I’ve been indoors too much lately – working on my new e-commerce business, reading and sometimes just too much internet. I’m a member of several Facebook outdoors groups and lately this has been my outdoors substitute product. I look at pictures of other people’s fish, primitive skills being honed by other woodcraft practitioners and view other people’s baskets full of fall mushrooms. Especially the baskets of fall mushrooms.
But today I’d had enough of indoorsmanship. I just needed to be out in the woods but it was also true that my envy of brimming mushroom baskets got the better of me. I’m not a mushroom pro but I can recognize at least 3 different edible types and early October is the season for two of these: the giant puffball and the equally giant “Chicken of the Woods.” And maybe this sums up my fungal ID capabilities well: If it looks like a soccer ball or it is the brightest orange toadstool in the forest, I know to eat it.
I headed for an out-of -the way little park near my home east of Pittsburgh, contiguous with a much larger tract of woods. This was random. The whole dark, cool and permanently damp Pennsylvania forest is all mushroom habitat, as far as I can tell. I could almost taste a giant puffball pizza as I exited the car.
And I immediately wished I knew my mushrooms better. I found about 10 species in the first 10 minutes, only one of which I could identify and it wasn’t something I wanted to eat. I was only giving myself about an hour and a half, plenty of time I thought to bag a 3-pound mushroom that I’d enjoy over the next week, a wild tofu substitute product. It was still odd to think of these fungi appearing almost overnight for an ephemeral reproductive display, during which brief time they might be captured and eaten by me.
On I went. I photographed mushrooms at seemingly every bend of the trail and new mushrooms all the time, but nothing appetizing. Had a more aggressive and early-rising hunter beaten me to the punch, sweeping through at daybreak to fill a 50 pound sack with my Chickens of the Woods? Maybe I could blame the deer. They had certainly been working on some of the more plentiful mushrooms.
And then, I was out of time. My bag was as empty as when I’d left the car. But, rounding a bend, there was a glimmer of orange on the ground and a cluster of diminutive trumpets called out to me! Chanterelles! The name came to me even though I’d only enjoyed them once before. Looking a bit closer, they appeared rather withered, beetle-nibbled and generally done for. But I wasn’t going home without fungi – they were harvested, rotting parts, ants and all. I would eat mushrooms tonight if it was the last thing I’d do! (I probably wasn’t the first woodsman to speak these prophetic words.)
I charged ahead but was arrested around the next bend by a glowing alien mass adhering to an oak, a blinding orange radiance dimming the rest of the forest. Transfixed, I went to it, though I don’t remember taking steps. Laetiporus sulphureus! Fairy magic hung in the air and I started to salivate as I fell to my knees before this gift of the forager gods. (Crass critics of my transcendent moment might say that I’d already been into some of the tiny capped mushrooms.) In everyman’s words, this was Chicken of the Woods and I cut 5 pounds of it from the tree.
I managed to get lost (again, in my defense, I hadn’t sampled any glowing fungi!) and when I found my way back to the very recognizable central pond, I was startled to see another, somewhat larger mass of bright orange mushrooms clinging to another tree! Unbelievable! I opened my mushroom bag and removed the filet knife. But then I hesitated. These titans had distinct caps and stalks. I wanted badly to eat these but it couldn’t be denied: these were Jack-o-Lanterns and Jack-o-Lanterns are not food.
Dejected, my gaze fell, where it rested on a 7 pound brain cluster of Grifola frondosa – Hen of the Forest. The Hen of the Forest joined the Chicken of the Woods in my Aldi frozen foods bag which was now stretched to capacity. I wished for another ‘shroom enthusiast as I walked up toward the parking lot so that I could loftily inform him that this mushroom is called Maitake by the Japanese which means that they will dance with joy when it is found. I could sympathize.
I took liberally from both of today’s large clusters but didn’t take all of either – I left a little. And maybe it’s just my training as a fisherman – I don’t harvest resources to the ground. I’m not a mushroom scientist and don’t truly understand their reproduction well but I don’t think I could have gone wrong leaving a bit.
10 pounds of mushrooms came home with me, though my elusive and wily puffball lives on.