A MAN KNOCKED on our door early one spring day and asked if he could hunt for morel mushrooms in the pasture on my family’s sheep farm.
“Look,” I said, by way of saying no. “We’ve never found any morels out there.”
“I bet they’re out there,” he said. He had a look in his eye that made me feel like he wasn’t seeing me. He was seeing morels on virgin ground. His hunger for the possibility of those mushrooms was so great that the following April I went out to the pasture nearly every afternoon to see if he was right.
It was still too early in the season, but my heart had taken on this man’s hunger, and I primed my vision with photos of morels before going out (“the best way to hunt mushrooms is to prime the eye,” wrote someone on the internet). I walked with my nose as close to the ground as I could without actually crawling.
I found nothing.
It was unclear if this was simply because it was too early in the year, or that I just wasn’t seeing them.
Hunting anything takes skill, and hunting morels (genus Morchella) is a skill better developed with a guide. I’ve never taken a foraging class (something about that juxtaposition of words makes me itch), but once when I was a child, my brothers and I went morel hunting with family friends. I was very young, but I remember the plastic bags we carried and that one of the men, our friends’ grandfather, got a kick out of pretending to find mushrooms in places I’d already looked. He would conceal a morel in his hand and then, stepping just behind me, stoop down to “pick” the mushroom I had failed to see. The first time, of course, I believed him, and then the second or third time I caught on to the joke, which was a little bit funny, but not really—because I was the one being teased. It was also kind of mean, because morel hunting is a learned skill, and men like this grandfather forget that teaching a skill is more rewarding than teasing someone for lacking it.
My childhood was rife with men like this, who, as far as men rife in the lives of little girls go—not too bad, not too bad. But bad enough to produce the residual frustration I felt that spring while mushroom hunting on my own. Their type of humor was also bad for another, more insidious reason: it shaped me as much as their refusal to actually teach me what I needed to know. Their influence sharply tuned me to the openings where games that hinge on other people feeling silly would fit. I only win when I resist the impulse to play.
For want of a guide that spring, I went out alone. Nearly every day for weeks I walked out into the pasture and little woodlands and looked carefully until I was so frustrated that I had to take deep breaths and remind myself that while it was true that I was probably overlooking the coveted prizes, it was still very early in the season and very dry, so there likely weren’t that many in the first place.
One day, to my great and sustaining joy, I found patches of little dried-up puffballs attached to a dead branch. I poked them, releasing their spores and willing them to grow again soon. I grew up playing in pastures and woods, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw a fresh puffball. I was familiar with giant puffballs (Calvatia gigantea), but only in their dried form. The puffballs I knew were in the woods behind our church where my brothers played guns. The large husks released a foul green smoke when kicked or stepped on. Found on the battlefield, as it were, they took on the air of landmines, or perhaps emanators of the poison gas that our favorite World War I exhibit at the Hoover Presidential Library Museum warned us about: “Watch out, watch out,” said the mechanical voice as we walked through a simulated trench. “Watch out for the poison gas.”
At that point in my life the bulk of the movies I’d seen were old World War I and World War II films (meeting as they did the requirements for family viewing in our household: devoid of swear words and sex), so the idea of puffballs disguised as landmines or gas bombs felt within the realm of possibility, and even now when I poke a dried puffball I tend toward the same queasy feeling I get when I’m around car batteries and jumper cables.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I saw fresh puffballs for the first time. One day, glancing out my window into the barnyard, I noticed large white spots strewn across a wide swath of grass. Closer inspection revealed an outcrop of giant puffballs. I’d read that they were edible, so, using both hands, I plucked one from the ground and carried it inside, where I moved it, slowly, from the table to the fridge and then back outside. I was not brave enough to cook and eat it, and any courage I initially had waned with the mushroom.
They never reappeared.
A few summers ago, a woman came from Chicago to buy lamb, and as she climbed back into her car, she looked out into the pasture with the same hunger I would later see radiating from the man at the door. She asked if I had ever found maitake mushrooms, and then she said the same thing as the man: “I bet they’re out there.”
