A Forager I’m Not

Don’t count me as much of a forager. A Nicole Zempel, the budding PBS television forager star, I’m not. Nevertheless, as I was leaving Listening Stones Farm for a luncheon date I happened to glance into my timbered land and spied what appeared to be chicken of the woods mushrooms. For those unaware, or too fearful, these beautiful orangish fungi make delightful cuisine. Sautéed in garlicky butter, and even included in a saucy dish, these mushrooms have a hint to the taste of the thigh meat of a roasted chicken.

All of which makes those of us who share such pleasures usually pretty excited upon finding one. Since I had a scheduled lunch, I made note of it and promised myself when I returned home I would go gather the feast. Perhaps my lips were even moist just in imagining a meal. 

As soon as I returned, Joe Pye and I headed into the woods looking for the chickens. They were nowhere in sight. When I initially spotted them there were on the eastern side of a tree, so I went from tree to tree in search of the pair of chickens. While it was nice being in the woody portion of my land, it was frustrating not finding the mushrooms. Could the “oranginess” actually been squirrels? There are plenty of those tree- and sunflower-loving rodents in the woods to suggest such a possible sighting. Literally, the mushroom bearing tree could not be found … until I went for my morning walk the following morning.

With sunlight from the east the chicken of the woods were noticed in the woods.

Yes! The sun was highlighting the trees with the eastern sunlight and once again the gilded chickens glistened against the grayness of bark. When I returned from my two mile hike my trusty hound and I headed back into the woods … through cockleburs and other clingy plants to the tree right in the area where I had been looking the day before. It was a bit deeper and just off the trail I try to keep open through the grove for walks and cross country skiing once the snow flies.

While I don’t know “squirrel talk” for chicken of the woods, it appears they may have been just as excited to find the delicious orbs as we humans, for the upper portion of both fungi clumps were severely gnawed. And, perhaps as disheartening, the chickens had been there long enough that they were past their prime for being edible, let alone cook-able. There was simply no “give” on a pinch.

This wasn’t the first chickens of the wood I’ve found here, and I know there must be other mushrooms hidden in the grove. A few years ago an ash tree next to the garden suddenly spouted a clump of the chickens which were immediately harvested. The following year the same ash once again bore a chicken clump although it was so high that  I needed a ladder to gather it. And, before my neighbors started penning their horses here I found a bountiful patch of shaggy manes in the land previously converted to a hopeful orchard that never took hold. Nor did the shaggy manes, for that matter. Unfortunately this seemed to be a one time bonanza.

Perhaps the squirrels got to them first …

I love chopping shaggy manes to have with steaks or chops, although chickens of the woods simmered in garlic and butter are a special delight. Sometimes I’ll add some chicken broth whisked into a gravy then ladled over wild or long grained rice. Salmon and chicken thighs are both perfect complements to the mushrooms. Once again, it seems, I’ve missed out.

Oh to have the eye and persistence as my foraging friend, Nicole. She’s a joy to forage with as she ambles through the woods or prairie, especially when you hear her shouts of a delightful “Oh!” and realize she’s spied another fabulous forb or fungi. She would have surely spied my chickens way ahead of the squirrels!

As much as I’ve tried over the years to entice her up to forage in my woods, her own woods on the edge of Granite Falls seems too much of a magnet. Several years ago she had a come-to-life moment and entered her nearby woods along with other wildness haunts along the gneiss outcrops along the Minnesota River, which has since resulted in several art exhibits of her mushroom photography and spore prints, a Facebook page and website she calls Wild Roots MN, and was a “fill in” forager featured in a PBS production of Prairie Sportsman last spring. This has since led to featuring her in five minute “Fast Forage” segments for the upcoming season.

Sauteed in butter and garlic …

“A foragers basket is always full,” she said. “Over the past several months of filming we’ve covered cottonwood buds, giant chickweed, ground cherries, wild prairie onion and garlic, milkweed, wild grapes, chanterelle and chicken of the woods mushrooms, sumac and acorns.” Her foraging segments will be spliced into the 13 PBS Prairie Sportsman half hour shows beginning in January. With her charm and eye for natural edibles you can almost image Thoreau blushing, Euell Gibbons smiling and her being on Michael Pollan’s radar. The woman has no ceiling!

Personally I’ve had a long interest in mushrooming that dates back to my life in Colorado and my first marriage. As the summer ebbed into autumn Marilyn Greb Binkley and I would often go mushroom foraging in the foothills and lower mountain woodlands in search of mushrooms, and for awhile we belonged to the Colorado Mycology Society. When I was freelancing I would often jog through Denver’s City Park where I would find meadow mushrooms and shaggy manes. In the alley behind our house was a stump that seemed to constantly produce oyster mushrooms in season. My only complaint of those long ago forays was that my eyes were seemingly always glued to the ground searching for fungi rather than on the nearby mountainous landscapes.

I haven’t been so lucky since moving to Minnesota where the attitude seems that if it isn’t a morel it isn’t worth finding or eating. There is such an array of tsste treats! Chantrellas. Puffballs. Oysters. Shaggy manes. A neighbor in the small town where I ran a country weekly newspaper had a spot along his sidewalk that grew some very bountiful and beautiful shaggy manes. He was more than happy for me to come to harvest them. His “toadstools” were my “side dish” for steaks and chops for several years. “I’ve tried poisoning the damned things,” he told me early on. “Nothing seems to kill ‘em.”

… then served as a side to baked salmon! Wow!

Thanks goodness. I’m sure both Nicole and Marilyn would be horrified. When I suggested letting me harvest them rather than spraying them, he gladly backed off. 

So here I am once again compelled to searching my five acres of timber and eight acres of prairie for edible mushrooms, although I now have competition from the squirrels. Apparently my sunflower seeds in the bird feeders aren’t enough. Perhaps I need to up my game. Perhaps that’s long overdue for my foraging is seemingly more luck than awareness.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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