Meetings With Remarkable Mushrooms- David William Fischer
At an autumn group foray in Upstate New York, a woman produced a tiny wicker basket. “It’s my morel basket,” she said, joking but also lamenting. “I found exactly one morel this spring.” “I only did twice as well as you did,” said another mycophile, “and I went out looking every weekend for two months.”
Everyone in the group whined longingly for the superior morel harvests of previous seasons. Eager to show off, I brought forth a snapshot of a dozen huge specimens. “Guess I had better luck,” I boasted. “This year?” asked one man, drooling.
“Yup, second week in June.”
“Where did you find them?” he asked, quickly adding, “I mean, in this county?” He knew full well that there is no better kept secret than the location of a morel patch.
Kindly but cautiously, I gave a few details: about 1,300 feet elevation, mixed maple and beech woods.
I love teaching people about edible wild mushrooms — how to identify them, how to prepare them, even how to find them. But my morel patches are mine alone. I hide my car very carefully when I go morel hunting. I put other species in my basket and stuff the morels inside my jacket. When I spot one, before picking it, I look around like a shoplifter who’s about to pocket a watch, making sure that no one is looking. I am very, very quiet.
And if you happen to bump into me as I leave the woods and ask if I have found any morels, the answer will be no. Not yet. Maybe next week.
And I’ll show you the pictures later.
I had barely begun trying to identify mushrooms with a single field guide when a short stroll in the woods produced three specimens of a handsome, smooth-capped bolete. I knew from the field guide that the family was fairly safe (and these specimens featured neither of the two warning signs) and that some species were highly prized by gourmets.
I was sure I had found the King Bolete (Boletus edulis). An anxious review of its field guide description — I was far too smart to make a foolish mistake! — confirmed my identification, except that my specimens lacked a white reticulation (a spore print, of course, seemed wholly unnecessary). This single inconsistency didn’t sour my appetite, though. I knew that there were many similar species, all wonderfully edible.
At home, I cut one mushroom into pieces, threw some butter into my pan, and tossed the pieces in to sauté them. What a delightful aroma! Surely, this must be the King Bolete, I decided. If it tastes only half as good as it smells, it will be wonderful! My wife agreed, eyeing the pan hungrily.
When the mushroom was cooked, I removed the pan from the heat and gently pushed the tines of a fork into the tender flesh of a piece of the cap. I was not just anticipating, I was drooling. With great expectations, my nose tickled pink by the aroma and my heart rejoicing at my prize find, I put the small piece in my mouth and began chewing.
I wonder what my wife thought as my smile quickly gave way to a bitter, hurt expression. I dashed to the kitchen garbage pail and spat the offender out.
“Yech!” I said. “This is worse than baking chocolate!”
A more detailed review of my field guide pinpointed my error. I had found the common Bitter Bolete (Tylopilus felleus). Since then, I have heard this same sad story (with variations) from many mushroom hunters. My nickname for this species? Fool’s Bolete. But I won’t be fooled again.
Chicken of the Woods, aka Sulfur Shelf
During a late summer trip to the Tug Hill Plateau east of Lake Ontario, I spotted an immense cluster of Sulphur Shelves as my truck bounced down an old logging road. I stopped, got out of the truck, and walked over to the tree. The cluster extended at least ten feet up the north side of a huge black cherry tree, but the lowest part of the cluster was eight feet above the ground. Without a ladder, I had one chance: a large fallen branch was leaning against the tree.
Using a long, sturdy pole as a brace, I carefully inched my way up the log. I was grateful: the mushrooms were so fresh that they dripped at the slightest touch! Bracing myself with the pole in my left hand, I pulled my pocket knife out with my right, opened it, and stuck it into the trunk. I reached into my back pocket for a folded paper lunch bag, shook it open, and carefully set it down on the log. I pulled the knife from the wood, cut off a nice, wet slice of mushroom, and managed to hold onto it with my knife hand. I aimed carefully, then dropped it into the bag.
I continued until the bag threatened to burst, then reluctantly worked my way back down the log. On the way home, I kept second-guessing myself about a dozen other ways I might have been able to harvest more. I had five or six pounds, but I left another fifty pounds on the tree. It never fails: the less prepared I am, the more mushrooms I find.
This is the first kind of mushroom I ever enjoyed. When I was eight, my father invited me to “go mushrooming” in the local cow pastures. I was sure I didn’t like mushrooms, but I was certainly willing to go for a walk with my dad, especially in a place where we might have to flee from an ornery old bull.
I don’t recall whether we found any mushrooms that crisp, carly autumn morning, but I do remember the first time I hesitantly tasted Mom’s “Creamed Meadow Mushrooms on Toast.” This, I knew at first bite, was seriously good food, quite unlike those horrid cans of pieces and stems.
For several years afterward, when I got off the school bus each fall afternoon, I’d grab a wire-handled tomato basket and head straight for the back pastures of the nearest dairy farm to find a side dish for supper.
To this day, the first one of us that finds some Meadow Mushrooms dutifully notifies the other. And I still like to go out and soak my sneakers on the dew-drenched grass with Dad.
Excerpted from David W. Fischer’s Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America. © 1992. Published by University of Texas Press, Austin. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
DAVID WILLIAM FISCHER
David William Fischer is a renowned mycologist, writer and environmental advocate who has been featured on NPR’s Science Friday, the National Geographic Channel, and other major media. His classic volume Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America (Univ. of Texas Press) has stood as “the” book on that subject for nearly 30 years. David is also coauthor of the encyclopedic Mushrooms of Northeastern North America (Syracuse Univ. Press).