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Mushroom hunter finds chanterelle bounty

By Joyce Johnson, Oprah.com
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Wed August 31, 2011
As a child, the author discovered mushrooms as a source of passion and risk.
As a child, the author discovered mushrooms as a source of passion and risk.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The author discovered the passion and risk of picking mushrooms as a child
  • Mushrooms are something she has carried with her into adulthood
  • Living in Vermont, she can grow, pick and cook with mushrooms

(Oprah.com) -- Many years ago I had a blind date in a mediocre Chinese restaurant with a dour tax attorney with whom I was hopelessly mismatched. There seemed no possibility of common ground until he proudly informed me he was an officer of some organization of mycologists. Perhaps whatever passion there was in this man lay in mushrooms rather than law or human relationships.

I told him I had collected mushrooms once myself. In fact, it was one of my most purely happy early memories.

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I was 7 or 8, and my favorite aunt, Rose Wallman, who often borrowed me from my parents because she was childless, came to take me for an afternoon mushrooming expedition in Forest Park, New York. Aunt Rose was equipped with a basket from Woolworth's and a copy of "The Little Golden Book of Mushrooms".

I was thrilled to go foraging with her because I had been reading the Heidi books and it seemed like something Heidi would do, even though Aunt Rose and I were not in the Alps. Forest Park was as close as you could come to a real forest in the borough of Queens.

Aunt Rose, as much a neophyte mycologist as I was, delighted me by appearing to rely on my judgement in matters of life and death. We would spot a mushroom and consult "The Little Golden Book", searching for a matching illustration. Mushroom or toadstool? would be the question. (At this point in my narrative, the tax attorney interrupted me with a withering pronouncement: "There are no toadstools -- only toxic mushrooms." "To me at 8, they were toadstools," I said firmly, and shortly afterward went home alone.)

To continue my story, anything we both designated "mushroom" would be promptly picked. By the end of the afternoon we had gathered quite a variety; golden and in various shades of brown, they lay nestled in Aunt Rose's basket with clinging bits of moss and pine needles.

The tax attorney told me he did not necessarily eat the rare specimens he collected; my aunt, however, was planning to sauté the whole lot in parsley butter but said she could not take the responsibility of inviting me to share the feast. All evening I worried about her, until the phone rang. Aunt Rose had not only survived but reported to me that the mushrooms were delicious, and ever since I have regretted not sampling that dish seasoned with a bit of danger.

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I thought of Aunt Rose quite often after I bought a small cabin in Vermont on the edge of the woods. She would have been pleased that I finally had my own Forest Park, complete with deer, moose, porcupines, and a mythical bear or two. Where my lawn ends, there are wild apple trees and blackberry brambles. In the fall after it rains, I'm likely to find boletes in the garden.

My friends and neighbors up there are experienced mushroom hunters who wisely collect only what they're absolutely sure of and eat everything they gather. Strings of dried mushrooms hang from the rafters of their kitchens. If you're out driving with them, they're likely to stop the car to harvest giant speckled pheasant's backs jutting from dead elms along the roadside or the slightly phosphorescent shaggy manes that show up at night, luminous in the headlights. I've heard tales of giant puffballs, big enough to serve six, and of certain outcroppings of morels in hillside cow pastures.

If you ask, "But where exactly do you find your morels?" you won't get an answer -- such secrets are respected by all -- but you will get an invitation to come to dinner and try some.

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I went to the Strand bookstore in New York City and bought an enormous illustrated tome on mushrooms, which I hauled up to Vermont. It was full of Latin names and stern warnings and symbols representing degrees of edibility. I studied the picture of the lovely white mushroom known as the angel of death, learned how to make spore prints on paper towels, and felt properly nervous but still eager to proceed.

Finally I went off to the woods without my mushroom bible, which was far too heavy to carry. I was a middle-aged city dweller still unaccustomed to being alone in the woods, and sometimes I thought I had to be crazy as I scrambled down the ravines and over fallen tree trunks and wrenched my sneakers out of oozing mud. If I broke my leg, who would find me? Perhaps days would pass before my friends started inquiring, "By the way, have you heard from Joyce?" And once I was rescued and was asked, "Why did you take such a foolish risk?" The truth would be somewhat ridiculous: "Because I wanted chanterelles."

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I'd been told they grew everywhere in Vermont, and even for a beginner like me, the delicious little saffron trumpets were easily identifiable. Like a child, I wanted there to be chanterelles in my part of the woods. I found only three or four of them that first day, growing out of rotted logs, but still it was a victory. I brought them home in a strawberry box and put them in an omelette after double-checking them with the book.

In the following days, I went farther afield and brought home a few more, saving them up until I had enough to cook with pasta. I liked the way the urge to seek them cleared out my mind, brought purpose and suspense to my rambles; I thought of nothing in the woods but of spotting a few dots of cadmium yellow in last year's dead brown leaves.

One day, wandering contentedly in circles, I completely lost my way. I headed toward the sunlight and found myself in a strangely familiar place that turned out to be my neighbor's yard. There was a lone chanterelle growing in his driveway. With a twinge of guilt, I picked it.

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My city cat had come to Vermont with me; I'd kept her in the house for fear of losing her to coyotes, but finally she made her escape through some torn screening. I ran after her, tearfully calling her name, but she melted into the woods.

As I walked back to the house, I found myself in a stand of birches near the road, only a few yards from my door -- the ground was covered with small yellow trumpets, more than I'd ever hoped to see in one spot. They'd been hiding in plain sight -- like the cat, as it turned out. She materialized on the porch at five the next morning, ravenously hungry and full of fleas.

So thanks to her I have my own secret place, filled with the mysterious bounty of the forest. I can only guess at what makes the chanterelles so abundant there. Is it the particular amount of sunlight filtering through the trees, the birch bark and decaying limbs on the ground mixed with just the right proportions of maple leaves and pine needles? My chanterelles come back year after year. Like all miracles, it's nothing measurable.

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