Saturday, July 20, 2024

A basket of mushrooms brought back from a Boston Mycological Club hike. (Photo: Greg Harris)

The drive from Cambridge to the Manchester-Essex Conservation Lands took longer than my partner and I expected, so we were still breathless from hurrying down the trail when Jonathan Kranz, a volunteer leader with the Boston Mycological Club, lifted the mosquito netting from his face and, in front of a dozen or so onlookers, bit into a large white mushroom. 

He wore a broad-rimmed green hat, and his expression beneath it was contemplative as he chewed. Then he yelped and, features scrunched in pain, spit the mushroom into the bushes. “I was right!” he said, once he recovered the ability to speak. He turned back to the group of a dozen of us watching. “It’s Lactarius piperatus. Anyone else care to try?”

The Boston Mycological Club, founded in 1895 “to bring together all of those interested in fungi,” claims the title of oldest continuously existing amateur such club in the world. Each part of that description is significant, as you might expect for a group focused on precise taxonomies. There are older clubs (Washington, D.C., and the Societé Mycologique de France) but D.C. hasn’t existed continuously, and France is professional. So – there you have it. Boston gets to brag about antiquity. 

Speaking of antiquity. Not long after Kranz offered us his taste of what looked like toadstool (with the caution that we, too, must spit it out), another attendee at the mushroom hike imparted this lore: “There are old mushroomers. And bold mushroomers. But there are no old, bold mushroomers.” With well-known risks such as the often-fatal Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera) present in the eastern woods, the club puts education at the center, offering frequent mushroom hikes such as this one and a robust series of webinars archived for club members on its website. (Two recent titles give a sense of the range: “Foraging for Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms” and “Dung-Loving Cup Fungi.”) 

Jonathan Kranz, a volunteer leader with the Boston Mycological Club. (Photo: Greg Harris)

For a novice such as myself, the hike featured revelations, including the sheer variety and abundance of fungi. Hiking on my own I might have noticed a mushroom or two; the group of us, rustling through the underbrush alongside the main trail, turned up dozens of species and hundreds of specimens, ranging from brown-banded false turkey tail to much-coveted chanterelles. When people spilled the contents of their gathering sacks across a portable field table at the end of two hours, the results looked like one of those posters of “The Mushrooms of North America,” with mushrooms brighter orange than traffic cones, whiter than paint, red as cherries, spotted, stubbled and striped, from pearl-sized puffballs to shelf fungi the size of a ham.

Their fragrances were as distinctive as their looks: One smelled of almonds, another apple juice. Some bruised blue at the slightest touch. One, the Old Man of the Woods – a gray mushroom topped with stubble – blushed pink. Gary Gilbert, a board member of the club who characterized himself as another “old man of the woods,” held it up for identification. Then he and others, including club president David Babik, guided the group in distinguishing between gilled and pored mushrooms, universal and partial veils, true and false turkey tails, the characteristics of boletes (mostly edible) and amanita (not to be approached without years of study, given the presence within the genus of the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap).

The results of a mushroom-spotting hike arrayed on a field table. (Photo: Greg Harris)

The discussion also ranged to recipes; once you know what you’re doing, the rewards – in terms of flavor – are intense. So much so that not all the best specimens of mushrooms were making it to the table. One woman half-hid a basket full of fresh-looking Chicken of the Woods. Several harbored collections of the funnel-shaped Black Trumpet, sometimes called the black chanterelle, which blossoms from the ground in dark leathery folds. “It’s a great edible,” Kranz confided. “Delicious, and there are no deadly lookalikes. But a be-otch to spot.” 

Passion for wild food accounts for some of the mushroom walk’s appeal. Gilbert’s bio mentions his contributions to the Fantastic Fungi cookbook (as well as his “Mushroom of the Week” column for Manchester-by-the-Sea and Essex’s newspaper, the weekly Cricket). But for many attendees – and I include myself – even more powerful is the sense of insight into local wilderness. We learned to look for oaks as the richest cultivators of mushrooms, that maples represented, by comparison, a virtual desert, that white pines are associated with the edible bolete Suillus spraguei, sometimes known as the red-haired mushroom or painted slipperycap. Names can convey surprising knowledge: Russula mushrooms, also called brittlegills, crumble between the fingers because of the unusual, spherical shape of their cells. Kranz, gesturing at the table, said, “What we’re really looking at is a snapshot of a time and a place. Certain trees, certain weather. It will never be the same collection again.” 

Knowledge doesn’t get more local than this. Or more intimate than when Kranz demonstrates one of the key qualities of lactarius, or milky caps, which as both the Latin and common names imply, weep a white latexlike fluid from their cut gills. 

It is one of these weeping mushrooms that Kranz enthusiastically nibbled, then even more enthusiastically spit out, when my partner and I joined the hike. Lactarius Piperatus.

This spitting out is a key mushroomer technique, I learn. Taste can tell you important things, but – as another expert with the group tells me – it’s a terrible idea to eat any mushroom raw. Not just because of the risk of poison, or of eating something spoiled (bacteria love mushrooms as much as we do), but because even with the nontoxic varieties sold in supermarkets, mushrooms are composed mainly of a chitin that’s largely indigestible unless cooked. 

At first Kranz found no takers when he offered the rest of us a bite. Then he clarified. “It doesn’t taste bad. It’s spicy. Like hot peppers.”

As the proud possessor of a T-shirt that reads “I tried 100 hot sauces in one day and survived!” from Tio’s Mexican Cafe in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I couldn’t resist. I lined up behind several others for a slice.

I chewed. Spat. A moment later came a rush of heat as intense as a habanero. It was bizarre to experience this and have it be associated with no flavor whatsoever. “Is it capsaicin?” I asked – the molecule associated with all hot peppers. “It can’t be, can it?” Fungi are not plants – they’re a separate kingdom, more closely related to animals – and it wouldn’t make sense for them to have the same chemistry as the pepper bush capsicum, a flowering nightshade. 

Later I looked it up, my Google expedition giving me, just as the hike had, a glimpse into the wild complexity of the fungus world. No source suggested that the Peppery Milkcap (Lactarius Piperatus’ common name) generated capsaicin. But studies showed capsaicin itself is best explained as a plant defense against fungal infection. Not only that, but Fusarium, the genus of spindle-shaped fungi that represent such a threat to pepper plants, also infects toenails, produces toxins the Soviets harnessed for a biological warfare agent called “Yellow Rain” and is poised to kill off the Cavendish banana (the commercial variety all supermarkets sell). 

A disastrous organism, you might think! But then you read of Fusarium’s genius at mimicking the shape and color of grass flowers well enough to fool bees. And that Fusarium is cultivated as a human food, the vegetarian meat alternative sold as Quorn. 

All of which goes to show that you never know where a walk in the woods might lead you. If it’s a Boston Mycological Club event, it’s going to be someplace interesting.

Greg Harris is the founding editor of the literary magazine Pangyrus and the founder and co-director of Harvard LITfest. His essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard Review, Jewish Fiction, Earth Island Journal and elsewhere.