Shave off the veneer of civilization and we are all hunter-gatherers. To deny it would be a vain argument against millions of years of hominid evolution. For the modern foodie-type ape, there remains an undeniable appeal in tracking down and collecting one’s own food, whether out on the Serengeti or down at the local farmer’s market. But the acme of these quest-for-food experiences, the most innately thrilling, rewarding, and potentially lethal, is the hunt for wild mushrooms. Here in northern California, hardly a winter passes without some horrific news story about a family poisoned en masse by the Destroying Angel or some other lethal look-alike packed with toxic alkaloids. And it’s not a pretty death either – catastrophic liver failure makes your typical e coli infection seem like a day in the sun. Even a hunting trip seems like Safety Day by comparison. Unless you’re hunting with Dick Cheney, in which case you deserve whatever you get.
But with great risk comes the possibility of great reward. Armed with the requisite knowledge, savvy, and experience, the wily mushroom hunter can bring home rare delicacies that would either be prohibitively expensive or downright impossible to find any other way. So when our friends Chris and Blake invited us out to the Mendocino coast to do a little shrooming, we did not hesitate. While neither would claim to be an expert mycologist, they are deeply familiar with their neck of the woods and its edible varieties, having successfully foraged for local fungi for many years. And both of them have healthy, high-functioning livers – let’s just say I know this for a fact, and leave it at that.
After an oversized breakfast at their off-the-grid homestead we headed off into the hills with high hopes and a fistful of empty shopping bags. Also on our checklist: good boots, waterproof pants, extra layers, and a copy of David Arora’s Pocket Guide. We found edibles within a few yards of parking the truck, and kept finding them throughout the day: mainly Chanterelles (brown, white, and yellowfoot), black trumpets, and hedgehogs. Mrs. M. found a “pig’s ear” Chanterelle that weighed a pound and a half. All told, we foraged nearly 25 pounds of gourmet wild mushrooms between the four of us. But we worked for them, hiking five or six miles up and down craggy ravines, brush-busting through creekbeds and tangled third-growth forest. This was all on private land, on legal footing that ranged from friendly (outright permission) to neutral (absentee ownership) to downright hostile (KEEP OUT!). We even had an angry dog after us at one point, which definitely amped up the thrill level and gave our adventure the sweet savor of illicit fun.
Speaking of the illicit, let me be clear that we neither searched for nor found anything psychedelic. A little danger in one’s life is a good thing, but spinning the wheel of chance for a cheap high is just flat-out stupid. Our intentions were purely gastronomic. In fact, we steered clear of the “gilled” mushrooms entirely, a family that includes most of the psychoactive varieties, as well as a few choice edibles and many of the more toxic species, including the aforementioned Destroying Angel. Seeing as I know next to nothing about mushroom identification, this seemed like a wise idea. That and learning from an experienced guide, rather than simply relying on a book. So there’s my safety disclaimer: go with someone who knows what they’re doing, or don’t go at all.
Back at the Rancho, hungry after a long day of vigorous work, we sorted our take by type, gave every specimen a second look to make sure we hadn’t picked up any look-alikes, and cooked up a mighty feast of mushrooms. Returning home with our half of the haul, Mrs. M and I spent the next few days cooking and drying. Our two deyhdraters ran around the clock, and I cooked a big pot of wild mushroom chowder that was out-of-this-world delicious. And yes, our livers are still fine, thanks very much.