Mushroom Foraging in the Chicago Suburbs

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?

A rotten puff ball - at least a week past it's prime. Too bad!
A rotten puff ball – at least a week past it’s prime. Too bad!

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.

My personal mushroom haul at the end of the day. Not bad!
My personal mushroom haul at the end of the day. Not bad!

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!”

This mushroom would make you throw up for 14 hours. Not a keeper.
This mushroom would make you throw up for 14 hours. Not a keeper.

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.

This is a young chicken of the woods. I would have been terrified to eat it before today!
This is a young chicken of the woods. I would have been terrified to eat it before today!

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.

This is a gorgeous maitake that we found at a small green space. Amazing how it blends into the trunk.
This is a gorgeous maitake that we found at a small green space. Amazing how it blends in with the trunk. I will be studding it with sweet sausage and garlic and roasting it.

 

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.

This herissium is also rotten and past its prime. Too bad as it is quite prized and tastes like lobster.
This herissium is also rotten and past its prime. Too bad as it is quite prized and tastes like lobster.

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.

8 Responses to Mushroom Foraging in the Chicago Suburbs

  1. This piece reminded me of a story about my father many, many years ago. Being of Czech descent,
    the mushroom or houby, is an ingredient found in many dishes and he enjoyed “mushroom hunting”.
    He would take his basket and walk through the woods on LaGrange Road, south of I-55. This happened to be in the mid 70’s…before cell phones. As it was getting dark, my mom began to worry which of course, made the four kids worry. Suddenly, at about 7 pm, he arrived…well after dark.
    He had gotten lost in the woods and ended up much further down the road at a location four or five miles from his car Luckily, he was able to find a motorist to take him back to his car. Although we were very glad that he was ok, we did laugh about dad getting lost in the woods in search of his mushrooms for years to come! My kids can’t believe that there were no cell phones…now you’d have your phone and GPS to get you out!

  2. Thanks for your timely post. The other day, I discovered Giant Puffballs growing where my yard meets the woods, and you’ve helped me muster the courage to harvest them for dinner! How can I tell when they’re ripe?

  3. That is so interesting! I never would have thought you could forage for mushrooms at the DesPlaines woods! I have just started to like mushrooms this past year – but only the button ones and portabellas – I need to expand my mushroom horizons!

    • Well, you can as long as the forest preserve police don’t spot you. I had some friends who went morel hunting this spring and they got greeted at the parking lot in a not so friendly way. They had to dump their haul or face a fine.

      • It’s technically legal to harvest mushrooms. It takes a certain amount of bravery to look an officer in the eye and tell him you’re doing nothing wrong, and that you’ll take the ticket and win in the hearing stage.

        Taking artifacts, bones, animals, fruit, plants and tired plants is forbidden, somehow they managed to leave out the fungi kingdom.

        Next spring hunt well and be brave if it comes to that.

  4. A lot of people aren’t aware that it is strictly illegal to pick mushrooms in forest preserves in any of the counties around Chicago. You’ll probably end up with a fine if you’re caught.

    It’s legal to pick in our local state parks though, but not in Illinois state nature preserves.

  5. Yes, ChefDruck. I was there. I remember you and a good time was had by all. Excellent write up. I’ve gone through most of what I collected in stir frys and soups, but I do have some maitake up in the freezer. Despite the gnarly appearance, they’re my favorite from what I collected. But the ‘aborted entolomas’ were also excellent. I think ‘shrimp ‘shrooms’ is a better sounding name, but they do indeed have a shrimpish taste. They sort of remind me shrimp and cauliflower.

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