It's not every club's dinner that has to pass the poison test, but when the Mycological Association of Washington gathers for its annual Eating Meeting, as it did last month, no one wants to make the mistake of confusing the deadly Chlorophyllum molybdites with any of the edible species of Lepiota.
So as members arrived with their baskets of freshly foraged fungi, MAW member Kent McKnight, a research botanist with the USDA, stood watch to verify the edibility of the harvest before anything was cooked. And just to set the matter straight, the raw mushrooms were spread out on a long table, before one of three illustrated placards depicting a smiling face (edible species), a question mark (unidentifiable species), and a skull and crossbones.
Members sniffed, probed and rearranged one another's fungi, and eyed the incoming collections like anxious participants in a beauty contest. And they challenged one another with their finds.
"With your eyes closed," demanded one club member of another, holding a specimen beneath his nose, "Amanita virosa?"
"I wouldn't eat that thing," sniffed a fellow forager, examining another's mushroom.
Before McKnight had a chance to inspect the table collections, members were debating the labeling of several specimens. "I don't think it's Discina (pigs' ears)," stated an elderly gentleman of a colleague's find, "and its not Auricularia . . . "
And when Tom Crone brought in the bright orange sulphur polypore, which he had collected just that day, there were audible gasps from the assemblage.
An unitiated guest would have been lost in the flow of conversation, which was heavy on Latin and light on common terminology. A forager's Agaricus bisporus is a novice's button mushroom.
McKnight speaks proudly of the club's efforts. To be sure, some of the more interesting specimens he studies in his lab at the USDA are from the collections of MAW members. "They bring in valuable research specimens," he says. "They are erudite, sophisticated students of mushrooms."
And they're secretive, too. When foragers find a particularly good specimen, notes association member Philip Musgrove, they're not apt to reveal the site. Indeed, in a recent edition of the club's newsletter, "Capitol Mushrumors," of which Musgrove is editor, one member was reported to have found a $50 bill along with some Agaricus campestris -- and waxed vague when asked about the locale of his discovery. The newsletter sympathized, however, noting that "cultivation of this species is, by all accounts, very difficult."
The toxic Amanita virosa aside, not everything brought for show was edible -- a few artisans among the foragers displayed their mushroom handicrafts, including wooden eggs stenciled with various species of fungi, and illustrated mushroom stationery (the work of McKnight's wife, Vera, who serves as the club's recorder).
And what appeared to be specimins of Agaricus campestris, boletes and Strobilomyces floccopus were actually confections of chocolate and sugar, fashioned by forager Zina Pisarko to look like the real things, right down to the shape of the stems and gills.
Only following absolute verification did the edible species make their way into shiitake rice, Agaricus chowder, hot mushroom dip -- or one of several simple saute's, where hot butter or oil served as the only accompaniment to the haunting taste of the mushrooms.
The annual pot luck dinner is clearly the club's most social gathering, a chance for enthusiasts to show off their efforts, but it's one of the less unusual events sponsored by the 135-member group of amateur mycologists.
Indeed, the topics of discussion are as varied as the species themselves: in recent months, notes club president Bill Waller, forums have included a presentation by a Baltimore poet (who recounted his mushroom foray down the Amazon), a lecture on the history of mushroom books, "going way, way back," and slide show presentations with titles such as "An Eclectic Acellular Slime Mold Extravaganza" and most recently, "Tip-Toeing through the Polypores." And when the North American Mycological Association celebrated its 25th anniversary with a foray in West Virginia's Monongahela National Resort State Park, it was the local Washington organization that played host.
The club's interest in wild edibles extends beyond fungi, and so it is that member Noel Dingman has played hostess to the club's annual banquet -- usually held during winter -- featuring hand gathered foods, which might include field garlic, dandelions and squirrel, in addition to whatever mushrooms are brought by members.
Foraging, it appears, is more than a casual hobby for some. While a few individuals are content simply picking and identifying mushrooms, others "have their homes filled with mushroom imagery," says Bill Waller, who as president presides over the club's extensive library of mushroom-related tomes. More serious mushroomers, such as Sue Ellen Sloca, a past MAW president, devote rooms of their homes to collect and study their passion. Tools of the trade include baskets, brushes, magnifying glasses, waxed paper bags, and "If you're really serious you have a microscope," says Sloca, who does.
