Mushroom snobbery

basket of fungus

This is a basket of choice mushrooms, matsutake in center.

Every time I go out to pick mushrooms anymore, I see fewer and fewer mushrooms and more and more Subaru wagons, Volkwagens, Priuses and, occasionally, old beat-up Toyotas tucked away at random little pullouts in the woods. What all these vehicles have in common is that they would not typically be driven by the firearm owning public. I sometimes see people getting into those cars with bags and buckets. This past fall was like some kind of goddamn petit bourgeois scavenger hunt up on Larch Mountain. My little hobby has gotten so popular that I even overheard some people in sports attire talking about it at a wine event back in August. This year was a particularly bad mushroom year due to lack of rain, then came the cavalcade of yuppies-come-lately with Shun’s Bob Kramer line mushroom knives, North Face mushroom sacks, and golden retrievers in Arcteryx doggy jackets (just kidding, but they’ll probably be out next year) to scrape every last bit of fungal life from the dry, crusted Earth. Who even wants to get out of the car when you’ll soon be rubbing elbows with Bob, the VP of social networking from the startup Techitty Tech Solutions Inc.? I’d say, “You know what Bob, I think I’ll go look for Shaggy Manes near Dignity Village.”

But a Gangster doesn’t just bitch and whine when life hands him the mycological equivalent of lemons. A gangster bones up on his mushrooms. As a matter of fact, I’ve been boning up on mushrooms for years now in the expectation that foraging would come exactly to this point, the point where I have to compete with “breathable fabrics” and “trekking poles” and “trail runners” (oh haha, it turns out that I have a really fancy Outdoor Research raincoat. Thanks wife!) And while I still would rather find a pound of Matsutakes (Tricholoma magnivelare) than two pounds of Pine Spikes (Chroogomphus tomentosus), I’ve found that Pine Spikes are pretty damn tasty nonetheless. They’re slightly tart, almost Rhubarby. The texture is so-so, but my hippy (pretty near yuppie) neighbor thinks that Chanterelles have gross texture. Here’s a fucking clue: you have to cook ’em for a little while guy! The best part is, Pine Spikes are all over the place and nobody picks them. The reason being that, it’s not as distinctive-looking as a Chanterelle or a Porcini or a Morel. They look kind of like other mushrooms, kind of like a Chanterelle, so one actually needs to know something about identifying mushrooms to ensure that they aren’t eating a poisonous member of the Paxillus genus. They are totally disparaged by the mushrooming community at large, and are primarily collected by recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and, according to David Aurora, people with large families to feed. And the thing is, there’s all kinds of delicious mushrooms that are totally overlooked by most foragers.

Another overlooked mushroom that I enjoyed this year was the Honey Mushroom(Armillaria Mellea). We were out on Larch Mountain looking for our chestnuts, but as usual the Asian ladies got there first leaving only the scrapings. The Asian ladies (along with the Eastern European families) are to foraging what Americans are to subsidized agricultural exports, they fucking rule it. So I expect to be beaten by them. Anyway, I was traipsing about some particularly dark and dank piece of private property looking for what the Asian ladies had left in the brush and I came across a nice little patch of what I immediately recognized as Honey Mushrooms. They’re really a little difficult to know for sure because, as David Aurora informs us, it’s not a species per se, it’s a group.

There are lots of little tricks to differentiating them from other mushrooms, but the best little trick is just to know the mushroom by observing it. I don’t mean that you should go into the woods, find what you think is the right mushroom and stare at it until you feel like you know it.  If that is your idea of “knowing” something, you should stick to the supermarket. Honey mushrooms get lots of bad publicity and I certainly can’t understand why. They’re really quite delicious. I read one prominent forager-blogger describing it as slimy and speaking of its filé-like thickening power. I had to think: “I’m pretty sure you had the wrong mushroom, you’re lucky you’re not dead yet, forager guy.” My opinion was reinforced with his description of how he used a dichotomous key to identify his specimen (a description that was way off base). Here’s a clue (and these clues really are invaluable little bits of information): Don’t eat a mushroom tThese Beautiful Honey Mushrooms stayed put last year, because my basket was to full of Matsutake.hat you’ve identified only once, through the fucking dichotomous key! Trained biologists have a hard time using those things. The Honey Mushroom, when it is a Honey Mushroom, is really intensely flavored, like an over-reduced beef stock that has that slightly scorched flavor. The texture is typically mushroomy, flabby. The stem is often maligned as being tough, don’t be fooled, the pithy white interior can be torn out like string cheese and used right alongside the caps. It does stand up to long cooking. Ideal with, or in place of, red meats.

I also found, but could not eat, some Fairy Ring mushrooms in my front yard. I’d love to be able to tell you all about them, but my wife threw them away (note from wife:  they were rotting!).