A Triple-Part Tale of Mushroom Hunting
February 3, 2012 § 4 Comments
I discovered the beauty of mushrooms as a busy and mildly lazy college student. They served as magical culinary currency. It’s ugly to bribe your friends with cash. Produce a handful of mushrooms, and you can get anyone to ditch their homework and hang out at your place. A whole bag, or some actual shitakes, and they’ll use them to cook dinner for you. I investigated cheaper ways to obtain these wonders. This currency can grow on trees, I rejoiced.
Still, mushroom hunting remained for the adventurous and experienced. I had heard the whispered warnings – mushrooms were dangerous if you hadn’t been picking them your whole life, and only idiots and experts went after them. I kept my ears pricked for years, waiting for someone to tell me they had fungal degrees and awards and would take me with them. Take me with you! In November, when a visiting friend said he was headed out to the park to look for mushrooms with a few friends, I couldn’t ask fast enough. I think I flipped a few words around in haste.
My friend told me his friend was an experienced mushroom hunter, and that this fellow and his girlfriend were taking the kid they babysit out before math time. We arrived at Forest Park, the largest park in the country within city limits, at a leisurely 10:30 am. I had imagined European truffle hunts at 5am with a pack of dogs. Instead, I was met by a friendly young couple and a baby that may have been able to walk, but certainly not far. He’d been “a few times, I guess, but I have this book” and she’s been “hah, never.” The baby had a pretty good grasp of the word “mushroom” and our cutoff time was for (I had misheard) his nap time.
We pointed to a spot on the map with a promising woody name, and strolled idly along among the trees and across the open grasses. We lingered under pines and poked at their bases. Here and there mushrooms revealed their wet brown caps. It was a refresher course in childhood. As a little thing I had lived with eyes locked to the ground, spying out treasures. I chose the obligatory ski coat based on the number of pockets, which I diligently counted in alpine store waiting rooms. I stuffed everything I discovered into those pockets – discarded chess pieces, broken bits of metal, colored plastic and bent wires – until I was a chubby round tomato-colored child. The ski coats seemed, like my lifejackets, invariably red. And here I was again, bribing the ground to give up something precious. The old skills were sharp and there was fungi here, and there, and there. I snatched them each up in my fingers. “Ah,” my companions said appreciatively, “LBMs.” Is that good? “Little Brown Mushrooms. Practically unidentifiable, to us.” The mushroom book stayed closed.
We admired each little find’s texture and color and held them out to the child where he was perched in the girlfriend’s arms. “Mushroom. You want to touch?” She would say, and he would shake his head vigorously, or very occasionally, reach out a trembling finger and contact the strange object. I had prematurely admired them as babysitters, that they would take a child on such an educational adventure. I admired them all the more now that I knew they were bringing a child too young to even appreciate what was happening, although he was happy the entire time. Finally, a spread of small red mushrooms got the treatment, and the book came out. Pages and pages of mushrooms in every color and shape, waxy and slimy, tasty and treacherous, pictures of mushroom toast and mushroom hats and cookies and incredible discoveries. They were’t edible, it said, but they were suitable as a dye. My friend bundled them up in a plastic bag, and told his stained white canvas shoes that they were in for a new hue.
More mushrooms were examined and discarded – mid-sized white ones, difficult to pinpoint for sure, and inedible ones. Mostly there was walking and chatting and idle glancing, not the frenzied expedition I had always imagined. It was relaxing. Then, under a patch of low brush reminiscent of ivy, a gleam of orange. We bent, broke, and rubbed it until we were sure. A false chanterelle often has a more brittle stem, hollow in the middle. A true chanterelle has a solid, rubbery stem and doesn’t bruise. It was real. Nearby, concealed under the same viney plants, were more hidden orange gems. We cut off the soggy bits and stacked them in a paper grocery bag. I could barely stand the excitement. We drove to someone’s house, slit them into thin strips, and cooked them in butter the way my grandmother used to. The rest we put away for the evening, and made a buffalo and chanterelle pie. Well, someone brought a package of “buffalo”, and the paper wrapping read “yak”, but no-one there could distinguish the finer points of large beastly flavor.
I had only gone because I thought there was an expert, but I couldn’t help but think about how it had only been a couple inexperienced folks with a small guidebook, a random park, and a relaxing walk. I had been told so many times that the first mushroom hunt is a disappointment and not to give up; but this was a victory! A luxuriously flavored yellow-orange win. I couldn’t wait to go again. Four days later I flew home to the snows of Vermont and then to Africa. All I had time to do was poke my head in at the shop where I worked and request a few mushroom guides as my christmas bonus. Armed with these, I plucked LBMs at the Trimet bus-stop and spent the ride learning the frustrations of defeat.