Mushrooming is by and large a year-round event, with each season producing its particular species. Thus in the spring, morels and oyster mushrooms are sought out, while late summer produces chanterelles, and fall offers puff balls, polypores, boletes, and chicken of the woods, among other species.
Since rain is a boon to the appearance of mushrooms, now is an ideal foraging time in this area, note enthusiasts, and the rains that accompanied Hurricane Gloria prior to MAW's Eating Meeting were beneficial in deeming this year's collection "an exceptionally good haul." And provided there's no hard frost, mushrooms can be found as late as December, and some foragers claim to have unearthed species following light snow.
Foraging in this country is hardly new, although McKnight claims U.S. interest in mushrooming has "spread out" in the past two decades, and that the sport "is not so much restricted to people with foreign roots" as it once was. And when it comes to variety, he adds, this continent wins hands down: "North America has 20-30 times as many kinds of mushrooms" as Europe, he asserts, which makes the job of identification more complicated. The interest in mushroom studies is recent enough that the area is undeveloped to a point where common names can not be agreed upon for many species, in part because there's no tradition.
But in Europe -- particularly Eastern Europe and Russia -- mushrooming has been practiced for generations. Indeed, it was a small band of diplomatic personnel who were among MAW's original members, notes Betty Lawrenz, the club's founder and first president. And it was during a State Department assignment in Poland that MAW secretary-treasurer Frances Usenik became intrigued with the custom. But unlike the Americans, the Europeans were used to picking by sight, not scientifically.
"Rules like 'eat the brown ones but don't eat the white ones' prevailed," says Sloca.
But it was this country's concern for the environment as much as anything else that helped spawn a more national interest in foraging. The early '70s, the time at which the local chapter was organized, saw an increased "awareness of the fragile nature of the ecosystem and its importance to us," says McKnight. Combined with this back-to-nature tide was a better educated, more affluent consumer, he adds.
To a smaller extent, it was the rediscovered hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms that added to the ranks of foragers early on, but "the people interested in the hallucinogens didn't last very long," laughs Sloca, who credits the books of naturalist Euell Gibbons with the development of her interest in things wild and edible.
Not all club members can trace their interest in mushrooms to such idealistic origins, however.
Musgrove candidly reveals that his curiosity was piqued by the Morchella esculenta (morels) he discovered growing on the lawn of his neighbor, the embassy of the Dominican Republic. Musgrove harvested the spring delicacy and sold the crop to area purveyors.
"It was worth a lot," smiles Musgrove, "enough to get me interested." SPINACH SALAD WITH ENOKI MUSHROOMS (4 servings)
1/2 pound young tender spinach leaves, washed and patted dry with a towel, stems removed
1 large cucumber
A handful enoki mushrooms, root ends trimmed
1 red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 cup minced red onion
1/2 recipe Fresh Herb and Garlic Dressing (recipe follows)
Divide the spinach leaves among 4 salad plates. Cut the cucumber lengthwise into thin slices, pat dry with paper towels and set aside for about 5 minutes. Roll up the cucumber slices and "plant" 5 or 6 mushroom stems in one end of each roll. Arrange the rolls over the spinach leaves, sprinkle with the diced red pepper and minced onion, sprinkle with dressing and serve. Calories: 59 per serving. From "Spa Food" by Edward J. Safdie (Potter, 1985, $19.95) FRESH HERB AND GARLIC DRESSING (Makes about 3/4 cup)
Prepare the dressing a few hours or, better still, a few days before serving, to allow time for the flavors to blend and mellow. Tightly covered, it may be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator.
