houby (mushrooms)

Today: “Teacher! Is a mushroom a food?”

I looked down at Kareem, coolly facilitating lunchtime debate at the boys’ table. I said yes, even though there were video game mushrooms, and yes, even though some could kill you. (Matthew, the hippie kid, asserting wildly and unheard in the background: “Wild mushrooms! Wild mushrooms!”)

I don’t know how they got onto the topic. Although, from a kid perspective, mushrooms are badass. They’re gross, skin-like and damp and gilled. They smell like dirt and body crevices. (Poets love mushrooms too. For talking about sex and death. They call them “fleshy erections” and “probing thumbs” etc etc.) Mushrooms fall apart when you touch them, or explode in clouds of spores. Mushrooms can grow as big as soccer balls.

AND they are mysterious. They’re secretive, and disturbing, appearing fully-formed on the wet front lawn like a bad thing you’d done and forgotten about. Seeds come in little paper packets, but fungi spread invisibly. They fart out tiny versions of themselves into the air, spreading, disease-like, on their own whim. And as a result, people hunt them. Try hunting a tomato. Ah yes! The stealthy and temperamental wild tomato!

I’ve always respected mushrooms, probably for all these reasons.

I also love them because my grandparents, the Czech ones, used to take me on walks in the woods behind their house and bring a basket and we would search around the shady golden stretches of the forest, the places where the dense trees opened up a little, and brown and yellow leaves covered the ground between scattered pines. These were the low-lying spots mushrooms loved best, and my grandma (who wore a scarf or safari hat on her awesome Marilyn-platinum hair, and whose gloves smelled like real leather) became very quiet and intent as she stalked around the woods and peered at the ground. She was an excellent hunter of mushrooms. As a young woman at finishing school she’d studied botany, and she knew the Latin and Czech and sometimes the English names of the mushrooms, from the big marshmallowy white ones that you could cut in slices and bread and fry up for lunch to the spongey yellow duds that even slugs didn’t like.

Mushroom-picking is one of those things my Czech family did, like waiting until Christmas Eve to decorate the tree or not having a TV, which required patience and quiet, and which felt old-fashioned and warm and made me very happy as a kid, even as I eventually learned it was not advisable to mention my enjoyment of these things in public.

On my first trip alone to the Czech Republic, my aunt and uncle took me on a bike ride, and from the road we saw, in a green clearing between birches, hundreds of the big white fry-able mushrooms, as big as dessert plates. My cousins whooped and scattered to pick them. We collected them into t-shirts and backpacks, and ate them for supper. On a cold gray summer evening, my aunts cooked up piles of them in the steaming kitchen. They brought us platters of mushrooms, greasy and fried, crunchy with batter and hot and meaty on the inside.

One of the best things about that meal was sitting with a whole table of people who knew the ways of the crafty mushroom, that most delicious food that appears, mute and shapely, on its own enigmatic schedule.

In my adulthood, I’ve continued to love the idea of my mushroom-hunting Czech family.  But I hadn’t actually gone looking for mushrooms in years until Matt and I passed by my grandfather’s house on our roadtrip this summer, and my grandfather took us for a walk in his woods. My grandfather brought his wicker basket and a short, sharp knife to slice the fungi off at the root.  When we reached “the bonanza,” his and my grandmother’s old lucky hunting grounds, he stopped and peered ahead. I didn’t see anything. With solid steps, much slower than when I was a little girl and using his cane to support himself, he paced underneath the trees; Matt and I followed along, watching him instead of the ground. He lifted his cane and pointed when he spotted the first chanterelle, its fox-colored orange cap standing two inches above the forest floor.

We leapt on it.  Matt took off into the trees, leaning at a 45-degree angle to the ground, eager. My feet felt enormous and hot in my hiking boots as I tried to delicately skate across the dry leaves in a way that would not squish any mushrooms at all. Once I learned their shape, my eyes adjusted and I saw them peeking out, waiting between the tree roots’ dark knuckles and in soft pockets of leaves. It felt like a grownup Easter Egg hunt. I brought them back to in handfuls to my grandfather. “Ehhhh, this is a nice one!” he said, a few times, and his voice rose in the pleasure he reserves for an ingenious solution to a plumbing problem or the arrival of a new species of bird at his feeder.

We filled the basket with the small chanterelles, so many that my grandfather finally declared, “This is lunch!” Which really is the best mushrooming compliment you can hope for.

Back at the house, we washed them all off, and I cut off the stems. My grandfather took over cooking and sauteéd them with olive oil, salt and onions, and a little scrambled egg; I heaped the fragrant oily orange nubs onto plates with slices of rye bread.

The two men poured their Canada Light into glasses, and took their first bites: my grandfather tired and steady, Matt almost bouncing out of his chair with the energy of a new food discovery. I watched for a moment, pinched off the rye bread in my fingers, scooped up some mushrooms and took a bite.

Before Matt ever met my grandfather, I’d told him about this quirky family activity, conjured it up out of descriptions of pines and morels. But out in the forest, as he peppered my grandfather with questions about poisonous species, I realized I wouldn’t know a morel if it spored on me. The woods were part of me – I grew up walking the abandoned sugar maple avenues every summer – but that day I was as much a visitor as Matt was, and would still have been lost without my grandfather to tell me to turn left at the old orchard, right at the beaver dam.  I felt a little hollow inside, the shiny outermost nesting doll, with only the smallest doll clattering inside: too much distance between my current self and the people and places I knew I loved.

Then, as the warm chanterelles popped and slid onto my tongue, happiness appeared, fully formed, created from some tiny stray spore of love and memory that had been biding its time. It was different than I expected, but I’ve been learning to recognize its shape: at the table, the past and present sat together, drinking crappy beer and wiping their plates with rye bread. They were not as perfect or whole as I’d pictured in my imagination, but they were here, which was even better. The mushrooms in my mouth tasted like an echo of meat, an echo of smoke, and finally just themselves, the taste of remembering made real.

p.s. (Yes. A mushroom is a food. See the portabellas Waverly and I ate, doused in balsamic vinegar and paired with fresh mozarella and roasted red peppers, at the Mushroom Festival in Kennett Square last weekend. We smelled mushrooms, mushrooms, murky, sweet and fleshy all around us on the crowded carnival main street, until Wave and I zeroed in on a portabella wrap from an Italian restaurant. It was a violin-dizzy movie moment. Just delicious sex earth food juice, pouring hot down my throat with the thick soft slightly chewy mushrooms disintegrating into the smoky firm peppers…Happy hunting!)

p.p.s. The Mushroom Expert website has a feature called “what’s This Thing In My Yard?”  HA!


One Response to “houby (mushrooms)”

  1. This New York Times article on the hazards of mushroom hunting made me think of your essay. While hunting, mushroomers fall into a kind of trance, becoming so intent on the task that they lose all sense of time and place. To date, at least 67 manhunts for missing mushroomers have been launched in Russia alone. Wild stuff:


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