DORKY. That's the wild mushroom hobbyist. Armed with a woven basket and field guide, he shuffles off through the woods muttering unintelligible binomial Latin labels. Your average mushroom foray makes one of Bob Schutsky's birding tours look like an Indiana Jones movie.
Keep in mind what we're after here: Fungus! Parasites! Saprophytes! Unlike their green brethren, these lazy plants never mastered photosynthesis, so they suck their energy out of other stuff - living and dead. They're everywhere: in our soil, water, air, basements, bread and socks. That multi-colored fuzz on your "hermetically sealed" leftovers? You guessed it.
Of course some kinds of fungi (namely, mushrooms) are more appealing than others (namely, athlete's foot). And many of the former are good to eat.
So, label me a dork. Given a truckload of discretionary time, there's only a handful of things I'd rather do than sit down with a pile of books and a pile of October mushrooms I've just picked and key them out.
It's no doubt the hunter-gatherer in me. For us archaic types there's something comforting about going to the woods and coming home with dinner.
And therein lies the suspense. Taken to its logical conclusion - eating what you collect - mushrooming is true adventure. It has more in common with training tigers than bird-watching; get sloppy and you could end up dead. Some mushrooms can make you sick and a few can kill you.
The family of mushrooms with the worst reputation is called Amanita, and Amanita virosa, aka the destroying angel, will kill you in a way that makes heart disease look pretty humane.
Scared? Good. A healthy dose of caution is the first requirement for a long, successful career as a mushroom collector/consumer. But don't let me frighten you away. To date, I've eaten at least 16 species of wild mushrooms, and, as of three days ago, at least, I was still alive. I've never suffered so much as an upset stomach from any of the mushrooms I've eaten.
And I'm not bragging. In fact, After spending time with the likes of Jim Knoll, and Helen and Bill Miknis, printing my life list is a little embarrassing. These three are members (cornerstones, I suspect) of a club known as Eastern Penn Mushroomers. I shuffled around a Lancaster County woodlot with them last week, parasitizing their knowledge and taking home some tasty edibles in the process.
If you'd like to take a whack at this pastime but you're a little intimidated, take heart from EPM's founding father, Jim Knoll. At age 78, he's been collecting for a quarter of a century and he's still very much alive. And he's not very smart.
At least, that's what he claims. In search of a hobby back in the early '70s, Jim turned to mushrooms, mainly because wildflowers intimidated him. "I thought there were too many to learn," he says. So he enrolled in a one-week field study course in mycology in England and by the time he realized what he'd gotten himself into, it was too late; he was hopelessly hooked.
Ironically, Jim had to go to England to learn about the North American Mycological Association, and, closer to home, a mycology club in Washington, D.C. He joined the D.C. group and remained a staunch supporter for years, but the beltway finally got to him and he severed ties.
Then about four years ago, Lancaster Central Park started offering mushroom outings led by park naturalist Ron Whiting. Jim attended and asked Ron if he'd be interested in starting a local club. Jim says Ron liked the idea but declined due to family commitments. If there was going to be a club, it was up to Jim.
And, to make a long story at least a bit shorter, Eastern Penn Mushroomers now boasts nearly 70 members and a slate of year-round activities. Although the best of the foraging ends with the first hard frosts, Jim's out there year-round. "I have found winter mushrooms when there was 5 inches of snow on the ground," he says.
For the most part, though, shrooming is a three-season hobby. Morels, probably the best-known of the wild edible mushrooms, kick off the season in April and May, and many different families of mushrooms pop up throughout the summer.
To my mind, though, summer is the worst of the three mushrooming seasons - too many insects, on you as well as in the mushrooms. Wildlife, from arthropods to deer, developed a taste for mushrooms long before we did, and when the best of the fungi are fruiting it's every critter for himself.
Fall? Now you're talking! The biting insects are gone. Those that compete for mushrooms are still around, but there doesn't seem to be as many. Take October, add water, and presto, mushrooms are popping up everywhere.
Water. Nobody, with the possible exception of a frog or a salamander, loves rain more than your average mushroomer. Jim Knoll and his cohorts, Bill and Helen, were lamenting the dry woods last week when the three of them took me on a mushroom-hunting expedition (officially known as a foray) in a woodlot near Columbia.
Bill loves his bowhunting, but he grew up hunting honey mushrooms around home in DuBois, so when archery season rolls around, he's not averse to taking a day off from whitetails now and then to stalk the wily mushroom - especially if he and Helen can hunt with Jim. "You have your own private tutor with you," he points out.
Helen also grew up in the DuBois area and recalls mushrooming with her grandmother. When she and Bill attended a mushroom foray in Lancaster Central Park three years ago, they knew they'd found their mentor in Jim.
The four of us, including the "not real smart" Jim Knoll, set off through the woods with Jim continuing to apologize for his shortcomings, mainly the fact that he's so forgetful.
All three were able to lead me to choice edibles, but when we'd come upon something on the obscure side, the task was clearly on Jim to label it. The wheels would turn and shortly our leader would dredge a genus from his cerebral files, then a species name or two, then the genus it used to be called before those darned scientists decided to reclassify it, then a related species or two. It finally occurred to me that the reason this man thinks he forgets so much is because he knows so much to start with.
But it was Bill, the hunter, who bagged the day's most photogenic trophy, a cluster of golden yellow honey mushrooms at the base of a tree.
"Now, those are the kind that make your mouth water," exclaimed Helen.
That evening at the Hubley House we had grilled chopped sirloin smothered with sauteed honey mushrooms.
And, you know, she was right.