Collecting wild mushrooms offers an opportunity at once appetizing and infused with the frisson of culinary danger. Winter rains flood the bog that borders the shell lane winding past the hickory grove. The bent trunks of old swamp willows, oaks blown flat in gale and hurricane, tangles of briar, honeysuckle, and ivy crisscross water filmed with the thinnest lattice of ice. Silent save for sough of wind, ruffle of hidden wings, rattle of vines in winter’s depths, the bog sings in warmer months when downpours breed frogs and peepers in astonishing numbers. Their collective song screeches in a cacophony of worn bedsprings and musical saws. The raucous chorus of midsummer haunts midwinter’s frozen passage with the memory and promise of longer, warmer, more fecund days. Mushrooms, breeding silently in layered shelves of forest tan and ghostly white on the wounded bark of fallen trees, do not break the stillness of this place.
Bright shafts of December sun illuminate oyster mushrooms across the bog. The water’s dark surface reflects a contorted tracery of branches – willow, white oak, gum, pine – overhead. And, it is deceptively shallow with a firm bottom of fallen matted leaves and saturated roots that yield only slightly underfoot. The wet chill penetrates our boots, but the sun warms our backs as we bend, serrated knives in hand, and saw the mushrooms from their footings. It doesn’t take long to harvest a basketful. Beautiful objects with rounded edges and symmetrically gilled underbellies, their flesh is frozen solid to the touch. Malcolm and Carol Russ (friends who revel in the realm of fungi) assure me that this is not a problem – and it isn’t.
Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are among the most common and easily identified of the mushrooms in our native woods. They emerge in numbers after heavy rains and a spell of warm late autumn and winter weather. Information on their culinary history is readily found in any number of sources on mycology for beginners http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/oyster__mushroom.htm or http://www.mssf.org/cookbook/oyster.html.Cultivated oyster mushrooms appear in grocery stores, but the wild ones captivate my forager’s imagination. So closely bound to place and weather, the oyster mushrooms in our bog exist in a world of collateral entrées defined by chance and circumstance. To find and cut them from their clumped moorings is a moment of connection with place discovered in the rich sensorium of swampy woodland. The delicate dripping of melting rings of ice necklaced around the throats of old stumps, the thawing touch of breeze, the muddy scent of leaf mold stirred up by our boots – it is a terroir discovered not on the tongue but in the core of being alive in a singular place in a singular moment.
When it comes to cooking wild oyster mushrooms, the culinary world abounds with suggestions. In what seems to me to be an appropriate pairing, I add them to oyster stew. They are best, though, left largely unadorned. Malcolm and Carol suggested slicing them into meaty strips to be sautéed in a smear of olive oil or butter with thin slices of garlic and a bit of salt. Lightly browned on both sides and served on toast or tortilla, they compel me to wish for winter rains chased by a warming trend. I’ve arrayed my boots, basket, and knife by the door. Soon enough the din of frogs will return, but for now my thoughts are on oyster mushrooms blooming over black water.