Taking to the woods with a local fungus-appreciation society

Aug 11, 1999 at 4:00 am
The king bolete is a large and delectable mushroom, and although many species of boletes are found in this area, the king bolete is at least uncommon, if not rare. That's why Jim and Colette Winn were so amazed when they spied the sturdy, fleshy fungus nestled beneath a pine in a neighboring yard in Chesterfield. It was a hale fellow, "bigger than a softball, smaller than a basketball across its umbrella head." The Winns, who had hunted boletes and various other edible mushrooms in Europe, had no compunction about "rustling" the choice find. To a mycophile and connoisseur, it was like receiving a wonderful gift, perhaps a free appetizer at Malmaison. "We thought it was wonderful, finding that," says Jim Winn, "and we ate it with some friends."

Preparing and eating the king bolete was no risky venture, for the Winns are listed as "mushroom advisers" with the Missouri Mycological Society (MoMS), a consortium of some 120 fungus enthusiasts devoted to stalking the wild mushroom, identifying it and, quite often, eating it. And although the culinary savvy of some MoMS members is keen — think a subscription to Saveur, an open account at Kitchen Conservatory, a penchant for French-provincial cuisine — many come to its ranks with a simple desire to know the lowly mushroom in its various manifestations.

The Winns, for example, joined in 1992, when they bought some country property near Sullivan, Mo. "I saw all these mushrooms popping up and decided I needed to learn more about it," says Jim. Colette already had an interest in fungi. As a child, she had hunted mushrooms in the French countryside with her grandfather. The couple took a course at the Missouri Botanical Garden taught by Ken Gilberg, a photographer and the first president of MoMS. Before long, they were side by side with other mycophiles, scouring the woods for black trumpets, chanterelles and the highly prized morel. They even started an event, Spring Morel Madness.

Says Jim, "When I joined, it seemed like everybody was quite eager to invite people to find every other mushroom but morels. Morels, everybody had their private little places that they didn't want to advertise. We decided to have a morel hunt at our place, near Meramec State Park, and invite everybody to learn what to look for. Morel Madness "99 drew 175 people, 75 of them beginners."

The zeal for mushrooming can hit hard and at any time — in spring, when you've tasted your first batch of sautéed morels (store-bought wild morels, if you can find them, run about $55 per pound), or in autumn, when you notice the abundance of pretty fungi on a walk around the block. Mushroom collecting requires only the simplest of provisions: a flat-bottomed basket or box, a roll of waxed paper, a small trowel for digging, a field guide and some paper for notes. Since the publication of Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus in 1962, foraging for edible foods in the American outdoors has been removed from the arcane realm of wild-eyed, hirsute yokels and increasingly become a cultured pastime. MoMS, which was begun in 1987 and is one of about 75 amateur mushroom clubs in North America, has been a magnet for local naturalists.

Mushrooming has always been popular in Europe. Now it is catching on in the States. One reason, Ken Gilberg conjectures, is a greater environmental awareness among the populace, especially city folk; it's also nice to walk in the woods, and even better to have a purpose in mind. Mushrooming is not a hobby for the careless or uninformed. Happily, the seminally important identification of mushrooms has been simplified, says Gilberg, by the publication of the popular Audubon and Peterson field guides in the 1980s.

Then there is the lure of a hobby that combines nonviolent hunting, naturalistic pursuits and good fellowship. "It's a fun group," says Jim Winn, "maybe a little offbeat. There's not a lot of politics; we don't get together for dances. Everybody's relaxed, there to learn something. There's no pressure for anybody to attend anything. People come to what they want."

Forays are the society's major activity. One need not be a member to attend a foray, but for $15 a year you get the group's learned and delightful newsletter, Earthstar Examiner, which not only tells of upcoming events — the society is preparing to host the North American Mycological Association conference in Cape Girardeau, Aug. 12-15 — but also provides recipes for tasty dishes aux champignons.

On a typical foray, members meet in a selected natural area, spend an hour or two collecting fungi, then regroup to compare and identify the finds. Perhaps they'll try some of the edible ones. That's the advantage of a club: You collect more; you see more. In addition to the helpful descriptions and pictures in the field guides, there are members who can talk about mushrooms with confidence. This sum of collective knowledge ensures that no one — on the foray, at least — is going to get sick from eating a harmful species. Some deadly varieties out there — the fly agaric, the destroying angel, the glow-in-the-dark jack-o'-lantern — will turn your liver to custard.

An evening foray at Rockwoods Reservation in late June was both fun and enlightening. Don Dill, MoMS member and Missouri Botanical Garden volunteer, led a dozen or so mycophiles along sylvan paths in search of chanterelles, boletes, the elusive black trumpet and other summer mushrooms. (Although many popular fungi have common English names, often magical-sounding — old man of the woods, shaggy mane, fairy ring — one should master taxonomic terms to talk about mushrooms intelligently, lest one confuse, say, the edible black morel (Morchella elata) with the sometimes-deadly false morel (Gyromitra caroliniana).

The secret of mushroom hunting, says Dill, is knowing when to hunt and where to hunt. For good results, head for a wooded area sometime between two and seven days after a good rainfall. It is also essential to come prepared. Like any activity in the Missouri outdoors, you've got skeeters, ticks and chiggers to contend with, so dress appropriately, bring the Cutter's and wear some good hiking boots.

Phillip Boehm, a translator, theater director and fungus enthusiast, was at the foray with his Polish wife and their young ones. Children — perhaps because they're closer to the ground — seem to be quite adept at spotting mushrooms in the foliage. Inka Boehm, 3, spied the yellow, trumpet-shaped cap of a chanterelle protruding from the forest floor and soon, like a gaggle of geese after a passel of locusts, the group gravitated to that spot, for where one mushroom stands there are often more. Stooping or hunkering down, the mushroom gatherers looked for the fresh young specimens, free of insect damage. Carefully they picked the fungi by the base of their stalks, then put them in wax paper and finally in the straw or wicker baskets brought along to protect a bountiful harvest.

Afterward, we gathered at a picnic table over sliced watermelon and brought out the field guides. On the bigger forays, such as Morel Madness, prizes are awarded: most morels, largest morel, prettiest morel. Among these foraging folk, superlatives get recognition, but the good part is, no matter who finds what or how much of it, fresh prospects are always cropping up.

For membership information on MoMS, contact Brad Bomanz at 225-0555 or e-mail him at brad_bomanz @yahoo.com.