Well, the New Year seems determined to start off with the same wet, chilly weather and unflagging resolve not to snow with which the last one ended. I’ve been hoping for a good cold winter since June but in the mountains of Western North Carolina you just never know. It was so warm and wet last week that, while Walker and I were sawing up a fallen oak for firewood, we found a big stash of wild oyster mushrooms growing out of the rotten wood. Oysters are a cool-weather variety, but it was a shock to see them thriving in late December. In the fall we grow them in specially designated mushroom logs, but ours were never as big or healthy as these wild ones.
I was in Chapel Hill recently and, while taking a walk through one of the parks, I noticed a group of people huddled off the path in the woods. As I passed them, I noticed they were picking mushrooms from some of the fallen trees. I’m not sure what type they were, but I was impressed that, even in a city, you can forage for food. If you know where to look, that is.
I’m no expert on wild mushrooms and what I do know all comes from Walker. Basically I trust his judgment enough that if he says they’re safe to eat, I’ll let him try them first and then I’ll give them a go. By now I can recognize some of the more common varieties and the tastier edibles. I brought some of the oysters we found over to my parent’s house for dinner that night. Mom sautéed them in butter with some onion and a little white wine—they were extraordinary. Paired with some hearty chicken stew and mom’s homemade molasses oatmeal bread, it was a dinner fit for kings…or farmers. People are so cautious of wild mushrooms these days but the reality is that most of the edible kinds are readily recognizable. I don’t know how the mushroom section in our grocery stores has been monopolized by the small white button mushrooms, but it seems a shame. Don’t get me wrong, I love the buttons, (I also learned recently that button mushrooms are the baby form of Portobellos, who knew?!) I just think there is room for a little more variety in the fungus section at Ingles.
Until this summer I thought that mushroom cultivation was some kind of highly technical procedure of the sort that only stubborn hippies from the 60’s were into (The ones who needed to support themselves but couldn’t bear the idea of conventional work or needed an excuse to grow the psychedelic shrooms without causing a row), but it’s not. We grow several varieties one the farm, when weather permits, in old logs which were specially cut for the purpose. You can buy mushroom mycelium online and then it’s a simple process to cut and prepare the logs. Once the mycelium is introduced you can even force the mushrooms to grow by soaking the logs in water to emulate wet weather. It’s almost comical to walk up in the woods behind the farmstore to find rows of logs laden with shitakes or shimajis sprouting awkwardly from every available surface. I encourage you to go out and try some new kinds of mushrooms. Don’t be cowed by the epicurean haughtiness that surrounds them. Just heat up some butter in a frying pan and sauté them until they darken and become soft. They go really well with beef, but can make a good match for any kind of meat.
If you look out under oak trees
Or around an old pine stump
You’ll know a mushroom’s coming
By the way the leaves are humped
They send out multiple fibers
Through the roots and sod
Some make you mighty sick they say
Or bring you close to God
So here’s to the mushroom family
A far-flung friendly clan
For food, for fun, for poison
They are a help to man.
–from The Wild Mushroom by Gary Snider