Safety in Numbers

September 1st, 2012

I teach wild mushrooms hunting for a living. Someone once asked me what qualifies someone to be an expert mushroom hunter. I said, “the fact that you’re still alive.” Here’s the secret to expert mushroom hunting.

The secret to expert mushroom hunting can be summed up in one word: ASK. Ask and you shall receive. Another word for asking is education. Education means one person learning from another instead of learning the hard way. Because on one hot August day in 2012, that’s exactly what happened.

They say you get what you pay for. They also say that if a deal is too good to be true, it probably isn’t.

For fifteen years, I picked and sold wild mushrooms to over 75 restaurants; about five hundred pounds a year. My price was usually $16 a pound. On that day, I got a phone call from a fellow forager. Three restaurants had bought mushrooms for $4 a pound from someone who said they were “chicken of the forest.”

is it chicken or is it squash?

Two hours later, a more experienced forager showed up to ply his wares. He recognized the mushrooms as being what are known as jack-o-lanterns (I’ll explain why below).

Meanwhile, a chef at one of the other restaurants took two bites and promptly checked himself into the hospital, thinking he was having a heart attack. Jack-o-lanterns aren’t deadly; they just make you wish you were dead.

Yesterday, all my toadstools seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they’re here to stay

When foraging goes mainstream, it can be a free-for-all. In our flagging economy, there are more and more inexperienced people trying their hand at selling — and eating — wild mushrooms.

In the long run, that’s a good thing. It fosters regional food security and builds a sustainable local economy. But the road back to community self-reliance is bound to be bumpy, for as the French say, “only those who do nothing make no mistakes.”

There is a common saying in Southern Africa, kabusha takolelwe bowa, literally, “the one who asks is the one who does not get poisoned by a mushroom.” This phrase is well-known in Zambia; it’s a lot like “a stitch in time saves nine.”

I know about stitches. My dad would often quote Napolean: “dress me slow; I’m in a hurry.” We didn’t dress him, but we often addressed him in a hurry. One time I raced my brother to the front door. I won; I still have the scar over my left eye to prove it.

I’m not known for patience, yet wild mushrooms are not fast food. Unless you want a jack in the box, speed is not the best attribute. They say there are old mycologists and bold mycologists, but no old bold mycologists. And so mushroom hunting for me is a spiritual practice. It’s about slowing down and appreciating what I already have, such as just being alive.

Truth be told, I got into wild foods not because they are beautiful or beneficial but because they are FREE. They were somethin for nothin. My mom remembers my post-college years of garage sailing, dumpster diving, and curbside cruising. She still innocently calls foraging “scavenging.”

For me, a better word for foraging would be “scrounging.” It’s true that with foraging/scavenging/scrounging, you can’t beat the prices. But one lesson I’ve had to learn over and over is that just because something is free doesn’t mean you want it. After all, they say every mushroom is edible — once.

Like Brendan Behan says, “the big difference between sex for money and sex for free is that sex for money usually costs a lot less.” You may not need to hear this as much as I do, but there’s no sense in bargain hunting (or skirt-chasing) if you kill yourself in the process. And the way to avoid taking a dirt nap is to consult with others. Like Plautus cautions, “none are wise enough alone.”

In our exceptionally fungophobic society, one or two serious blunders could spoil the fun/gi for all of us. To protect yourself and the livelihood of a growing number of professional foragers, either:

  • only buy from known, reputable sources OR
  • only buy mushrooms you can positively identify yourself OR
  • check with someone knowledgeable before you eat or serve mushrooms you don’t know.

To illustrate how to grow old hunting mushrooms, here is the story of the tempting toadstools.

These days, I rarely get to go out and pick mushrooms to sell. I mostly just teach and manage a foraging team, which means I mostly sit at the computer. So far, that’s the cost of semi-fame.

I was dutifully sloshing through email when I got the kind of message that causes traffic violations:

There is a 10 foot stretch of large, bright orange mushrooms growing on the side of [a certain dirt road]. They are huge and seem to keep growing each day. Are they edible? I am not planning to eat them, but if you are interested in seeing them, they are there.

In case you’re wondering what she’s talking about, so was I. Less than a week before, I had gotten a similar lead, this time with a photo:

I have a large, bright orange fungus, circular and about a foot across, many layers like a cabbage opening up…

This guy didn’t want to eat his either, and it was in his yard, so I could wait until the next day. We chatted for a bit, then I took this photo. Why am I smiling? Partly because five minutes later, I made one phone call and sold it for $150.

It was chicken of the woods, the mushroom that those two restaurants thought they were getting for $4 a pound. And this was a small one. The year before, I had sold a slightly above-average sized one for $750.

This time, it wasn’t so easy. This was one of the prettiest, most impressive mushrooms I’d seen in a while. It really belonged on display. In the twenty feet between my car and the restaurant, a woman stopped me for a photo.

