Josna Rege

22. Mushrooming and Berry-Picking

In 1970s, Stories, United States on March 16, 2010 at 11:39 am
photo courtesy of Dan Melnechuk

photo courtesy of Dan Melnechuk

My mother-in-law Anna was a forager par excellence as well as a gourmet cook.  She fed a family of six in style, making a little go a long way. Taught well by her own mother Pauline, who had come to America at fifteen from the Old Country (Ukraine, on the border of Belarus), she passed on the principles of mushrooming and berry-picking to her four children and later, to me.

A cardinal rule of foraging is that one must pick and prepare or preserve the food when one finds it. If, for example, one comes across a stand of  perfectly-ripe wild blackberries, one has to drop everything else and marshall all available forces in order to pick, eat, can, or freeze them before they go by. Another rule, and one that inexperienced pickers would do well to follow,  is that one should pick every single ripe berry on a plant, and pick and throw away any rotten or damaged ones. The tendency of the inexperienced picker is to go for the biggest, most perfect, and most prominent berries, but the true berry-picker must pick one plant clean before moving on to the next.

One of my mother-in-law’s specialities was wild fruit or berry brandy. Her wild cherry brandy, made with the fruit fermented in sugar and then steeped in pure Russian vodka, was kept in a gallon-jar in the pantry and known to “cure what ails you.” But it had to be taken only in the smallest of quantities when one was seriously  in need, like the life-giving cordial Aslan gives to Lucy in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

Where mushrooming was concerned, Anna was wisely conservative. She picked and cooked only a small number and variety of mushrooms, the ones she could certify as edible with complete confidence. I will not list them here because it is critically important that mushroom lore be passed on directly, from person to person, but I will tell a story of the coveted chicken mushroom.

If one knows when and where to look, boletes and russulas are a dime a dozen, although beating the worms, mice, and squirrels to them is a challenge. But the chicken mushroom, the glorious polyporous sulphureus, is a rare treat, found only once or twice a year.  It grows on the trunks of dying oaks, and usually appears in late summer or early fall following a lightning storm. Once it finds a hospitable tree, it is likely to return there, so one should make a mental note of the spot for the following year.

I remember my first chicken-mushroom experience, one late summer in the early seventies at White Pond. Andrew had found it, returned to the tree with a sharp knife, and brought it home triumphantly in a large brown-paper bag, all three pounds of it. It was a magnificent specimen,  creamsicle-colored on top and smooth, velvety and bright sulphur-yellow underneath, with dense, milky-white flesh, the texture of chicken breast. Anna began cleaning and preparing it immediately, and made several different dishes from it, each more delicious than the last.

Now, my father-in-law Ted was a fussy eater, and didn’t care for mushrooms. Nonetheless, the forager’s imperative dictated that not a speck of the precious chicken mushroom be allowed to go to waste. So Anna got to work on a special dish for dinner, and served it with a flourish.  Everyone but Ted was in on the secret. We waited with bated breath while he took his first bite, and then his second, and then cleared his plate. Asked how he had enjoyed the chicken cacciatore, he pronounced it delicious, and we all breathed a sigh of relief and shared winks around the table.

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  1. Delightful, as always. Left me salivating, this one. Just today we had mushroom chicken for Thai lunch. Mushrooms have always been the stuff of culinary folklore, methinks. Is it the fairy tale of foraging, I wonder….the ‘quest’ for the perfect ones by those from distant shores used to the diligence of it all? There is something primal about rooting out the incredible edible creatures of the earth, with the slight hint of suspense (it might be poisonous), then conjuring fine meals with them….chicken cacciatore, for example…:)

    • Urmi, you are right that hunting for mushrooms is exciting, slightly dangerous, and almost magical. (Nikhil made a movie for a 7th-grade English project called Quest for the Mushroom, in which a magic Shitake mushroom from the End of the Earth saved the hero’s grandmother’s life.) Andrew’s mother was extremely conservative, though, about the mushrooms she picked for her family’s consumption. Even if she was pretty sure that a given mushroom was edible, she stuck to the few tried-and-true varieties that her mother had taught her to recognize unmistakably.

      And you are right that there is something about the texture of mushrooms that is particularly delectable. I wonder what kind of mushroom was sued for the Thai “chicken” dish? (Probably not a chicken mushroom, this time of year, in Texas!)

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