Saturday morning, I woke to a thick grey sky threatening rain—perfect for tramping through the woods looking for wild mushrooms. I had been talking about this day for months, encouraging, marketing, and motivating my students to sign up for what I think of as a grand adventure, three hours in the state forest hunting the elusive Chicken of the Woods, Hen of the Forest: porcini, and other culinary fungi. It is high season for mushrooms, and the weather has been warm, humid, and rainy for weeks. The time was right.
When I arrived to the ranger’s station in Jenny Jump Park, the group was assembling. Many I knew from my classes, but others came from far and wide, having heard the news through cyberspace. Three young college students, notebook in hands, eager to learn how to forage for food in the wilderness; an OB/GYN-turned-homeopath on her second exploration of immune-enhancing fungi; a couple curious to know how to identify mushrooms around their lake home; a photographer with camera; a gardening couple already invested in shiitake mushrooms growing at home; a housewife who loves nature with a photo book of wild mushrooms; a mother with her sullen 12-year-old son; myself, the intrepid wild foods hunter; and our leader, Lara Greenspan, a mycology expert, who had been taught as a child by her Russian immigrant grandfather how to forage for mushrooms.
We were all eager to begin, despite the light drizzle of rain beginning to fall, but then Lara arrived with bad news. “I have been out looking in the woods and there are no mushrooms,” she told us. Our faces fell in disappointment. “But,” says she, “I know a path that may yield some treasures.” And with that ray of hope, we drove to the site, intent on finding whatever mushrooms we could. With the first discovery, we gathered around Lara to hear of the toxic nature of the little brown mushroom, or what was to become nicknamed LBM. She told us that there are fewer toxic mushroom species than edible mushrooms; however, there are a lot of those poisonous wee rascals and we should learn to identify the toxic ones first before diving into the forest’s culinary delicacies. Most importantly, she emphasized, never to eat a mushroom unless you know for a fact that it is non-poisonous—and best to consult an expert just to be on the safe side.
There are 10,000 different mushroom species in North America, with names as varied as Destroying Angel, Puffball, Honey Mushroom, Death Cap, Yellow Brain Fungus, Jelly Leaf and Black Trumpet. The wild mushrooms help maintain a natural balance in the order of the forest by producing enzymes to break down the leaves, soil and other forest matter. Lara always identified them first by their Latin names, and showed us how to dig gently around the base, a bit deeper than the stem, to bring up the whole mushroom for proper identification.
With this bit of information, we began a slow, deliberate walk down the path, through the damp leaves, and over rotted logs and fallen trees. Everything on the ground was shades of rust, mustard yellow, burnt umber and deep brown. It was difficult to train the eyes to look beyond the visible. Someone called out, “Look for what is not normal, a break in the pattern,” and then suddenly, something, yes, a flash of red. A leaf was lifted, and there was a small red mushroom, like something from Alice in Wonderland. After that find, the forest yielded up her bounty with one species of mushroom after another. When I came upon a young white Destroying Angel dead center in my path, I took a moment to contemplate the history of acquiring such a name. Here was the one mushroom responsible for the majority of deaths due to mushroom poisoning. So perfect in its form, brilliant white, yet fatal to ingest and a dead ringer for the button, horse and meadow mushrooms, which is why people often mistake it for safe and edible.
Each time a mushroom was found, we would circle Lara and hear her stories of the medicinal use of some mushrooms, powerful immune enhancers used in both herbal and pharmaceutical preparations; or the sad outcomes of those who had emigrated to America and, thinking they had found the same edible species of mushrooms they had enjoyed in their country, were mortally poisoned by the lookalike species. We soon learned not to trust the brown, white, red, or yellow mushrooms we were finding, and, catching a glint in Lara’s eye, I knew she was ensuring none of us would attempt to forage alone with only this small bit of experience.
When the sun broke through the trees, we had small bags of puffballs and honey mushrooms destined for the evening dinner. The sullen 12-year-old had turned into an enthusiastic young boy, digging mushrooms from the ground and presenting them to Lara with great delight. There was no sign of the cell phone he had been using earlier to text, indeed for any of us, as nature took us into her embrace and shared something so very special. That small amount of intense focus in the forest was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable afternoons I have had in quite a while. I highly recommend that you join a group of foragers with an expert guide and head off into the woods.
Next: A delicious wild mushroom lentil salad recipe!