My mother is a mushroom forager. She heads out into the woods of her house in the Loire Valley with pretty woven baskets and returns with heaps of mushrooms. As a teen, I looked at her bounty dubiously. Each bite of her foraged dinners filled me with fear. When would the cramps kick in? Was I eating my last supper?
As an adult, I started thinking more and more of taking up her hobby, but our visits to her house never coincided with mushroom season. Learning how to hunt for local mushrooms, right here in the midwest, rose higher and higher on my buckets list. When Rob Poe, the Chicago Mushroom Man, announced that he was giving a foraging class last weekend, I couldn’t rsvp fast enough.
Sunday morning, I met up with a dozen strangers to head to the woods. We began with a quick talk at Carnivore in Oak Park, where we saw gorgeous examples of the varieties we would be hunting: a puff ball and a maitake, otherwise known as a hen of the woods. Both were huge and clean and called, “cook me! cook me right now!”
Thirty minutes later, we had car pooled and regrouped in a forest preserve in Des Plaines. Rob gave us an overview of poison ivy, a crop he explained was on the rise due to global warming. A little googling revealed that global warming has created a super poison ivy, one which I’m now happy to finally be able to recognize.
We walked into the woods in a tight single file, closely following Rob at first. Other than the puff balls and the maitakes, we were also looking for honey mushrooms and aborted entolomas, as well as anything else we might run across. One by one, we broke off from the pack and headed off in different directions. Soon the woods were filled with shouts as foragers found one mushroom and another. We were like little kids on an easter hunt, running back and forth to Rob with our finds.
The first mushroom I plunked into my bag felt like a deeply forbidden act. Picking up something from the ground, digging it out from the dirt, felt like a great taboo. As the day went on and my bag got heavy, I felt freed from a lifetime of nos. Discovering a new type of food sourcing was beyond exhilarating.
We didn’t score any Maitakes or Puff Balls in our first wood, but scored over 10 pounds at a small green space nearby on our way to a second wood. That’s where we found this rotten puff ball, not edible, but so fun to throw at a tree trunk. When the hunt was ended around 2PM, I carried wild enoki mushrooms, dozens of aborted entolomas, and two huge maitakes. I was most excited about the small white entolomas because they apparently taste like shrimp and I was confident that I could identify them on my own in future forays in the woods.
We are in the last days of mushroom season now that the temperature has started dropping, but you can still have some fun out there. Grab a book and start hunting, being extremely conservative in your selection. Or far better, join an experienced mycologist to take you on a guided foray. Rob, aka the Pilsen Mushroom Man, has done private forays with small groups in addition to the publicized one that I joined. It would be hard to imagine having the confidence to eat anything foraged without someone as experience as Rob to lead.
I’m already dreaming of the spring, when the morels will rise and the summer when the chanterelles fruit. After one afternoon in the woods, guided by an expert, I’ve finally taken the first step to joining my mom in her love of the mushroom hunt.