2019). A freelance journalist, he has written for The New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Believer, among many other publications.


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