A Walk In the Woods: Adventures in Foraging, part 1

On Mother’s Day my mom, husband and I took a walk in the woods. The weather was nice, if cloudy and a bit cool, and we chose a path about twenty miles from the city of Boston with a specific goal: to find something – anything – out in the wild to eat. Luckily my mother is game for my locavore adventures, especially after growing up in small town western New York state where her mother made regular meals from dandelion greens and puff ball mushrooms found along the runways of the airport her family founded and managed.

Walking along the leaf-lined paths through the woods, still close enough to civilization to hear the cars on the highway as well as the wind in the trees, we searched in vain for mushrooms, fiddleheads, ramps and wild leeks – the only items we felt confident to identify. My husband followed along behind, cringing when my mother or I licked or sniffed a torn green stalk, checking for that distinctive onion smell or taste.

“You’re going to make yourself sick,” he warned.

Finally we chanced upon some brown mushrooms.

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They were nestled among dead oak leaves – just where mycologists indicate some of the tastiest varieties like morels might be found. They smelled divine – like the ultimate, freshest mushroom. I gathered all I could find, resisting the urge to taste them, knowing that one bite of the wrong kind of mushroom could kill me. But oh – how I wanted to pop one in my mouth! Luckily, my cautious side won out and I tucked the bulging bag of mushrooms into my backpack, confident we would be eating them saute-ed in butter in a few short hours.

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We continued on our walk, spotting not another fungi, which made our earlier discovery feel even more fortuitous. We did, however, come across some fiddleheads (or young, sprouting ferns). Alas these were not the edible kind. Only the species that grows in a circular “vase-like” pattern and has onion-like skin on its stem is edible – and only after the tightly-wound fronds are boiled for at least 3 minutes (so says Russ Cohen, local forager extraordinaire, others recommend even longer boiling time). As you can see, the ferns below are furry and grow in different pattern than the edible kind.

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After our walk, we returned home and my mother, complaining of dizziness and slight nausea, retired to bed. While she slept I checked the internet and my hefty mushroom guide for verification of the species we had gathered. The only definitive information I could ascertain was that some of the most lethal mushrooms were small and brown. About five hours after ingestion, those who have been poisoned by these mushrooms experience headaches and vomiting. Once the toxin enters the system, even modern medicine cannot always save the victim. I began to worry that my mother had tried a mushroom during the exciting flurry of tasting weeds and smelling that delicious earthy aroma once we made our initial fungal discovery – that she was in our guest bedroom-slash-office dying from mushroom poisoning. I was moments away from checking in on her, berating myself that my uninformed foraging excitement had maimed my mom – and I mother’s day, no less –  when she emerged, claiming her headache was gone. She felt great.

I breathed a sigh of relief that she was fine – and then confessed that I had thrown all the mushrooms away. I couldn’t ensure their safety and the risk was far from worth it. I was disappointed that our foraging trip had resulted in nothing edible – that I couldn’t cook the gourmet wild mushroom dinner I had hoped to celebrate all that my mother had done for me in the past year. But then I realized that our day wasn’t a waste – how could it be? I had spent an afternoon walking through nature with two of my favorite people – looking under fallen logs and surprising snakes and traversing ancient stone walls. It was then that I realized was so many seasoned foragers already knew: that even an unsuccessful day foraging was still a pretty good day.

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