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A triumphant shout of "Chanterelles!" and two dozen members of the New York Mycological Society stopped their cars abruptly and scattered into the woods of Peru, Vt., heads down in determined search. The little yellow mushrooms (Cantharellus cibarius) growing among the chestnut tees were almost hidden by last year's leaves, but the sharp eyes of the experienced chanterelle fanciers could pick, them out at 50 yards.
It is surprising that mushroom hunting has been neglected by lovers of sport, for a field trip requires the kind of quick eye and infallible judgment demanded of, say, pigsticking. In California this month the Mycological Society of San Francisco stalks the elusive chanterelle around the live oaks growing on King's Mountain near Santa Cruz. The stands of pine in Michigan and Wisconsin are combed for boletes by the local mushroom societies. Scouts of the Spokane Mushroom Club begin exploring the back trails and logging roads of the Idaho panhandle in search of matsutake, a mushroom that closely resembles the species that is one of the glories of the chrysanthemum season in Japan. In the peculiar way of mushrooms, matsutake grows only on the West Coast of the U.S., not in the East.
All wild mushrooms grow best in damp, heavily wooded areas, and the Priest Lake region of northern Idaho is perhaps the happiest hunting ground of the U.S., attracting mycologists from as far away as New York and Hawaii. At a rally held there last fall more than 300 species were uncovered.
Mycology is the branch of botany that deals with fungi, and the mycological societies (or mushroom clubs) of the U.S. exist not only to study wild mushrooms but also to eat them. Chanterelles are good enough to cause traffic to stop, as happened in Vermont. A Japanese gentleman filling an empty rice sack with matsutake in the Pacific Northwest wouldn't give a fig for a chanterelle, but the Japanese can be spotted in line at the post office sending boxes of matsutake airmail-special to friends and relatives all over the country. Of the boletes. Boletus edulis is considered the finest species, rating at least half a dozen recipes in the classic French cookbooks. (Some wild-mushroom recipes are on page 83.)
The best mushroom-hunting locations are found in the Pacific Northwest, Michigan, Wisconsin and Idaho, on the Eastern Seaboard and in Canada, particularly Quebec. A dozen societies flourish in these areas. The New York Mycological Society, which picked and ate the basket of mushrooms on the opposite page, is a comparative newcomer, since at least one society was founded before 1900. The New York club was started in 1961 by John Cage, the composer, and four friends. Cage had taught a course in mycology at the New School for Social Research in New York City and once picked wild mushrooms for Manhattan's celebrated Four Seasons restaurant. The society has grown from its original five stalwarts to a membership of 63, in spite of a drought that seriously depleted the reservoirs and chased away the chanterelles for four long years. Oddly enough, membership increased as wild mushrooms decreased, and the society's forays became less and less enjoyable as tempers flared and heads bumped over the remaining edible mushroom material.
A way out of this dismal impasse was found. Since mushroom pickings were so slim, the New Yorkers turned their attention elsewhere. They went into the countryside to pick wild ginger, fiddleheads and lamb's-quarters, and to the seashore for mussels, periwinkles and sea rocket.
At beach picnics, Joe Hyde, an amateur mycologist who is a professional chef of considerable talent, taught his fellow members how to scrape and beard the mussels, steam the lamb's-quarters (a wild green) and turn the sea rocket (a peppery plant that grows in the sand) into a salad with oil and vinegar. This year the drought is over and life is again rewarding for New York mycologists.
On the society's field trips every mushroom is identified, and dubious specimens are put in quarantine for study. To establish the identity of a mushroom, it is necessary to check, with a magnifying glass, its every characteristic: the shape and color of its cap, gills, tubes or teeth; the way the cap joins the stem; the texture and color of the stem and the shape of its base; the presence or absence of a ring; and the color and smell of the flesh and spores. Mushrooms can be identified by their spore prints in much the same way as people by their fingerprints. Distinctions between the dovish mushrooms and the hawks are sometimes subtle, and nobody knows better than a mycologist that there are no old bold mushroom hunters. Suggested reading for members includes a monthly publication, The Mycophile (formerly The Toadstool Pickers News), and Alexander H. Smith's The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide. The latter has enough accounts of the effects of mushroom poisoning to induce caution in the rashest hunter.
The importance of identifying the species before cooking cannot be too heavily emphasized, and no wild mushroom should be allowed in the kitchen unless it is reasonably young, firm and freshly gathered and the cook is certain of its identity.
Wild mushrooms contain a very high proportion of water, some iron, some B vitamins and practically no calories. As a general rule, the method of cooking that most quickly reduces the moisture content is best. Whole mushrooms painted with oil and broiled, and sliced mushrooms seasoned and saute�d in hot oil or butter are invariably successful. A squeeze of lemon juice should be added. This is the best way to prepare the Japanese mushroom, matsutake.