1/2 cup water
2 1/4 teaspoons arrowroot mixed with 2 1/4 teaspoons cold water
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 1/2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
2 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
Small pinch vegetable seasoning (optional)
1/2 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped chives
Bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan, then whisk in the arrowroot mixture, which will instantly thicken the water. Remove from the heat, pour into a small bowl and let cool. Stir in the remaining ingredients. Calories: 20 per tablespoon. From "Spa Food" by Edward J. Safdie (Potter, 1985, $19.95) BEIGNETS DE CHAMPIGNONS, SAUCE TOMATE (Mushroom fritters with tomato sauce) (Makes about 20 fritters)
FOR THE MUSHROOMS:
3/4 pound medium mushrooms
1/4 cup dry white wine
Squeezed lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
FOR THE BATTER:
1 cup flour
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons brandy
4 tablespoons melted butter
Up to 2/3 cup milk
1 egg white, stiffly beaten
FOR THE SAUCE:
6 tablespoons chopped shallots or onion
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, skinned and chopped
Bouquet garni (2 sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf and 12 parsley stalks)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup black olives, pitted
Salt and pepper to taste
Sugar to taste
Oil for deep frying
Trim mushrooms neatly. If you like, cook them for 5 minutes or so in a covered pan with wine, lemon juice and seasoning; drain them and leave to cool. Otherwise sprinkle them with lemon juice and a little salt.
Make the batter by mixing the ingredients in the given order and folding in the egg white just before you intend to cook the fritters.
To make the sauce, brown the shallots or onion lightly in the oil. Add the tomatoes, bouquet garni, garlic and white wine. Cook steadily to a pure'e. Add the olives and simmer for a few minutes, then correct the seasoning. Add sugar to taste.
Keep the sauce hot in a pan while you dip the mushrooms in the batter and deep fry them in oil at 370-380 degrees for about 3 minutes, or longer if they are large. As they rise to the surface, golden-brown all over, remove a fritter to see if they are ready. The mushrooms should be juicy inside, crisp on the outside. Cook them in batches or the pan will become overcrowded. Keep them warm on crumpled kitchen paper in the oven and serve immediately with sauce. From "The Mushroom Feast" by Jane Grigson (Knopf, 1975, $16.95) WILD MUSHROOM SOUP (6 to 8 servings)
2 ounces dried ce pes, morels or chanterelles
3/4 cup Madeira wine
8 tablespoons (1 stick) sweet butter
2 cups finely chopped yellow onions
2 pounds fresh mushrooms
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
4 cups chicken stock
1 pint whipping cream (optional)
Rinse the dried mushrooms well in a sieve under cold running water and soak them in the Madeira for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
Melt the butter in a soup pot. Add the onions and cook, covered, over low heat until they are tender and lightly colored, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Trim stems from the fresh mushrooms and save for another use. Wipe caps with a damp cloth and slice thin. Add caps to the soup pot, season to taste with salt and pepper, and cook over low heat, uncovered, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes.
Carefully lift mushrooms from bowl with a slotted spoon and transfer to soup pot. Let Madeira settle a moment and then pour carefully into soup pot, leaving sediment behind.
Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45 minutes, or until dried mushrooms are very tender.
Strain the soup and transfer the solids to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add 1 cup of the liquid and pure'e until very smooth.
Return pure'e to the soup pot along with remaining liquid and set over medium heat. Taste, correct seasoning and thin the soup slightly with cream if it seems too thick. Heat until steaming and serve immediately. From "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman Publishing, 1982, $10.95) ORANGE-MUSHROOM CHICKEN (4 servings)
2 large chicken breasts
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 teaspoons arrowroot
1/2 cup chicken stock
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
3/4 teaspoon thyme
2 teaspoons chopped chives
1/3 pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Skin, debone and halve chicken breasts. Season each piece with salt and pepper. Brown lightly in 2 tablespoons butter.
In a small amount of orange juice, dissolve the arrowroot. Combine with remaining orange juice and chicken stock. Add grated orange rind, thyme and chopped chives.
Saute' mushrooms in remaining tablespoon butter for about 3 minutes. Add to sauce mixture.
Place browned chicken breasts into a casserole dish, pour sauce mixture over them, cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour. From "Mushroom Matings: The Best in Mushroom Cookery," by Jean Granger, (Cragmont Publishing, 1978)