My first wild mushroom was a hen of the woods. It was big. I had to chop it into five pieces in order to get pieces that would fit on the postal scale that I used for… well, I have no idea anymore what I kept that scale for. Sometimes we are a puzzle to ourselves.
Anyway, the sum of the pieces came to 13 pounds.
As my guide, I was using a book called Mushrooms, Wild and Edible, by Vincent Marteka. It’s a great book for starting out. The book takes just a few edible mushrooms – one per season – and discusses them in quite some depth. It’s not the scientific stuff like you mostly read nowadays; it’s like sitting by the fire with someone who’s been hunting for years and years. It’s lore. It’s not like a field guide, where you get a little tiny picture and a bunch of numbers.
So I was out hunting for king boletes, because that was Marteka’s mushroom of interest for the fall (He gives morels in the spring, and chanterelles for the summertime). Now, if you’re wondering how I came to find a hen when I was looking for boletes, well… first of all it was hard to miss! But what he does is first of all he gives you a whole chapter on the mushroom of interest. Then he talks a bit about some other edible mushrooms of the season, with an attitude of “Well, keep an eye out in case this comes up.”
There I was, looking under the oak trees that ringed a park near my college, and there was the hen, waiting for me. Luckily, I had been wildly optimistic and brought along a house-mate’s gunny sack for possible retrieval of mushrooms. Nevertheless, having filled the gunny sack with this one hen, I felt I was sort of tempting fate to continue foraging, and climbed back down the hill to where the bus would take me home.
Cleaning the mushroom was an adventure – not that it was hard to clean, but that it harbored the largest centipede I have ever seen, before or since. Sometimes when you’re little, things look bigger than they really are; but I was pretty big back then and this thing was longer than my hand, which would make it around eight inches – and very combative at being disturbed. Luckily, I was cleaning the mushroom in the sink, and managed to direct it into the drain, and… well, I didn’t hear from it after that.
I brought one of those one-fifth chunks of the mushroom home with me on a holiday. I’m not sure which holiday it could have been, since it was still fresh and I mostly find it in September. But anyway, home it came with me, and there I was at the front door with my gym bag of clothes and a ten-gallon bucket. So my parents said “What’s in the bucket?” and there was no sense telling them, so I just pulled the towel off the bucket and tilted it to show them. Naturally, they then had to ask “what’s in the bucket” again. My dad later said it looked like a giant brown cauliflower from outer space.
I told them it was a mushroom, so they asked what I’d brought it home for and I said it was delicious and I was going to cook it in a soup for us. So my father asked “How do you know it’s edible?” and I didn’t waste any time trying to prove its species, I just said, “Well, I’ve already been eating it for a week.” Well, that was good enough for my dad, but my mom got rather outraged with him for being satisfied with that; and I had to go the route of showing them what it was from the book, and in the end the soup made them happy enough that they both declared me a wonderful mushroom-hunter.
And that was how I got started hunting wild mushrooms.