Mushrooms are bizarre little beings. They inhabit a weird twilight realm somewhere in between animal, vegetable, and mineral. My dad used to tell me about searching for mushrooms with his great-grandfather in Ceylon after a thunderstorm. As a child, he thought that the thunder had magically drawn them from the cracked red earth where they peeped out like small creatures. When curried they tasted like meat. Then there was the time I read a scientific report on the close similarity between human flesh and mushrooms. Charming. As a cook, I often use tame supermarket mushrooms, but I'd always been afraid of their wild cousins. I'd heard a few too many stories about wild mushroom hunters suddenly dropping dead from their meal.
I swallowed my fears to join with members of the Michigan Mushroom Hunters' Club on one of their forays in the Waterloo Recreation Area. Marti Cochran related that she was "dragged kicking and screaming" twenty years ago to her first mushroom hunt by her husband, Ken. She had a deep fear of snakes, but Ken, an epidemiologist committed to searching for mushrooms with antiviral properties, assured her that she'd love it. Indeed, Marti found that gathering mushrooms is a great excuse for having a lovely picnic in the beauty of nature as well as a chance to gather gourmet delicacies for free. Now she's been a leader for about twenty years, and she actually once prodded a snake away from a mushroom with her stick. Such is the power and the flavor of the wild mushroom. But the hunt itself seems to be the core experience for the participants, not to mention the lure of the "bait pile," as Ken calls the potluck that follows.
Walking through sun-dappled trees, baskets in hand, gazing right and left, creates a hypnotic state. We are searching for the black trumpet of death. Far from killing us, it will tickle our palates, if only we can find it. Following cues invisible to me, club members scatter to gather or photograph mushrooms of every size and hue. My husband, Ollie, at first a reluctant newcomer, is now completely taken with the hunt and is way off up ahead. Behind me, butterfly nets in hand, crouch the zoologists of the group, inventorying flies, birds, butterflies, and even small wood frogs. All are united by a keen thirst for knowledge and a sense of adventure that has taken many of the members as far as the Arctic Circle and the British Isles.
Back at the picnic area, we find that we have gathered over fifty kinds of mushrooms in two hours! I eat the most delicious mushroom soup I have ever tasted, made with wild chanterelles and fairy rings by foray leader Phil Tedeschi. Later at home, I sauté in butter the chanterelles that Ollie found. They were delicious, and I'm still here to tell the story!
The Mushroom Hunters lead a foray around Barton Dam on Sunday, May 16.