Thursday, October 11, 2018

Hunting Down the Funky Fall Fungi


A Czech adage warns that “every mushroom is edible, but some only once.” Obviously, this translates to the fact that there are both safe edible varieties and ones that are deadly or extremely hazardous when consumed.
Mushrooms are used in many dishes.

Do you like to eat mushrooms?

The other day I found some in our yard, and it reminded me of my childhood days on our farm in Northeastern Pennsylvania when my mother and father would set off on a foggy morning into the woods to collect them. Mushroom hunting is an old Polish tradition that was handed down when my immigrant grandparents came to America and brought their knowledge with them. They are hunted in both the spring and fall.

However, over the years, the popularity of mushroom picking has grown into nationwide celebrations, usually held in September and October. These festivals, honoring these funky little fungi, range across the United States from Boyne City, Michigan down to Madisonville, Texas and as far as Girdwood, Alaska to Kennett Square in Pennsylvania.

Mushrooms are picked in spring and fall.
Of all the things I’ve tried to recall about mushroom foraging, I do remember my mother and father had favorite places to hunt them—around certain conifer trees and rotting stumps. They used paring knives and cut the mushroom from the bottom, allowing for renewed growth from underground. Carefully, they’d place them in wicker baskets. Plastic or metal containers don’t allow for air to circulate around the mushroom and can encourage mold. A wicker basket also allows for the spores to fall out of the container and hopefully land in a perfect environment to reproduce. 

In most cases, mushrooms are cooked. Only those you know for certain should be consumed raw without cooking. Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, and German people use them extensively in many of their dishes including soups, sauces, and pierogis. They also fry them in butter with onions and serve them as a side dish.

Mushrooms around the base of a tree.
Pine mushrooms, chanterelles, morels, and oyster mushroom are among the most popular ones. They can be canned or dried to be used later. I remember one year when my mother pierced the mushrooms’ stems with a needle and string and hung them to dry in our basement. They looked like little upside down umbrellas until they dried into a shriveled state.

The deadly fly agaric
Although I’ve never tried hunting them myself, I know there are important things to remember if you plan to pursue the sport. The first rule is very simple. Make sure you know which ones to pick. Your first forage should be with someone who is experienced about identifying them since there are look-alikes among the many existing types. Remember, there are poisonous varieties like the false morels which are deadly or the red fly agaric with its large white-gilled, white-spotted top. I remember my father chopping the fly agaric up in a shallow metal pan and sprinkling sugar on it to attract the barn flies which died after munching on it.

Additionally, you need to wear protective clothing. There are insects, ticks, and snakes in the wooded areas and forging sites. You also need to check with the property owner to determine whether you are allowed to hunt on their land. Many state and national parks not only issue permits, but also have certain rules about the amount of mushrooms that can be harvested per person.

I’m told there are many mushroom clubs throughout the United States where you can join and go in groups to forage for mushrooms. I, myself, am content to use the grocery store's whites or portabella ones when I sit down with my steak topped with the delicious, funky, little fungi.  

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