I also sold mushrooms to the restaurant next door, so I decided to at least stop in there. After all, it was my last chance to show off my email-order trophy bride. They ended up setting up a wild foods dinner event with me the following month.

This is all to say that when I got the message without a photo, I committed the forager’s cardinal sin: I had great expectations. After all, this lead was coming from a former student. Granted, she had only attended a class for kids. But kids, as most of the world knows, are actually the best mushroom hunters. They’re rarely distracted by wanting to sell — or eat — their finds.

I sure was. I was out the door within the hour. I’ve lived in Asheville seventeen years, and a close friend (who I poisoned once with chicken of the woods, but that’s another story) used to live on that same road. Her old house, in fact, was just yards away from this dream mushroom, so I knew exactly where I was going. Or so I thought.

I drove up and down the road three times. Not a fungus in sight.

As so often happens, I was either too late or the directions I had insisted on being exact were not so much. As I headed back home, I was needing to practice either forgiveness or nonattachment; I wasn’t sure which.

Fortunately, my consolation prize came soon afterwards: on my way home, I stopped by my kousa dogwood patch. I found six pounds of berries, the first of the season. Not wild, not even feral, but still free, kousa berries are one of my favorite foods. Having grown up in Miami, they remind me of flan (a.k.a., caramel custard). My neighbor had brought one over the day before, so now I knew they were out, and I had gotten there just in time. Ask and I shall receive!

That’s when I got the call. The forager who had pointed out the jack-o-lanterns had called a colleague, and he called me. Word got out quickly, and further mishaps were averted.

That’s the power of communication and cooperation. Both are key aspects of community, which is the key to survival, both for individuals and the species. Remember, the one who asks…

An hour later, I heard back from my informant. She had gone back to the spot that she had sent me to. Every mushroom had been picked. And based on images I had sent her, she was sure they weren’t chicken of the woods. They were jack-o-lanterns.

The next day, I heard from another colleague, a local botany professor. He had gotten a message around noon the previous day. It was from a friend, a ranger on The Blue Ridge Parkway, asking him to identify the mushrooms in this photo. Joe immediately recognized them as jack-o-lanterns. The ranger replied,

Good to know we didn’t harvest any, but someone else just left with a basketful. Sucks to be him.

It sucks to be us! When one person makes a mistake like this, the consequences hurt us all, starting with whoever eats the mushrooms and ending with regulations outlawing wild foods.

The spot I was at is about five miles from the parkway. Did the same person pick both patches? If so, I nominate him for Asheville’s Most Wanted.

This isn’t the first time someone beat me to the munch. Many years ago, back when my mushroom hunting business was, to my knowledge, the only one east of the Rockies, I found a log full of mushrooms I couldn’t identify. There are, after all, 3,000 varieties in my area, one of the most diverse on the planet. I left them there while I found out what they were, but when I came back, they were gone. That night, a former student asked me to identify some mushrooms. You can guess the rest. Fortunately, that time they were edible.

Here, on the other hand, is one of my oldest students in a lovely patch of jack-o-lanterns, just outside the VA Hospital (how convenient). They are actually being researched for cancer. And they’re good to dye with (that’s D-Y-E). And by the way, they’re called “jack-o-lanterns,” not just “pumpkin mushrooms,” because they glow in the dark. I once, on a new moon, took out a writer from The New York Times who flew down just to see them. They’re lovely, spooky, green in the gills, and they’ll make you that way if you eat them.

In fifteen years of selling and teaching, the one mistake I hear about 90% of the time involves jack-o-lanterns: people mistaking them not for chicken of the woods, but for chanterelles. At a glance, especially from a distance, that’s understandable. Here are chanterelles growing right near jack-o-lanters (the “jacks” are by the basket).

chicken-or-jackWithout looking at the underside, it can be hard to tell the difference, even close up. Is this a “chicken” or a “jack?” I can’t tell. I’d have to get to the bottom of it to get to the bottom of it. That said, I’m going to show you a “chant” and a “jack” side by side, but only after a considerable caveat.

Do NOT try to learn these mushrooms from these pictures. Do NOT try to teach yourself foraging. In law, they say “the person who is their own attorney has a fool for a client.” This is even more true of mushrooms. The only good field guide has two legs.

You do not have to pay me or anyone else to learn foraging. You can join The Asheville Mushroom Club or for a nominal fee or their email group for free. If you live elsewhere in North America, you can join one or more of many other local clubs. If you live anywhere else, you’re probably not reading this because your own parents already taught you how to mushroom hunt. In fact, they probably didn’t: nobody had to “teach” you your vegetables; the learning comes naturally.

In the photo on the right, the edible mushroom that someone beat me to can be seen on the bottom left, along with “the gut wrencher” to the right of it. This is the most commonly eaten toxic mushroom in North America, and even I once served it. To hear how that happened, see “How to not pass up a parasol, and how not to.”