In fact, there are maitake mushrooms out there. I have twice found Grifola frondosa, known more commonly in the US as hen of the woods. The mushroom grows in our pasture on a slope shaded by big old oaks. Both times I found the maitake, it was shriveled and dried into a wooden version of itself. It felt a little like finding the skull of something I’d hoped was still alive: proof of life, extinguished. I’ve never been able to figure out where the maitake actually grows. I always find it in the late fall after it has tumbled halfway down the hill, and by the next year it’s difficult to remember which part of the hill I found it on the last time. It’s just a small slope, with four or five oaks, but when I go out to look, I find myself standing in the middle of the hill, turning slowly, disoriented and frustrated. Did it not grow this year, or am I just not seeing it?
Once, I found a bright orange chicken of the woods (genus Laetiporus) down by the creek. I knew this mushroom usually grows on dead trees, but this one was growing from the ground, so I wasn’t entirely sure it was chicken of the woods. I took it home and identified it as best I could before cooking it. Then I ate it, tentatively, half expecting to die. (I did not.) Every year since then I’ve looked in the same spot, but I must have removed all trace of it, because it has never reappeared.
In early May, my sister-in-law sent me a photo of a morel she found—just one. I stared hard at that photo on my phone and felt—what? I just felt.
My first taste of mushrooms must have been canned mushroom soup, or the small grayish mushrooms that arrive in cans and used to (possibly still) decorate pizzas. I once heard a podcast host say that his mother called them “sliced mice,” an uncomfortably accurate description.
I still enjoy a can of mushroom soup now and then. It’s hot and filling and something you don’t have to think about. Improving on a can of mushroom soup is a fool’s errand. Aside from a dash of cayenne, there’s no point. It is its own least common denominator, and if you want to eat something else, you’re wiser to simply start from the beginning with the thing you really want.
Canned mushroom soup was the basis for one of our standard weeknight meals when I was a kid: mashed potatoes with browned turkey burger awash in an undiluted can of the soup. It wasn’t until I was in France during college, trying to recreate the dish for my French host mother, that something in my palate began to come alive. I had to make the dish from scratch, first by making a sauce with butter and cream and then adding in quickly sautéed mushrooms. Maybe a scattering of something fragrant and green? Definitely plenty of salt.
All of which is to say that the baseline for my palate is low. Is it any wonder, then, that I still remember the taste of those morels I hunted as a child? Their earthy fragrance haunted me as I searched on, battling frustration. I remembered that we’d soaked them overnight in salt water to compel them to give up any insects living in their strange nooks, and then my mother fried them. They were not a big hit, and we didn’t take up the sport. I was too young to take it up myself.
In 1962 Sheila Burnford published “The Peaceful Pursuit,” an essay about mushroom hunting in Canada and the three years it took her to find a morel. On the balance, this knowledge was equally encouraging and discouraging. To conserve my fast-draining patience, I raised my nose from the ground and kept my eye on the forecast. When the nights were consistently at 50 degrees, I told myself, I’d lower my nose once more.
Burnford writes that there is “only one family of mushrooms that contains a fatally poisonous member.” Emphasis her own. The Amanita family, according to Burnford, contains many edible varieties, but also the fatal Amanita virosa, as well as a few “wicked (though not deadly) sisters, verna, pantherina, and dubious umbrina.” Her rule, then, is that an aspiring mushroom hunter need only learn to recognize the Amanita family “backwards and forwards, then avoid them like the plague.” If you’re in otherwise good health, she counsels, you’re unlikely to experience death from your average mushroom.
My fear in writing this is that you, dear reader, may take these words as fact and do as I did: tell your sister that most mushrooms, if not nearly all, are basically safe to eat.
In her essay, Burnford mentions a mushrooming text that she was unable to get her hands on: “I have not been able to find a copy and only know it from tantalizing fragments quoted in other books.” Charles McIlvaine, author of the elusive text, published One Thousand American Fungi in 1900 after an untold number of years of hunting and tasting. I ordered it from Amazon.
