EARLY MAY, SOMEWHERE IN THE METRO AREA
The blue sky, gentle breeze and sunshine have us fooled. It feels like midspring as the four of us set out for today’s hunt, all of us dressed for the occasion, never mind the warmth: long, heavy pants, long-sleeved shirt, boots and backpack. I reach for the Off! Deep Woods repellent for a quick spritz to deter ticks.
Michael Karns, Dennis Becker and Lisa Golden Schroeder hit the trail ahead of me, Becker’s camera dangling from his shoulder. The trio have tramped many paths together over the past two years as they gathered content for their recently published “Untamed Mushrooms: From Field to Table, a Midwestern Guide” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 316 pages, $24.95), which offers food for thought, along with recipes, on the 13 most common edible wild mushrooms in the region.
And they do mean “wild,” in the truest sense of the word. These are fungi found on the forest floor and along tree trunks, not cultivated or misrepresented about where they were grown. And don’t get Karns, a certified mycological identification expert, started on the quintessential cultivated variety, the button mushroom. Really. Don’t.
“Let’s be serious. Most of what you see that’s called wild, in the stores and restaurants, isn’t. And that button mushroom is the same as a cremini and portobello, just differentiated by age and the growing process,” he said, shaking his head. “Cremini is a brown variety of the same species. Portobellos, that’s a made-up name that sounds Italian.”
Today, we search for the elusive morel, specifically the yellow variety (Morchella esculentoides), which often starts the season gray, one of the four easiest-to-identify edible mushrooms in our region, along with those that follow later in the season, the golden chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius), chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus and Laetiporus cincinnatus) and giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea).
We are a couple of weeks early, the soil still too cool to support the growth of morels, which need three to five nights above 40 degrees and soil that’s warm to a depth of 6 inches before they appear.
Despite the unlikelihood of success today — though we check south-facing slopes, just in case — we, like a few others on the trail, are out for the sheer pleasure of the walk.
Karns scans the forest for elms as we pass, watching for the dead ones that serve as host to the morel, as he takes us to a spot where he found many last year. “See how the bark has popped off the trunk and sloughed off? That’s where we could find morels, within the drip line [the outermost circumference of the tree canopy].”
He reminds us that the morels can be found in the same location for three to five years before they disappear for good, often followed by the pheasant back mushroom (Cerioporus squamosus), which takes its place.
To no one’s surprise, we discover no morels today. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be, three days from now, or 10 days from now,” said Karns.
Just off the path, he sees a pheasant back the size of a hand, which indeed has the feathered pattern one would see on the bird. It’s the second stage of the biological interaction between tree and fungi as the wood disintegrates. “It’s like a changing of the guard,” Karns said.
We veer off onto another trail, the quiet broken only by the sound of spring peepers in wetlands a short ways ahead. As we reach its edge, the peepers stop, and silence overtakes the forest while we continue a few yards past. Then, just as suddenly, the peepers raise their voices again in full trill, a musical reminder of spring.
Karns spots more pheasant back mushrooms along the edge of the wetlands, and we carefully position ourselves on the dead wood at the lip of the water, where we see tiny smudges of something on bark that looks like chewed gum. “These pheasant backs are just starting out,” notes Karns, as we snap photos and turn back to the trail.
Back in the ‘office’
Schroeder, a food stylist and writer, and Becker, a commercial photographer who specializes in food, have worked together for years in the industry as creatives, eventually collaborating on a blog, 2fish1dish.com, where they muse about all things food, including a posting about mushrooms that eventually led them to writing a book together. Their subject at the time was Karns, a digital tech and designer by profession and longtime forager who is a member of both the North American Mycological Association and the Minnesota Mycological Society, as well as a proprietor of Found Foods (foundfoods.com).
Becker decided early on to shoot harvested mushrooms — and their recipes — in his New Brighton studio using natural light, as he did in the field. The stunning results could pass for Dutch paintings. Schroeder took to the kitchen and outdoor grill to devise recipes that made the most of the distinct flavors of each mushroom variety, relying mostly on local ingredients, but acknowledging that global flavors inspire her cooking, or as she noted in the blog, “I needed to wander away from just good butter and a hot skillet.”
Their book is a masterpiece, both for visuals and content. Easy to read and carefully designed, it serves up a wealth of information that is particularly useful — and inspiring — for all those Americans who fear wild mushrooms in a way that they never are afraid of wild berries (because, of course, they can identify familiar edible berries, such as the raspberry, blackberry and blueberry).
Lessons for the hunt
The authors want to change that view of the mushroom, though they note some guidelines to ensure a safe and successful learning experience. Karns offers these recommendations in the book:
When in doubt, throw it out. There are a lot of mushrooms in the forest that are “neither tasty nor identified,” he said. And some of them are deadly. Focus on those easy to recognize — and edible — first.
Identify mushrooms with a field guide or other source. Better yet, use several, and hit the trails with a knowledgeable guide. Separate mushrooms by species in the field and in the kitchen so you do not mistakenly cook the wrong one. Get comfortable with Latin because common names change from region to region but the Latin title stays the same. Also pay attention to the soil and conditions where the mushrooms are growing, as they can have significance in identifying any given mushroom.
Never trespass. Foragers are welcome in Minnesota state parks but not at many county ones, including those that are part of the Three Rivers Park District locally, where there are hefty fines for disobeying the rules. Always get permission to forage on private land.
Tread lightly. Protect the wild lands and stay on the trails, when possible, or step carefully when you venture off the beaten path (there may be mushrooms lurking under the leaves). And only pick what you plan to eat or need for identification. Mushrooms serve a purpose in the ecosystem; don’t disturb their habitat without reason.
Pick only in safe environments. Do not gather mushrooms in areas that may have been sprayed with pesticides.
Always cook mushrooms thoroughly before eating them. Always. Some mushrooms can cause stomach upset for individuals.
Take along a cellphone as you hunt. Not only is it handy if you’re injured on a hike, but you can document your finds and create a photo diary with the camera.
Dress for the hike. Wear clothing that will stand up to prickly branches and ticks. And watch for ground hives of yellow jackets, which can swarm a hiker quickly, as the authors discovered during one of their forays into the woods.
Use a dehydrator instead of an oven to dry mushrooms. The oven doesn’t get to a low enough temperature, Karns said.
Back in the forest
The nights — and soil — have warmed. The morels are waiting. It’s time to head to the woods.