Archive for October, 2008


15 pound Hen-of-the-Woods in our garden


It is said that chance favors the prepared mind, and by this it is meant that good fortune doesn’t shower down from the skies, passively, on any random soul.  To benefit from good luck, one must be ready to hold out a jug and catch it.  The wise individual takes the luck and turns it into something of value.  


But every once in a while, on the rarest of occasions, chance will keep pestering you, year after year, despite woeful lack of preparation, until finally you must open your blindered eyes and take notice.  Such was the case with me and my gift from the gods of the underworld.


You see, some powerful denizen of the deeps, perhaps Osiris or Hades, sent me a mushroom.  I have some interesting edible plants in my garden: lingonberries, sweetfern, ground cherries, wintergreen and elderberry, to name a few.  Maybe from below, our household looked like the type that would know how to appreciate large, edible mushrooms: the dark darlings of otherworldly feasts.  Whoever sent my mushroom couldn’t have been more wrong, but luckily for my unprepared mind he gave me a few years to figure it out.


Year 1:  Amid a slog of packing boxes, my new job, and two small children, we (the adults, that is) paid little more than a passing “wow” to the large, brilliant orange mushroom that popped up in the front lawn of our new house.  As the grass around it grew longer and longer, my husband finally mowed over it.  My then 3-year old mourned, “Why, oh why did you mow over the mushroom?”  It did look pretty sad, smashed there in the grass.


Year 2: “Mommy, you’ve got to see this!”  Another mushroom, this time in the backyard, at the base of the oak tree, next to the rope swing, brown, bigger than a breadbox, and almost completely camouflaged in decaying golden pine needles.  How could it have grown so large, just inches from our noses, without anyone noticing?  But, partly because blended in so well, we all promptly forgot about it.


Year 3:  A friend visits from out of town and says, “Hey, did you know you have an edible mushroom growing in your front lawn?” (The orange one, again).  We briefly entertained eating it, but there was that nagging fear: mushrooms kill people.  Maybe we need a second opinion?  Or a third?


Year 4:  There were the mushrooms, here and there, but there was also the start of school, leaves to rake, apples to cook, and the problem of finding someone local (or even two someones) to confirm (again, and again) that they were, indeed, edible.


Year 5:  Back they came; they just wouldn’t give up.  Three in the front: brown and orange.  I made some calls.  A friend of a friend of a friend said she’d come identify them.  When I gave her the address, she chuckled and said, “I know exactly where your house is.  I used to sneak mushrooms out of that very lawn when I was younger.”


The bright orange critter turned out to be a Chicken-of-the-Woods, a prized edible, and the brown one, right next to it, was an even more prized Hen-of-the-Woods (Grifola frondosa, meaning something wonderfully along the lines of “griffin, full of leaves”).  We gave half to our mycologist and cooked the rest in butter and olive oil.  The Chicken had a comfy, flavorful, meaty taste, but, oh, the Hen!  It was incredible.  


We’d clearly been crazed, blinded, and hemmed in by our preconceptions.  For most of us here in America, food comes from the supermarket, or maybe a farmer’s market, or perhaps from something we planted ourselves.  It certainly doesn’t just show up at your doorstep.


We spend so much time looking for free lunch, it’s somewhat amusing that we don’t recognize it when it actually makes a rare appearance.  It’s especially amusing when it pops up, as it did in my garden, amid plants I had planted for their edible fruits: raspberries, rose hips, wild strawberries, blueberries.  But I could only see the food I knew.


I did figure out, at least in part, why it took me so long to see my mushroom.  No one makes any money promoting the recognition of wild plants.  They’re wild, after all; that’s the point.  There’s no supermarket, no farmer, no seed company, no one who gets a cut when you harvest a wild mushroom (except perhaps your friends).  These plants simply suffer from lack of good publicity.  There are those, of course, who are in on the mysteries of foraging, but they are by and large in it for love rather than money.  And it’s the money that gets the attention.  


Mushrooms, I must say, also differ from your run-of-the-mill wild huckleberries; everything about them is odd or fantastic.  A bite of the wrong one can do you in.  The largest living thing in the world is believed to be a several thousand year old Armillaria mushroom, weaving around under 2,200 acres of Oregon forest.  Some mushrooms taste terrible unless parasitized by another fungus, in which case they become delicious edibles.  Sometimes a group of mushrooms will grow in a lovely, perfect ring: proof positive to any small child of the existence of small winged people (I mean, how else, really?).


This fall, for the first time, I awaited the mushrooms.  First, a Chicken came up in the front.  We gobbled it down.  Nice.  But no Hen (oh, the Hen!), and nothing in the backyard.  I began to worry.  Had the backyard mushroom, which I now knew was a Hen, even come up last year?  Had I buried the spot in mulch?  Had I foolishly planted a rhododendron on top of it?  Day after day I looked, and then last week, there it was, huge, and sudden.  And we were ready.  And we were grateful.

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