Fungus Foray

Summer drought in the Pacific Northwest had finally succumbed to blessed rain. Salmon swished upstream, moss became turgid and green, and fungi burst from wet forest duff. The frenetic dampness of fall conjured Freudian notions of returning to the wet paradise of the womb.

But mushroom foragers usually aren’t psychoanalysts—they just love fungi. Six of us gathered on a gray, mid-November morning for a University of Oregon Outdoor Program mushroom foray. The Outdoor Program was launched as a cooperative in 1967 by students looking to share outdoor adventures. Members suggest and host activities ranging from skiing, hiking, and rafting trips to bike clinics, and the Outdoor Program Barn provides low-cost equipment rentals to students and community members alike. This damp November day, all of my companions were enthusiastic students, their majors ranging from biology to marketing. Our leader was Ed Fredette, a self-taught fungus fanatic with a quick smile and a bare head he calls “a thermoregulatory challenge.” Ed refers to himself as a mushroom enthusiast rather than a mycologist, and his enthusiasm burbles over like a bank-full stream. He and I are kindred spirits, with short attention spans for mushrooms that won’t end up in a sauté skillet.

We piled into Mazama, a Mad-Maxian van with dual rear wheels and a gigantic rooftop gear rack, and headed for the Cascade foothills. A coming rainstorm exhaled warm humidity across the autumn landscape. We wound into steep, fir-covered hills, while yellow hands of thimbleberry leaves waved from the roadside. Ed inculcated us in proper foraging techniques. This day, the stated focus was on sampling fungal diversity rather than filling bags with edibles.

We stopped for a 10-minute scramble in an open forest above the road. Back at the van, we spread our finds across an old blanket and squatted on the gravel shoulder while Ed helped us with identification. There were sulfur tufts, vivid orange and poisonous. The fried chicken mushrooms were brown and boring and edible, but they don’t taste like chicken. Actually, they don’t taste like much of anything, and we learned the important difference between edible and good.

The rainstorm held its breath. Our road snaked upward to a pullout near the top of a ridge. On the other side of the ridge I found a modest patch of chanterelles, contorted golden funnels barely visible in thick green moss. Time vanishes when I’m foraging, yet I managed to return on schedule, smug about my chanterelles. But Ed had the real prize: a fresh American matsutake, round and white as a snowball, smelling of cinnamon red hots.

After lunch we wandered through the dim afternoon amid second-growth fir. This was beautiful chanterelle habitat, but they were sparse. Occasionally we reconvened at Mazama, where Ed held forth on our finds: delicious orange hedgehog mushrooms, fishy-smelling shrimp russulas, and a tasty mocha-colored grisette. Light was just beginning to fade when I spotted a large shape bulging from the duff by an ancient stump. The fungus was a convoluted mass the size, shape, and color of a human brain. Cauliflower fungi are large, delicious, and uncommon. Carefully I cut it off and lifted it to my nose; my head filled with an aromatic prelude to mushroom soup.

My day was complete.

—By Tom Titus

Tom Titus is a research associate in the Institute of Neuroscience, a herpetologist, and author of Blackberries in July: A Forager’s Field Guide to Inner Peace.