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Thesis Time #2: Foragers

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Hello, lovely readers. I’ll be posting pieces I wrote for my senior thesis for the next couple of weeks. If you’d like a PDF of the whole mess, shoot me an email. 




They walk among us unnoticed, a band of modern men and women who forage in the woods for fungi. . . for fun. A common practice in many Slavic countries, so-called “Mushroom Hunting” is seeing a rise in popularity across the United States. Dressed warmly to fight the chill of an early fall morning, mushroom hunters gather with likeminded individuals or venture out alone into wooded hills and empty fields to practice their craft. Standard procedure requires a wicker basket tucked under the arm, but the modernist can replace this with a more sophisticated receptacle if he wishes.

The value of fungi as a renewable resource is anything but news. Five thousand years ago, Otzi the Ice Man had a Fomes formentarius and Piptoporus betulinus with him when perished in the Alps. The former, aptly named tinder fungus, was used for starting fires. He carried a birch polypore for its antimicrobial properties: A wound dressed with the mushroom atop it will heal faster, with less risk of infection. Even in Otzi’s day, man knew the value of mushroom hunting.

While the increase of agriculture and urbanization caused a decline in the practice, it became a culturally significant activity in the Soviet Union when many, even city dwellers, were starving to death under Stalin’s policies. Families began to venture into the woods to forage, and they quickly found that mushrooms were the most plentiful resource to be found. At that time, mushroom hunting became competitive because of how much the foraging could help a starving family: One did well to hide their biggest harvests, and physical brawls breaking out over a good haul weren’t uncommon. Today, a knowledge and love of fungi is an integral part of the culture of the Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, and what was once a desperate attempt to survive has evolved into a national past-time.

With the U.S. economy seeing hard times and our ecological health at a questionable low, more and more American citizens are seeking out ways to make their living more sustainable. Foraging is the very epitome of sustainable eating, and it stretches the mushroom hunter’s diet while also being kind to the earth. Mushrooms, as we know them, are only the fruiting body of massive fungal networks. The mushroom hunter need never worry that they might be destroying their food source by harvesting it, because the bit they pick to consume is comparable to the very tip of a gigantic iceberg. Mycellium, the cobweb-like tissue that builds all of a mushroom’s structures, remains underground, shooting out in all directions like an intricate network of nerve pathways. The largest known mushroom, which lives in a national forest in Oregon, covers at least 2,200 acres under the surface of the Earth. Fungi, which are actually more closely related to animals than plants (their cell walls are made of chitin, the same polymer that makes up exoskeletons in insects and crustaceans), can provide sustainable food, medicine, and countless other supplies to the dedicated forager.

Most Americans are most familiar with Agaricus biporus, the species that produces both the common button mushroom (when young) and the portobello mushroom. Clever marketing presents the latter as a fancier variety, but the truth is that originally they were impossible to sell. Once a button mushroom was full grown, it’s fruiting body having bloomed into a flatter capped, brown specimen with peeling skin, no one would have them. Now they’re usually marked up in price! Of course, the mushroom hunter isn’t limited to what their grocer is pushing in the sale flyer. Morchella mushrooms, known as morels and often found in backyards that border woods, can be prepared stuffed with sausage or walnuts for fancy finger food, or dipped in buttermilk and breading and fried. Pleurotus ostrestus, aptly named the oyster mushroom, grows like velvety versions of its namesake up the bark of an autumn tree. These are best in chowders and risottos, adding texture and a sweet taste. Genus Laetiporus is called Chicken of the Woods, and that’s no mistake. The hearty orange shelf fungus becomes juicy and tender when cooked, and is especially delicious when sauteed with lemon. The chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius, is said to look like a golden flower sprouting up in the middle of the woods. It can be prepared in a traditional Russian style, cooked in fresh bacon drippings with onion and sour cream. For most species of mushroom, the preparation is limited only to the chef’s imagination.

The table is an obvious destination for the mushroom, but one venture into the forest can yield everything from preservable snacks to art materials. The genus Ganoderma, for example, which grows like woody little shelves on the sides of trees, contains the Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum). Artist’s Conk is unique in that its underside, while still fresh, can be drawn on using a stick or blade. The images will be preserved when the mushroom dries. Also members of the same genus are G. lucidum and G. tsugae, commonly referred to as reishi mushrooms in Japan and lingzhi mushrooms in China. reishi are known for their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. While their tough texture makes them basically inedible, they’re easily brewed into tea. In many countries where mushroom hunting is culturally significant, cancer patients will drink a daily dose of this tea to support their health while they undergo conventional treatment. For winter treats, the mushroom hunter can dry or pickle any of their edible catches: While this sometimes changes the flavor, it can often be for the better. A good mushroom guide will indicate which species can be improved by drying. Even mushrooms that are poisonous, wormy, or otherwise undesirable can be used with a little creativity. Trametes versicolor, or Turkey Tails, grow on trees all over the Northern United States. Grinding them up into a watery pulp provides a base for making paper. Such paper, or any wool or other textile, can even be dyed with easy to find mushrooms. Tapinella atrotomentos, or Velvet-Footed Pax, produces a mossy, gray-green shade. Hypholoma fasciculare, known as Sulfur Tufts, dye wool a pale yellow reminiscent of sunshine. Cortinarius semisanguineus resembles a “little brown mushroom” or LBM, so called for the difficulty in distinguishing them from all of the other LBMs, but their red gills make an incredibly vibrant dye, with shades ranging from bright orange to blood red. All of these dyeing mushrooms happen to be inedible, but just as many delicious mushrooms can also have a place in the dye pot.

The best way to start learning about fungi and how to forage for them is to find a group of enthusiasts. Americans seem to have an almost universal distrust of mushrooms that don’t come sealed in plastic, so attending a meeting of Mushroom Hunters can be a bit of a culture shock. Far from fearing wild fungi, these hunters are confident in their ability to harvest the edible and discard the poisonous. They gather in groups, sharing knowledge and experience, until each individual has an arsenal of known species that they can pick and consume safely. At some meetings, members will lay their hauls out and identify them together, allowing for some added security before anything is consumed. Mushroom Hunters form a unique community, their meetings a place where one can find a history and ecology lesson, a great hike, and a delicious meal all in one day.


About Rachel

Rachel Feltman is a 20 year old Simon's Rock alum and a grad student at NYU SHERP. She loves writing about science, and would one day like to be paid to do so. Please.

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