When my students open the squeaky gate to our city farm, they immediately pass by shelf of mushrooms that grow from the side of a tree stump. Eye level to a seven year old, the fungi at first appear unreal and cartoonish. One can easily picture a real life Mario boinging from one pillowy cap to another, fist in the air for extra trajectory.
"Can we eat them?" is the usual question.
"They are poisonous!" cries another student.
"You will die if you eat them!" replies a third.
The once curious children take a tentative half step away from the mushrooms. I try to cool the hysteria by offering a reassuring, albeit vague lesson. Some are are poisonous, but many are not, I tell them. I admit that these particular specimens have been unidentified, so it’s best not to test our luck.
Farther into the farm, children spot another colony of mushrooms exploding from the cracks of a rotting log. Compared to the first, these unfurl in ribbons of creme and cafe-latte-tans, serrated at the tips. These, I tell them, have in fact been identified as oyster mushrooms, and are quite edible. Again, I burst their balloons of excitement by coming clean once again. No, I haven’t tried them, I confess.
The reason? A deeply ingrained fear of eating mysterious plants that might make us sick, probably woven into the fabric of my DNA by my hunter-gatherer ancestors. I suspect that I would happily try a bite if I could first observe someone more educated (or more brave) sample a piece and then monitor their health for a few hours. This “canary in the coal mine” model has been an effective survival tactic for human beings for millions of years.
This instinctual fear was dampened recently while my wife and I hiked through a spectacular sliver of woods in Southwestern Michigan. Our original goal for the outing was to stretch our legs, inhale some abundant Fall oxygen, and let our neural fingers blaze new trails in our brains as we followed winding pathways. This all changed when we came upon an old man in dirty genes huffing quickly past us.
We marveled audibly at his bounty - two large baskets overflowing with mushrooms. The baskets hung like dual weights on a scale on the ends of his hobo stick fashioned from a piece of plastic PVC pipe. He heard our oohs and stopped to share what he knew about his passion for foraging wild mushrooms.
In his thick Eastern European accent he taught us how to hunt for them. Cut them at the stem with a sharp knife. Look at the cross section. Dark spots indicate worm bites. White and spotless is ideal. He called this variety “button mushrooms”. Their earthy, savory aroma hit immediately made us hungry for soup.
The old man seemed to enjoy our curiosity, but also sensed our apprehension about foraging on our own. “If you aren’t sure which to pick, just ask an old Lithuanian.” And with that, we set out on our first mushroom hunt.
Now off the path, we swished our way through the floor of autumn leaves, deep red and fiery orange. Our eyes widened to scan the ground for mushroom caps that might lay camouflaged in the mottled palette. Hyper focused on the hunt, we wandered in separate directions. I felt my pulse quicken. A long time passed before I finally came upon a village of mushroom tops gathered around a small tree, nearly invisible without careful attention. How many hundreds or thousands have I passed unknowingly during hikes of the past?
Without a knife we improvised by pinching them with our fingernails. I could hear my wife’s “woots!” of discovery elsewhere in the forest. In the span of half an hour we filled my stocking cap with as many wild mushrooms as we could carry. Had we come prepared we would have hunted until we filled buckets. Our passive day in the woods had been transformed into a mission, a purpose, all thanks to a chance encounter with a kind old man.
Now I sauté my fear in extra virgin olive oil with a pinch of salt. And it is delicious.