McIlvaine’s weighty reference text is fun to read just for his tasting notes. “I have not seen this species,” he writes about lachrymabundum (genus formerly Hypholoma; now Psathyrella velutina). “When I do I shall eat it and expect to live.” In this same entry he quotes other mycologists’ tasting notes, including someone named Hay, who considered the mushroom “bound with the weight of its own guilt,” and a Dr. Cooke: “This doubtful species is used by the smaller ketchup makers.” The irony in this statement is not lost on McIlvaine, who notes it.
Despite his prolific mushroom tasting (or perhaps because of it) McIlvaine took a different approach to the edibility of fungi and devoted nine pages of his introduction to instructions on how to identify poisonous mushrooms. He agreed with Burnford on Amanita, but his conclusion was different from hers: “By what rule do you distinguish between edible and poisonous mushrooms? The answer usually surprises the questioner—there is no general rule. All such rules which have been given are false and unreliable.” The nine pages of instruction are lot to take in.
After reading through McIlvaine’s introduction, I told my sister, Sarah, that Burnford’s approach was cavalier compared to McIlvaine’s. Then—then and only then—did my sister tell me that after I told her that Burnford had declared all but one mushroom good to eat, she had found and eaten a mushroom.
Sarah is my only sister. She grew up with five older brothers and me as an older sister. She’s the kind of woman who spent her girlhood barefoot, drinking creek water and secreting dead snakes in her pockets, and then as a young woman instinctively knew how to shape her eyebrows. That she found and immediately ate a mushroom is not the least bit out of character.
It may also not be out of character that she ate the mushroom because her older sister had explained that only one was unsafe to eat. It’s wise to remember, occasionally, that people take you seriously.
After eating the mushroom, Sarah told me, she spent a long night in agony on the bathroom floor.
I suppose they were both right in a way, Burnford and McIlvaine. Whatever it was that Sarah ate, however inedible, wasn’t fatal.
One afternoon in early May, my mother joined me on the hunt. We walked in an area where I hadn’t looked for a few weeks, and I was hopeful because the ground was damper, the weather warmer, but still we came up emptyhanded. Or, almost. We found ancient shelf mushrooms, one of which was as hard as wood and so old it looked like an extension of the tree bark. (We brought it home, put it on the kitchen table, and wondered what to do with it.)
At the end of our hunt together, my mother and I parted ways, she toward home and I to check a little wooded area with several dead trees, just above the creek. I saw nothing, turned around to go home, and then found, on the other side of the trees, two nice crops of huge, mottled mushrooms that turned out to be dryad’s saddle. Polyporus squamosus is edible, but according to McIlvaine, unmemorable. As dryad’s saddle ages it becomes too tough to chew or even cut with a knife, as I learned while trying to remove some of the crop from its host trees. The young mushroom is tender enough to eat, and I sliced one up and made a soup. As I ate, I remembered what McIlvaine had said about its flavor. Taste-wise, stewed dryad’s saddle is on roughly the same level as the canned mushrooms of my childhood. I made one more batch of soup and then, against McIlvaine’s advice, dried the rest for tossing in stir-fries. McIlvaine was of course right again—they are not improved by drying and reconstituting. Still, they’re edible.
But when has edibility ever held a heart in thrall?
In the heat of summer, I left the farm for a city, and I kept finding mushrooms. Wood ear (Auricularia auricula-judae), with its peculiar connection to Judas Iscariot, on a fallen tree alongside a creek that cuts through the heart of the city. Maitake I could finally admire in its plush ripeness, but not touch without a hefty fine for foraging in a national park. More dryad’s saddle than I cared to eat.
One afternoon while walking the trail along the creek, I stopped and turned around and around in one spot, willing the rushing water to drown out the sounds of the city. With each turn I took it all in, the ground and the water and the trees. On my third rotation I noticed on the creekbank a patch of capped mushrooms that had seemingly sprung up between turns. Tucked in among the ivy, they were not morels (it was once again too early in the year) but they called me to look—to look and then to look again.
Anna Anderson holds an MFA in nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University. She was the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship and is the founder of the Self-Directed MFA (www.theselfdirectedmfa.com).