Where the Wild Mushrooms Grow

RICK left his pickup in the driveway and came out to the garden where I was raking and planting, and asked, ``Do you eat wild mushrooms?'' ``Sure. The ones I know.''

``Do you know puffballs?''

I said I did, and he said, ``Well, I have one in my pickup as big as your head.'' I hadn't known him long. I figured he exaggerated. I thought a puffball as big as a softball was large. I walked over to his pickup with him, and he reached in and got it and handed it to me. I should have apologized to him for my thought about exaggeration. It was bigger than my head.

There is nothing poisonous in the area that is anything like the delicious, round, white puffball with firm, white flesh. Rick left me more than half of that puffball. I cut part of it into thick steaks, started a fire in the cookstove, and fried them. My family was away, visiting, so it was up to me.

I've heard that puffballs can't be dried. They continue to develop, and the flesh turns green as it progresses into the poring stage. But I sliced part of that puffball very thin and put the slices on a tray in a warm oven and dried them successfully.

I mentioned the puffball to Bill and Janet, and they said there might be more, and other mushrooms, at Patrick Meadows. It was a long, rough drive on a road that hadn't been much repaired for many years. We found several puffballs almost as large, but they were past edible, so we left them to scatter spores for another season.

In Patrick Meadows there is a circle of aspen trees about a hundred feet in diameter, with one pine tree right in the center. On the east side of that circle, I found two chanterelles, about two pounds each. They are also very good, delicately flavored. Bill and Janet found chanterelles and one small puffball that was still edible.

In the spring of one of our first years in northeastern Oregon, I heard, via the mushroom vine, that morels had begun their season. I also heard that they often grew on disturbed ground in the forest and on open ground along streams, so I hiked up the Powder River. I found a dozen of the mushrooms that look something like small pine cones in an area that had been scraped, several years before, for a parking area.

In two miles of additional hiking, I found another dozen. It was enough to complement our evening's meal. I was shocked when I discovered that none of us, my wife, our two daughters, nor I, liked them at all. This is not something one wants to admit to one's wild-mushroom-loving friends.

We gradually redeemed ourselves by liking every other kind of wild mushroom we tried. We dug up cauliflower mushrooms in the woods above Sumpter. These put out many branches from a solid, white-fleshed base and look something like coral. The cauliflowers we picked weighed in at 4 or 5 pounds each, though we lost some in cutting away the dirty parts. We cut some of them up and dried them on a screen above the woodstove and filled several gallon jars with the dry pieces. They were very good cooked into spaghetti and casseroles.

After we moved over the mountain to Whitney Valley, we began to find meadow mushrooms. They look like the mushrooms commonly available in stores, except that their gills are pink. We only found a few at a time, and they never made it into the house for any kind of preparation because we ate them where we found them. Juniper and Amanda always brought their mushrooms to me, to be sure they had identified them correctly, then ran and dodged until I was exhausted, and they could eat them in peace.

Our best year there, we found more than a dozen under the clothesline and another half dozen in the driveway, as well as a few on the meadow. That year we also found five or six puffballs in our driveway, small ones, no larger than golf balls, but delicious.

Though I never went looking for them, I occasionally found boletus in my ramblings. Identification of the various kinds is rather difficult, so we didn't include them much in our diet. I enjoyed turban tops, also called calf brains, at the house of friends, but they have a reputation of being unreliable, of sometimes being slightly poisonous to some people, so I didn't gather them when I saw them.

One summer, lightning started fires in northeastern Oregon, and large areas of forest burned. The next spring, people who made their living picking, buying, drying, and selling morel mushrooms showed up and injected thousands of dollars into the local economy. The local people soon learned that morels often flush profusely in burned over areas, and morels bring high prices, fresh to restaurants, dried worldwide.

I heard of people making up to $300 a day picking ``shrooms,'' though it was my busiest season as caretaker of a ranch, I found time to drive eight miles to the nearest burn parts of several days and pick enough morels to buy a pair of boots I needed and to take my family to restaurant dinners several times.

Now we're in Colorado, and spring is upon us again. We intend to watch the ground as we tour this ranch we take care of, mushroom book in hand, and see what new varieties we can add to our diet, what varieties already familiar to us also grow here.

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