Food Life

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However they may be served and eaten, mushrooms you must make yours at any cost... learn to like them, will to like them, or else your sojourn on this earth will be a wretched waste. -- E.R. Pennell, The Delights of Delicate Eating, 1896

Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe to touch and smell even the deadliest mushroom. In fact, picking mushrooms is like sitting in a car. Nothing terribly dangerous about that — unless you’re driving with your eyes closed. Mushrooms are the same way: staying safe has less to do with how much you know than with how careful you’re willing to be. Are you dying to learn how to forage? The last thing to remember is that haste makes waste. When shopping the Safe-way, the only thing that separates the novice from an expert is practice. If you can tell cabbage from iceberg lettuce, you can tell an edible mushroom from a deadible one. And you don’t need any book to do it. You just need practice and guidance. The only “field guide” worth having is one with two legs. The world is full of expert mushroom hunters. Most of them live in places where mushroom hunting is as common as driving. Imagine if learning to hunt mushrooms were part of growing up, like learning to ride a bike or tie your shoes. In fact, it’s much easier. This is how it is in much of the world. People learn to recognize one mushroom from another effortlessly — just like you can spot a sibling in a crowd — simply because you grow up with them. This is the natural way, the only way that works.Only practice makes perfect. Why bother? Mushrooms, like all wild foods, are superfoods because they are what we evolved to eat. It’s not that they’re so good for you; it’s that anything else isn’t. It should be no surprise, for instance, that beefytasting mushrooms are high in protein.

Some have as much protein as meat or milk. Mushrooms are also rich in most vitamins, particularly B and C, and contain practically all the major minerals, especially phosphorus and potassium. The most common and popular mushrooms in our area include lobster mushrooms, which look and even taste mildly like lobster; chicken of the woods, which really does taste like chicken; chanterelles, which also have a firmer texture than button mushrooms plus a faint smell of apricots; maitake, which is even firmer with a meaty/nutty flavor; and honey mushrooms, also nutty but slightly sweet and tangy as well. Every mushroom tastes different, even the “same” mushroom growing in different locations. That’s part of the charm of foraging. Foragers can’t be choosers, so the woods is always full of surprises. No garden-variety produce here! Probably the best part of foraging is that it feeds you whether or not you find anything.

Besides exercise and time in nature, you gain the reassurance that you are provided for. You may not ‘hit the jackpot’ every time, but sooner or later, you will. Mushroom hunting, then, can be a kind of meditation, a spiritual practice in nonattachment. Can you “look without seeking?” Can you just take a stroll through the woods, alone, or with a friend, and not miss the forest for the fungus? The deepest lesson mushrooms bring us is that there’s no need to hurry or worry. Good health and real wealth are our birthright. Both come in time, naturally. Fungophobia is just one aspect of biophobia: fear of life. Do we really have to struggle in a world of scarcity? That’s not my experience. We may have left The Garden, but it has never left us. Cure your Eden disorder today! Alan Muskat is the founder of the Asheville-based wild foods tour company and nonprofit educational organization, No Taste Like Home.