One time, someone called me to make sure they were about to eat chanterelles, not jack-o-lanterns. She asked. After a long list of questions, I said,

“By the way, did you check to see if it glows in the dark?”

“Oh yes,” she said.

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

“You didn’t ask!”

There are only two mushrooms in North America that glow in the dark. The other is Panellus stipticus. It’s not rare: I know a path in Celo, NC that in August is lit up with them. But it’s very small. Honey mushrooms cause the wood they are to glow in the dark; that’s what they call “foxfire.” But for northern fungal phosphoresce, that’s about it.

I know one chef who called me AFTER he and his wife had eaten jack-o-lanterns. Another well-known Asheville chef, as I was told years later by his former sous chef (now head chef at another restaurant), decided that he didn’t want to pay for wild mushrooms anymore. So he went and gathered some and served them that night. The next day, there were thirty messages on his machine. You know why.

I have nothing against chefs learning to gather their own mushrooms. The key word is “learning.” I trained all the chefs at Zambra and now I can rarely sell to them anymore. But you need a minimal amount of knowledge. With that, mistakes like the above can be avoided easily.

Wild mushrooms are not “too dangerous to mess with.” They are eaten regularly in most of the world. For more about that, see “Why don’t I just be normal and stay away from wild mushrooms?” Apparently, the impending collapse of industrial civilization has stimulated a return to self-sufficiency. It’s “back to the garden” for most of us, and that’s a good thing. Mushroom hunting can be a great way to make money, save money, get exercise, enjoy nature, and much more.

I like the fact that more people are foraging for food and profit; otherwise, I wouldn’t be bragging about my windfalls. It was bound to happen sooner or later; it’s only natural. The question is, what is our re-learning curve going to be?

We don’t need to slam the brakes on mushroom hunting; we just need to slow down. Admittedly that’s not easy, especially for me. My “I BRAKE FOR MUSHROOMS” bumper sticker is way too small.

Safety comes from slowing down, paying attention, and asking for directions. It starts with education: with knowing, not avoiding, nature. For years now, I’ve been advocating for the establishment of a mushroom marketplace, staffed by experts, and a wild foods public education program to go with it.

As the author of Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas explains:

Some agencies are proposing the certification of commercial pickers to ensure their competence in differentiating toxic from edible mushrooms. Because the current incidence of poisoning is so low, it will be difficult to prove regulatory efficacy, but it would make all of us feel better that we are doing something positive.

On the other hand, an educated public might be a far more effective tool in “policing” egregious behavior. Imagine a general public that clearly knew the dozen or so edible mushrooms and was able to hold markets and chefs accountable. An hour of food safety instruction in schools might benefit the public a great deal more than the billions of dollars spent on regulations…

These attempts at regulation and licensing appear to be bureaucratic efforts with no basis in science or land-use policy. We should be encouraging and teaching the general public these ancient foraging skills—a positive way to ensure that we all continue to value the remaining public lands…

Instead of diluting our efforts on the issue of commercial selling and arcane, confusing regulations, let’s focus on the knottier and larger issue of habitat protection. Add to that a solid dose of natural history education in our schools. Nothing is as powerful as a scientifically literate public.

Denis Benjamin, “Should the harvesting and selling of wild mushrooms be regulated?,” FUNGI, Spring 2011

Finally, this Spring, I’m helping to launch, right here in Asheville, the first and only wild foods market in North America. It will feature edible plants and mushrooms, prepared foods and medicines, cooking demos and classes, even edible insects. Foragers can’t always be choosers, but this market will have something for everyone, with virtually none of it, as they say, available in stores. No “garden variety” selections here!

3 Responses

  1. scott burns says:

    Great article. I love reading your musings on mushroom hunting. I once picked a jack o lantern as i was learning the difference between chanterelles and jack’s…i looked at the jack o lantern for days before finally tossing it…i could not see it glow…but am certain…now…it was a jack o lanterns. As to why be normal and stay away from wild mushrooms…it is just too cool to find puffballs growing right out your backdoor…right as you are making dinner….and incorporate them into the meal. it is like they appeared magically. And they were sooo delicious! Thanks again for the cool words! Scott B

  2. Johny Alives says:

    Hey Alan… great article…. glad you wrote about the Jack… since I love chanterelles I have studied the Jack for many years and have been 100% succesful in not picking the wrong one – been finding the chanterelles all over Sylva and Franklin area and actually have not seen the Jack at all. A note of interest to you maybe, is that I have 5 things that I look for to be sure they are not jacks when I pick the chanterelles. I might add that not all Jacks glow in the dark from my experience…. I would agree that IF they glow then of course they are NOT chanterelles.

    All the best and again LOVED the outing we had with you … learned a lot from you


  3. Heidi Swann says:

    You should have a side job as a stand up comic!
    Just a great read Alan and so educational too!!
    Thanks for all that you share,
    Heidi Swann

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