I had walked this trail many times over the years but I was looking at things with a different set of eyes. I was on my first official foray into mushrooming, having just finished a three-hour class on how to identify a half dozen or so common edibles in the Northeast US. My backpack had two identification books along with the handouts I got in class, a couple of small bags to carry back home whatever treasures I might find, and a knife. My heart quickened as I spied a tree a couple dozen feet off the abandoned road, now a trail within the state forest. The tree had been damaged and toppled in a storm several years before I came across it. I’m sure it made a noise when it fell even if there was no one there to hear it. From its base was growing an odd bright orange mass of fungus.
I unzipped the backpack and took out the books. Crouching in front of the felled tree I leafed through them quickly and eagerly to make sure the pictures in the books looked like the mushrooms in front of me. I read and reread the descriptions, struggling to confirm that the identifying traits matched: the bright orange to yellow color, the way the mushrooms grew as stacked shelves out of the tree, the absence of gills. I studied the tree the mushrooms were growing on and was sure it wasn’t a Hemlock or a Pine or a Larch which could leave me with gastric distress, or worse. I read the descriptions of those mushrooms that sometimes look like these, the imposters, the ones that would make me sick for sure. After a few minutes of nervous energy and doubt, I opened my knife and starting slicing the mushroom off the trunk of the tree. I had bagged my first edible mushroom, the Sulphur Shelf.
Over the years I’ve found, and safely eaten, other easy-to-identify wild mushrooms, always on the lookout, walking the fine line between adventure and caution. Ten years after that first discovery I still get excited when, in the case of the Sulphur Shelf, I spy a mass of orange protruding from a forest tree or stump.
A few weeks ago I was out in Western NY, visiting Dad and Joyce. It was a lovely late August afternoon and we were sitting on the patio at the home of our old friends, Marilyn and Dean. I grew up in the house a hundred feet down the hill from this patio; Marilyn and Dean were my second set of parents. We were sitting around reminiscing. Marilyn had prepared sandwiches for later and while we were waxing nostalgic she plied us with pretzels, grapes and Cheetos. We looked down on our old house and tried to ignore the weeds, the roof flashing in need of replacement, the rabbit hutch and its accumulated shit on the floor of our old patio and the overall neglect. I knew it was especially hard for my dad to see all his hard work, his 40-odd years of care and love, cast aside.
Joyce was talking at one point, her portable oxygen tank providing rhythmic puffs just beneath the traffic noise. I looked in her direction, actually looking past her across the yard into the neighboring back yard of the house that old Mrs. Smith used to live in. The house had changed hands several times since I left 4 decades ago and the large green barn in the back yard was leaning even more now. A clump of trees behind the barn caught my eye. One of the oaks had something growing out of its trunk, three, four feet above the ground. At 150 feet away I knew exactly what I was looking at. I got out of the chair and set out across Dean’s recently thatched lawn into the neighbor’s yard. The bright orange polypores were beautifully stacked along a crack in the tree’s trunk. These were Sulphur Shelf mushrooms and they were textbook perfect.
I reached down and broke off two palm-sized pieces of the fungus. They were cool, slightly moist, rubbery-firm to the touch, the light yellow edges of new growth invitingly supple. These babies were in perfect condition for picking and savoring. I walked back to the party and began extolling the virtues of these earthy growths, this fungus also known as Chicken of the Woods or Chicken Mushroom. As expected Marilyn was less than enthusiastic in even considering them a food, yet alone edible. Dad and Joyce had survived several of my samplings of foraged mushrooms over the last decade and they were still alive, proof that I knew what I was doing. I convinced Marilyn to give me access to her kitchen and I slowly sautéed thin slices of the mushrooms in a nub of butter. They softened and took on an even more golden hue. After a simple sprinkling of salt and pepper I slid them into a bowl. I rejoined the party and placed the cooked Sulphur Shelf mushrooms on the table next to the bowl of Cheetos. They were almost a perfect match.
Dean was game, Marilyn was the only holdout but she trusted her adopted son enough to nibble a tiny piece until her upturned nose unwrinkled and softened. She wound up eating a couple of pieces, having tried something new, something she never would image trying, a fungus harvested off of a declining oak tree from the yard next door. Maybe it didn’t taste exactly like chicken but it had a similar texture and wasn’t too earthy, too mushroom-y. It wasn’t half bad. I was proud of her. When we finished the mushrooms and the pretzels and the Cheetos, Marilyn went to the refrigerator in the garage off the patio and brought out the tray of sandwiches. Now it was my turn. These were limburger.