When I returned to Portland it was January. Winter rains had set in and out-of-season had no meaning to me so long as it was wet. Water makes the Pacific Northwest a mushroomer’s paradise, the books told me. They also told me to ignore our fungaphobic culture, and that there was no danger in eating a mushroom so long as you 100% positively ID’ed it. Any doubt, and just leave it behind. If you were sure it matched every descriptor, you could cook up a little, eat it, and then eat the rest later. No questionables, no uncooked mushrooms, and you were perfectly safe. A few friends and I headed out to Forest Park with the GPS and the books. I was the only one who had ever been.
Where we ended up wasn’t the visitor’s center I was expecting, but a back road up the side of a hill that trailed off into a towering mossy forest. There were other cars there, too, so we parked and set off on foot. To one side the mud and vines twisted upwards; to the other, the road cut away and down below were the fuzzy green trunks of the trees whose fingers reached toward us, dripping, rows of ferns growing along their backs like spines.
Even off-season, winter life was everywhere. We found the flat brown plates of turkey’s tails, chewed by the aborigines; a brain-like bright orange mass of goop known as witch’s butter; and dark mushrooms so woody we couldn’t break them off the trees they grew on. Our reward was clean air and the sunlight through the mist and the vast, mysterious trees. From the dark underside of a rotting log we plucked several clear white mushrooms. They were soft and appeared to have been made by jelly poured into a mold – one solid, shaped mass of a uniform gelatinous substance. They were wonderful to touch, and when we got them home, they turned out to be false hedgehog fungus (after the spike shapes under the cap), edible soaked in milk and honey or candied. One giant artist’s conk we pried off a tree provided a hard white canvas for the scratchings of a friend.
Last week, I undertook my third little mushroomy enterprise. Several enthusiastic freshman girls, one of whom had helped found a local mushroom club, hadn’t been out much either. When I begged them to go with me after a short mycology talk some students had given, I was laughed at a little. “It’s not mushroom season,” I was told, “What do you expect to find?” Emboldened by my last adventure, I said it was good practice identifying non-edible ones…and who knows? “Chanterelles go out of season after the fall, and morels won’t be in till the spring, so you certainly won’t find anything edible.” I held out secret hopes. I have never listened well to others on the topic of nature. I teamed their car up with my books and we headed to Forest Park.
The girl’s car was hot red with flames painted on the front and physics formulas for the energy and trajectory of it leaving the earth’s atmosphere on the back. I brushed aside the piled CDs and fended off curious questions about my life. Little bits of ribbon and hanging objects were stitched to the seat backs and roof. My best friend is an artsy physics major, I sighed to myself, where do they all come from?
We sprung out of the car and into sunshine. The sat few weeks have been as un-Portland-like as possible: warm, bright winter afternoons in the place of customary gray rains. Wandering along among the trees, as I had done that first day, we paused now and again to admire the beauty of small, soft brown mushrooms, and for me to shake my head and refuse to draw out my book for LBMs. Some small false chanterelles lurked about; we criticized their poor disguise. We did identify some red-yellow mushrooms with a curiously waxy texture, and with that victory, couldn’t have asked for more.
Then, peeking out under the low viney brush, a large, flat plate of orange. I peeled back the loose leaves and pulled up a magnificence the size of my open hand. “That look like…a chanterelle,” one of the girls couldn’t help but observe. “Nonsense.” My heart pounded as I replied. “They’re out of season.” The gills were perfect, long and slim. The stem was thick and bent, unwilling to break. I cut it with a knife. It was solid. The color was ideal, and the flesh refused to bruise. It smelled of chanterelle. Was it my memory, invading with delicious reminiscences?
We bagged it. And then we bagged another, nearby, and dogged the area, searching for companions. There were in the end maybe five of nearly equal size, and a few small ones, all preparing to go soggy but not yet ruined. At home, I sliced off the slimy bits and washed off the dirt. They were perfect. Perfect chanterelles. There was no question, no doubt for any of us. We slit them into strips and piled them high. We sauteed them in butter and onions and garlic and rosemary. We cooked bacon, and cooked more mushrooms in the bacon fat. One bread run later, we had chanterelles sandwiched between fresh white slices and bacon and cooked onions. The sandwiches of a lifetime.
Stuffed, I sat and watched them try on my green eyeliner and blue lipstick and upturn my boxes of wigs. They picked 3 each to borrow and tromped off, happy, full, with little saran-wrapped sandwiches we couldn’t finish and strangely colored hair.
Our victory was complete. We had won chanterelles in winter.
A Final Note:
The book we used most was All the Rain Promises, And More… by David Arora, a marvelous volume of fungal wit and wisdom. The author has squeezed as many hilarious and helpful hints as fit into a proper pocket print. I have a few others, but this is the #1 book I would recommend picking up if you are headed out into the wet woods of the Pacific Northwest. If elsewhere, I recommend it anyway. The author is also a master of alliteration, and I am properly awed and jealous.