Photo: Elisabeth Kwak-HefferanFarm to table? Please, so 2009. Forest to table is where it’s at right now. And while foraging one’s own nettles, berries, or chestnuts (or paying top dollar for them at hip restaurants) has both foodies and greenies all in a tizzy these days, no other gathering activity has quite the cachet of mushroom hunting. Hey, what’s not to admire when your commodity of choice is delicious, valuable, tough to find, and, in the hands of amateurs, may cause profuse vomiting?
Mushroom foraging, like all foraging, is by no means new. An elite and secretive society has existed around the activity (not unlike Scientology, in my imagination) for a long time. Until recently, only those skilled in the minutia of mycology attempted it, and they protected their favorite stashes with CIA-level discipline. But with wild foods so in fashion now, wannabe mushroomers are clamoring to get into the club.
I’m one of them. There’s the appeal of superlocal, fresh-picked food, of course. But mostly, I love mushrooms. Buttery chanterelles, thick, juicy portabellas, meatily satisfying lobsters … oh, have mercy! So when I began investigating urban foraging, there was only one choice for my first project. Not only am I a recent transplant to the fungi capital of America — the Pacific Northwest — but mushrooms are in full glory come fall.
So I set out last weekend to forage myself some ‘shrooms. Not knowing the difference between the tasty and the deadly, I figured some professional guidance was in order: I signed up for an organized mushroom walk at a nearby state park, sure I’d come home with an overflowing basket of goodies.
I should’ve known better, of course. Anything that sells for 12 bucks a pound at Whole Foods can’t be that easy.
A group of about 25 of us met our guide at 10 a.m. sharp. He was a real, live mycologist, and also a total killjoy. “Most of the species we’ll see today aren’t edible,” he informed us. I wasn’t the only one harboring dreams of foraging glory that morning: Faces fell around our circle, and several people ditched out altogether under the guise of “going to the bathroom.” But, he noted in passing, there might be some chanterelles out there. It was enough to keep hope alive.
We struck out into the cool, moist forest, eyes peeled for specimens poking through the trailside duff. Mushrooms were everywhere — bright shelf varieties, tiny brown caps, fat, purplish ones — and we harvested samples for identification. “Don’t eat this one,” our guide would say, examining the specimen closely. “Good find — definitely don’t eat that one. This little, yellowish one? That spells projectile diarrhea.”
Turns out there are only about 10 to 20 edible mushroom species in the Northwest, compared to “thousands” of poisonous types. Only a fraction of those would actually kill you, our guide reassured us. The rest will merely cause severe gastrointestinal distress. Some types are even technically okay to eat but interfere with the body’s ability to process alcohol, causing Linda Blair-style episodes if you have a drink within 72 hours of ingestion. There’s a neat party trick for you.
After two and a half hours of fruitless foraging, I was getting discouraged. Perhaps ferreting out the few treats among this bounty of dangerous mushrooms was something best left to the real experts. But then — chanterelles! That cream-colored, fan-shaped, drool-inducing prize among mushrooms had been sighted! Okay, one chanterelle anyway, found a few yards off-trail under a canopy of salal by a man who seemed to know what he was doing. While everyone oohed over the sample, I crashed into the brush from whence it came, frantically scanning for more. No luck. Savvier foragers had beaten us to them.
Mr. Chanterelle generously handed his find over to a cute little girl who’d been enthusiastically helping her dad identify mushrooms all morning. I briefly considered trying to trick her out of it — Hey little girl, wanna trade? — but decided that ill-gotten fungi probably bring stomachaches.
Our time up, we reluctantly headed back to the parking lot. As we strolled back, a lone woman emerged from the woods ahead of us, clutching a stuffed grocery bag. She glanced at us suspiciously (perhaps it was the wolflike hunger in our eyes?) and quickened her pace. “She knew where to go,” Mr. Chanterelle said under his breath. “It ain’t dog crap in that bag.”
So I headed home empty-handed, the walk leaving me sure of only one thing: If you find a mushroom, for the love of God, don’t eat it. But even though my first fungi harvest was a failure, my mind is racing ahead. My friend mentioned that her mom has a few secret mushrooming spots right here in the city. Perhaps I could sweet-talk her into revealing just one?
Well, I’m going back to that state park next year, earlier in the fall this time, and I’m going to reap a feast of chanterelles. And if you think I’m going to tell where that spot is, well, I’ve got a freshly foraged mushroom for you to try.
CARBON OFFSET UPDATE: Progress on making up for my Texas flight has been slow but steady. (Read about my personal carbon challenge here.) Biggest step forward: I bought a used bike! Total miles cycled instead of driven so far: 10.8 (hey, I live in a walkable neighborhood, okay?). Miles bused instead of driven: 25. According to NOAA, one mile equals one pound of carbon dioxide. On top of that, I air-dried my last load of laundry instead of using the dryer. If air-drying saves 700 pounds of carbon dioxide every six months, I roughly estimate that one load not dried equals 11.7 pounds of CO2.
That’s 47.5 pounds of carbon dioxide so far. Just 1,810.5 to go. Sigh.
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