It’s a cold day, the kind of day when the October wind whips cheeks to a rosy glow and the air is just cold enough to numb idle hands. Weathermen threatened that tonight may invite the season’s firstfrost, but still, 30 eager bodies have turned up at Bay End Farm in Bourne for a mushroom forage hosted by a local mycological club.
The crowd gathered here this afternoon is diverse, and the novices stick out from the many experts simply by the contents in their hands before the forage even starts.
“Do you want to borrow a basket?” offers a longhaired, smiling woman to an empty-handed counterpart. The seasoned hunters have come prepared this afternoon, standard mushrooming gear in hand. Tall, knotted walking sticks; woven baskets (plastic will cause specimens to crushor turn to mush); blunt knives for easing the mushrooms from their perch on alog or in the soil. The crowd listens to a pep talk by the club’s president: Keep a watchful eye; look beneath surfaces; be careful not to disturb natural habitats. And they’re off.
Perhaps centuries—even millennia—ago, native New Englanders gathered here at the same place for the same purpose of mushroom foraging. But for these ancestors, foraging was life-or-death, do-ordie: Forager and hunter-gatherer food systems beget agriculture, and agriculture beget the industrial farm—supermarket food culture we’re dependent on today, where pure and dirtless white mushrooms come wrapped in plastic
Those mushrooms you see in the produce section, under the florescent lights and automatic sprayers? It’s true; they’re fungi. They once lived in the dirt, or on decaying wood, or on a living tree. Though lots of people across the globe still forage for edible mushrooms, mostof the mushrooms we Americans eat today are cultivated on farms.
Cultivating mushrooms is not too different a process from cultivating vegetables. Rather than soil, though, mushrooms are grown on logs that have been chopped and scrubbed of any excess moss and lichen. The farmer then drills holes in each log (a step that’s akin to digging)and plants spores inside each hole. The holes are sealed with wax, the logs are left in shaded water, and a month (or several) later, little white buttons emerge from the wood and the crop is ready for harvest.
But if plastic wrap and florescent lights have rendered farms forgotten, they’ve made fungi harvesting just plain invisible. Perhaps this is largely in part because mushrooms are a wild food, making them seem a more dangerous and mystical food source.
Mushrooms are practically an anomaly; they’re neither animal nor plant—instead, they fall under the fungi kingdom. This is because fungi don’t produce chlorophyll to make their own food, as plants do. So they depend on other organisms for food, and they have three ways of accomplishing this: Saprobe fungi absorb nutrients from decomposing organisms,parasite fungi attack living organisms, and mycorrhizal fungi exist in living harmony with its plant benefactor.
Knowing the three types of organisms and what makes them grow is helpful to foragers. It provides basic hints on where to look: dead logs, living trees, soil. Fungi can grow anywhere, really. Here onthe Cape, mushrooming season extends from April through November, with different species fruiting throughout the changing seasons. Mushroom growth is influenced by natural elements—humidity, temperature, length of day, precipitation—and different species fruit during each season, depending on each of these factors.
The array of mushroom species growing is just as varied as the peninsula’s terrains, which means that fungi have a buffet of growing environs to choose from. Each habitat—forest, beach, wetland—provides for different fungi species, and the mushrooms effect each as a member of the ecosystem. Beech forests are littered with mushrooms and other fungi that have evolved to grow in sections where tree roots are concentrated. Interdunal bogs play host to moist-loving mushrooms that grow in the moss, as well as to mushrooms that thrive on trees that line the bogs’ drier perimeters. Ubiquitous pitch pine forests—for example, the environs of Bay End Farm—benefit from the mushrooms that grow on its trees. Mushrooms are especially crucial here because the sandy soil lacks nutrients and loses its moisture quickly. Each terrain has a variety of mycorrhizals, sabprobes and parasites, and each has its selection of poisonous and edible.
One of today’s Bay End foragers is a Polish woman. With a lilting accent and a borrowed woven basket strapped behind her shoulders like a backpack, she talks about growing up in Europe and spending summers with her grandparents, who would often cook up the mycological treasures she’d found that day in the woods for dinner that same evening. Foragingwas a childhood hobby, she says, much in the way that today’s American children play tag and video games. And it’s not uncommon for professional European chefs to forage for ingredients, either. She surmises that this is probably because there are far fewer poisonous species in Europe than in North America, but it also has to do with a particular disconnect from and fear of wild foods in the American psyche. Here, most people are warned as children totake caution of wild foods. True, many are highly poisonous, as Neelands stresses to her foragers continually. Still, according to the Audubon Society’s mushroom field guide, only several will kill. Most poisonous species will cause mild to severe illness.
There is no easy way of telling whether a mushroom you’ve foraged is conducive to your palate (or survival), though Audubondoes suggest a few rules of thumb. Never eat amanitas or amanita lookalikes;don’t eat little brown and large brown mushrooms; avoid false morels. But,they warn, experience and solid knowledge are the most important factors injudging, and even then, it’s hard to be certain. Guidebooks—ones with detailed photos and text—are crucial. Match the specimen to a photo, its common growing environs, its preferred fruiting season. Allow for no variables.
Once the day’s walk has concluded, the foragersgather at a folding table to compare their assets. The table is lined with white paper plates, with like specimens grouped together. It’s like a fungalpicnic, except that most of the species aren’t edible. Neelands picks up a specimen, a whitish-brown puffy thing, and taps the person next to her. “What’s this smell like?”
It smells like potato. She goes on to discuss the earthy smell of the mushroom, and the smell’s value in identification process. Taste works as an identifier too, she says, but it’s a little risky. To demonstrate, she breaks the tiniest bit off of a questionable mushroom offers it up. Her guinea pig bites cautiously, and his face contorts as if he’schewing putrid citrus. Case in point, Neelands says. It’s his body triggering the bitter warning, which more or less means ‘Don’t eat that!’ But five to ten percent of people don’t have a bitter gene, and won’t catch this clue.
Plates full of florescent yellow, sickly pale yellow, burnt orange, maroon. Plates full of fungi still attached to branches, grown into the wood like dirty solid bubbles. Plates dusted with a rainbowof neutral-tone spores and remnants of soil, moss, and wood.
There are hens of the woods, burnt orange and named for their wing-like structure. Amanitas, long-stemmed and white orangey-yellow. Puffballs that live up to the name. Edible or not, these mushrooms are all samples of a forgotten food system. The specimens on the table were once rooted in the earth, as were we—as we still are—though we sometimes may forget.
Kara Cusolito is a transient freelance writer and aspiring farmer (much to the surprise of everyone she knows), originally from Bourne. In the past year, she’s worked on farms all over the globe, andhas recently settled (temporarily) to enjoy another harvest season on her home peninsula.