When my husband said he wanted to take the kids on a neighborhood walk to hunt for mushrooms, I was thrilled. We are friendly, social people, but it hasn't always been easy to make connections on our hillside of eccentrics and Hobbit homes -- I figured visibility could lead to opportunity. Then our twelve-year-old Iz returned from the outing, gleefully brandishing a death cap -- a reportedly delicious mushroom that, if ingested, will liquefy one's liver. And which my daughter had, in her enthusiasm over such a cool find, crowed about to a friendly but skittish neighbor who had been out with her toddler -- and who promptly froze, then bolted. Better luck next time, Rosa family!
Wild mushrooms get a bad rap. And deservedly so -- death caps are not the only liver-liquefiers in the fungus world, where distinctions between culinary and toxic varieties can be too subtle for the untrained eye. As we are amateurs, I refuse to let my family eat any of the mushrooms they've foraged, and will enforce that embargo until my husband brings a mycologist (mushroom scientist) to testify on his behalf.
But ... mushroom hunting can also be a fun full-family activity, as long as your kids don't tend to put things in their mouths. It's an activity that involves walking around and exploring, getting the whole family outside, exercising and actively observing the environment -- perfect for a family with an outdoors- and hiking-loving boy with autism. It's exciting to find ten wildly different mushroom species within 50 feet of one's front door, it's fascinating to identify the differences between them, and it's creatively satisfying to make spore prints from mushrooms -- especially unidentified ones -- and see how many different print patterns and colors result. Our kids are hooked.
We're lucky, we live on an oak- and pine-covered hillside; mushrooms like our yard, and spring up instantly after a good rain. My husband sometimes finds ten different varieties on the walk from our son's bus pick up point and our front door. The fungus diversity in our neighborhood is shocking (see photo above, from a ten-minute forage behind the Mormon temple at the foot of our hill). When we go regional? The mushroom payload can be astounding. And distracting, just like any other obsession -- my husband is frequently fifteen minutes late because he's got an eagle eye for spying mushrooms on the side of the road during his commute, and he can't resist checking them out.
I don't blame him or our girls for their mushroom preoccupation. Mushrooms are cool. Check out the Zeller's bolete below: it's ruddy red on the top, shocking yellow and pore-y on the bottom -- but when you cut into it? It leaks bright navy blue. No wonder our six-year-old wanders the house with mushroom guide in hand, wistfully listing the species she'd like to find next.
We've always been intrigued by local mushrooms. Four years ago, I Christmas-gifted my husband a framed photo of an electric orange fungus, taken by a local forager/enthusiast (we're still not sure what species it is; the forager wasn't certain, either). Then, in December, my husband went to the Fungus Faire in Berkeley, on assignment. Geeking out on salary would normally be excitement enough, but he also spent the day before the Fungus Faire hunting for mushrooms with the head of the regional mycological society. My partner came home raving about his fungus-y day, and has been ceaselessly on the prowl ever since.
Our mushroom collecing is aided by good field guides. The family favorite is What the Rain May Bring, which Iz and Mali spent our holiday road trip poring- and fighting over -- but which doesn't cover all our mushroom identification needs. When the 1000-plus page Mushrooms Demystified showed up, the girls launched into separate Snoopy dances. Even so, we still don't have names for many of the samples we bring home. Mushroom species identification is that complicated.
My vocal skepticism about identification pitfalls hasn't stopped our eldest from launching an edibilty campaign. Iz is desperate to cook up what she swears are honey mushrooms -- she's shown me drawings, photographs, and even made a spore print that did indeed have the requisite cream-colored ridges. I don't care. My husband says eating wild mushrooms is like skydiving -- your first mistake might be your last. So until we get that mycologist onsite, honey mushroom candidates will be relegated to art-project duty. Sorry, Iz.
Those spore prints couldn't be easier to make: Lay out a square of paper, cut the stalk off a mature mushroom so it gets stressed and ejects its spores, place it gills- or pores-down on the paper, then leave it overnight. The results are beautiful! If you suspect you have a honey mushrooms or other species with light-colored spores, you might want to use dark-colored rather than light paper for better contrast. Mali thinks spore prints are so much fun that she's creating a batch for her school science project.
We don't just play with and scrutinize mushrooms, we eat them -- store-bought ones. Iz's pleas for chanterelles have stopped traffic at our grocery store; when we brought them home, they made the best chanterelle-sauce pasta this world has ever encountered. Iz is desperate to find wild California porcinis, a.k.a. King boletus, but in the meantime we're using the still-intensely-perfumed dried Italian porcinis we were given as a wedding present 16 years ago, and with which we make risotto so rich and fragrant that no grain goes uneaten.
We've also had fun growing our own mushooms. Ours took a while to start sprouting, but then then they grew so fast I suspected they were irradiated by aliens -- the photo below shows our oyster mushrooms three days after sprouting. We harvested them two days later. They were delicious in a simple stir fry with bok choy, as a side. NOM.
The rain is starting to peter out, and that means our coastal California mushroom hunting season may be coming to a close. But that doesn't mean we're done; it just means we'll have to relocate. We have a friend in Tahoe who supplements his income with his springtime morel foraging. Perhaps he'd appreciate an enthusiastic support crew? I hope so. Because if Iz has her way, we're going.
- Our family's extended Mushroom Hunters! photo collection
- Farmgirl Fare: Foraging and Finding Mushrooms
- Tea and Cookies: Morel Mushroom Hunting, and a Life Lesson
- Maddy Harland: Foraging for Oyster Mushrooms
When Shannon Des Roches Rosa isn't gawking at her family's latest mushroom haul, you can find her at ThinkingAutismGuide.com, BlogHer.com, and Squidalicious.com -- you can get to that last URL by typing in shroomhead.blogspot.com.
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