Jill Weiss resisted and resisted. She was always too tired after a day’s work to go tramping through the woods, as her husband Ira had been asking her to do for years. What, she wanted to know, was the big deal? The woods were full of mosquitoes and ticks. It was boggy, unknown and unpredictable. None of it sounded like fun.
But one summer day about nine years ago, she got out of work early. She’d run out of excuses. “I figured if I didn’t go, he’d never shut up,” she recalled with a laugh last week. And so they went for a walk in the woods. Just as she’d predicted, they’d returned home that afternoon covered in mosquito bites. “We sat around and counted them afterward,” she said.
But something else happened on that walk. Something else had bitten Jill Weiss. It happened when she caught sight of some mushrooms. She saw puffballs, little purple mushrooms and neon-green specimens with yellow stems. Then she saw something that took her breath away. “Everywhere we looked was a carpet of orange, and it was beautiful.” Jill, who loves to cook and by her own admission is addicted to TV cooking shows, suspected that they were gazing on a field of chanterelles.
She didn’t make the mistake of eating any of the mushrooms that she’d found, but neither did she forget their beauty and the possibility that she’d stumbled on an unexpected source of free and tasty mushrooms that would make expensive jaunts to places like Whole Foods a thing of the past.
It wasn’t long before Weiss developed a new addiction, one for which she says there’s no known cure: She has become obsessed with the discovery, harvesting, cooking and eating of wild mushrooms. That became possible when she joined the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association (MHMA). As the walks coordinator for the MHMA, she has made it her business to share that knowledge with everyone who asks for it.
Weiss speaks digressively and entertainingly about her addiction. She says that there’s no 12-step program available to help her, and that’s fine, since she has no wish to be cured. And that carpet of orange? It was indeed a field of chanterelles. And that, for Weiss, is another way of saying that she’d found Heaven in her backyard.
Weiss is also only too aware of – and eager to talk about – the hellish side of wild mushroom stalking. With nicknames like “destroying angel” and “death cap,” there’s no hiding the fact that mushrooms can be as deadly as they are beautiful.
Even people who have spent their lives foraging for wild mushrooms can be fooled, she said. People who relocate to the States from countries such as France and Italy and Pakistan, where such foraging is commonplace, may find that mushrooms that look like fungi that they’ve eaten all their lives are in fact poisonous in the New World. Because of different climates on the East and West Coasts, the same can be true in this country as well. Hence the need for the sort of firsthand education that only a club like the MHMA can provide. “You really need to go on a walk with someone who knows what they’re doing.”
But besides preventing the curious or misinformed forager from painful death, Weiss will tell you of the ancillary benefits of foraging. She remembered the first time that she’d cooked a mushroom omelette for herself and her husband after her first MHMA walk. “We sat at the table, staring at each other, saying, ‘You try it.’ ‘No, you try it.’” She also remembers that, once the ice was broken, it was an amazing omelette. “I’ve probably saved hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the years,” she said.
Some mushrooms have medicinal properties; some are brimming with B vitamins and potassium. And because certain mushrooms only grow on certain trees or in certain areas, foragers get to know their local forests in ways that they’d never imagined. All that, plus the well-known advantages of getting off one’s duff and out into nature make a mycological walk in the woods seem like a no-brainer to Weiss.
The MHMA promotes the enjoyment, study and exchange of information about hunting, identifying and culturing everything mycological. For more information about the group’s next public walk, visit www.midhudsonmyco.org.
Fungus among us
Mycology is formally defined as a branch of biology that studies fungi, including their uses as a source not only of food but also medicine, as well as their dangers. Eating the wrong mushroom can be a fatal mistake. Even the best photos and descriptions can be misleading. If you want to forage safely, visit the MHMA and go for a walk.
Morchella esculenta: The first choice mushroom of the spring. There are people who only hunt for this one mushroom. Makes the rest of the year last a really long time. True morels are hollow. If you cut one in half, there will be nothing in it, making it perfect for stuffing with all kinds of fillings. Morels contain a small amount of hydrazine, which is cooked out through thorough cooking.
Laetiporus sulphureus: There are two different chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms in this area. This one is orange on top and yellow on the bottom, its pore surface. It grows on hardwoods and causes brown heart rot. If you’ve ever seen a downed tree with brown cubes instead of what you think wood looks like, you’ve seen the result of this mushroom, and others that cause the same rot. This mushroom, when young, tastes like and has the texture of chicken, but avoid these if they are growing on conifer, locust or eucalyptus trees, since they can cause stomach upset.
Laetiporus cincinnatus: This is also chicken-of-the-woods. It’s orange on top and white on the bottom, its pore surface. It usually grows in rosettes. This one is a root rot and butt rot fungus and also grows on hardwoods.
Destroying angel: Amanita bisorigera is closely related to the death cap. This one has a white cap; the death cap is greenish. Notice the cup at the base. This shot doesn’t show the veil just under the cap. Both the veil and the cup are defining features of many poisonous Amanitas. (This is another mushroom that starts as an egg, looking like a puffball. Cut them in half and you’ll see a silhouette of a mushroom.)
Black trumpets in situ: These camouflage very well. You think you’re looking at dried oak leaves, then realize that you’ve found something special.
Cantherellus latereitius or smooth chanterelle: This mushroom doesn’t have gills, pores or ridges. The underside is actually smooth. Sporeprints help with identification. This mushroom leaves a peachy-orange sporeprint, and the mushroom smells like apricots – popular with mycologists as an edible.
–Photos and captions by amateur mycologist Jill Weiss