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Ralph Gardner Jr: The Mushroom Debrief

Lucy’s morel and ramp haul
Ralph Gardner Jr.
Lucy’s morel and ramp haul";

To describe the mushroom outing I took last Saturday with my daughter Lucy and our friend Susan – both fungus aficionados -- as a walk would defile the conventional definition of a walk. Sure we walked. But we spent more time stopping, stooping and searching the underbrush than moving in anything that might be described as a straight line.

Our quarry that afternoon was the elusive morel, a cap-like fungus with a distinctive honeycomb design that looks like the stuff of fairy tales. While Hansel and Gretel may not have collected them they surely passed a few on their way to the evil witch’s gingerbread cottage.

Lucy harvests a mushroom
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.
Lucy harvests a mushroom

It’s their loss they didn’t. Sautéed with butter and shallots – a splash of sherry and heavy cream can’t hurt either – they rise into the culinary ether alongside such delicacies as caviar and Kobe beef. They almost make the ever-increasing hours our daughter spends searching the woods for morels and other edible mushrooms seem worth the effort.

But I’ve lately grown concerned that she’s gone off the deep end; though there are worse ways to do so than mind-melding with the forest, just so you’re home by nightfall. So I decided to conduct a brief interview with her to reassure me of her sanity and that she doesn’t return from her next foraging expedition reporting she’s been cavorting with elves.

Our exchange has been condensed for clarity and whatever amusement value the obsessive mindset may offer.

“Do you think you’re going crazy?” I asked her.

“No,” she protested while offering this defense. “Just when I know they’re out. They taste so good. They’re really hard to find. They only come up under perfect conditions. It’s the hopefully ethical equivalent of hunting. You’re in this very present, meditative state. You’re getting to spend time in nature.”

I didn’t want to indulge her but I asked how she thought this year’s mushroom gathering season was going so far and, spreading well into the fall, how it might play out. “It’s interesting,” she said. “These things go in cycles. The last couple of years were pretty poor for morels. This year was better. Last year we had an amazing golden oyster mushroom year. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t get any this year, although I don’t know oysters as well as morels. Black trumpets I haven’t gotten for the past two or three years. I’m hoping they’ve stored up enough energy that if the conditions are right this summer we get them again.”

Is there a holy grail of mushrooms, I asked? The Big One? “On our property I still have never found Maitake, which is Hen-of-the-Woods,” she said. “That’s not till the fall. But it eludes me. We have so many oak trees I should have that here. I feel if I went out with someone who knew what they were doing I might have more success with that mushroom.”

Lucy downplays her knowledge. By the way, it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: don’t go picking and consuming mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. Our daughter is a nerd. It says so on her birth certificate. She belongs to not one by two mushroom Facebook groups – the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association and New York Mycological Society.

The organizations don’t sound tailored to the unserious. “Against the very clear rules of the very strict admins,” Lucy complained, “people will still just put up a picture with no context about where it is, what trees it’s around, not even showing the underside, the cross-section. People will just put up a picture from above, of a brown mushroom, and say, ‘Is this edible?’ and people tend to get mad at them.”

Even more of a faux pas is asking where to find favored mushrooms. It’s like asking directions to someone’s buried treasure. “Someone wrote in,” Lucy recalled, “‘Can someone tell me a place where I can find morels?’ After about twelve hours someone responded, ‘No.’ These are very highly guarded secrets.”

The Facebook groups are useful for sharing their knowledge of mushrooms and also serving as a red alert system by informing members what mushrooms are popping up around the Hudson Valley at a particular moment. “It’s like having a hundred eyes in a hundred different locations,’ Lucy explained.

Her mycological mania has rubbed off on me, if not enough to don my LL Bean tick-repellant pants and head into the woods with my own basket and Opinel stainless steel folding mushroom cutting knife. Last year I found, not far from the house, a shelf of orange fungi that Lucy identified as Chicken-of-the-Woods, not to be confused with Hen-of-the-Woods. I breaded and sautéed them in butter and garlic and they tasted delicious, a lot like real chicken but with the added satisfaction that they came from our woods and didn’t require any animals be harmed in the process.

“What’s the difference between Chicken-of-the-Woods and Hen-of-the-Woods?” I asked.

“They’re totally different mushrooms,” Lucy said impatiently.

“Do they taste different?” I persisted.

“Completely,” she said.

She declined to indulge me by reciting their flavor notes.

We had some of her morels with dinner Saturday night. But not nearly enough. She was drying most of them in our food dehydrator for later use, claiming the taste of dried morels is even more intense. I can’t blame her, I’d hoard them, too.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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