It had been raining for nearly a week—one of those spells of icy, incessant spring rain of the higher latitudes that fills the glacial lakes to overflowing, turns every trout stream into a roaring, unfishable millrace and sends even the waterproof otter and muskrat scrambling for dry ground. The sort of rain that soaks your boots and trickles down your collar like a foretaste of the grave. It was a rain to make midwinter seem snug and cozy, to hold the hardiest of outdoorsmen close by the fireside. In short, fine weather for fungi.
Who, then, are these crazies racing helter-skelter through the sodden woods? Men, women, children—even apple-cheeked babies bouncing along, papoose-style, on their mothers' backs—pelt through the downpour, their slickers and ponchos the only splashes of color in a drab, dank world. As they slog through bogs, vaulting blowdowns like mud-shod hurdlers, some trip and sprawl clumsily, then leap up again to lollop on—suddenly stopping, kicking at the wet black leaves, squinting through fevered eyes, then quickly, almost furtively, picking up...something...and stuffing it into a soggy, brown-paper bag. And running on as if a hodag or wendigo—some evil creature of the North Woods—were howling at their heels.
They are the 'Roon Hunters.
'Roons (for those unfamiliar with the term) are nothing more than mushrooms, slightly mispronounced, but manic scenes like the one described above have been occurring each May for the past quarter century in the cutover woodlands around Boyne City, Mich., home of what may well be America's strangest sporting event: The National Mushroom Hunting Championship. Last year, despite the dreadful weather, fully 110 'roon-seeking contestants from as far away as Van Nuys, Calif. took part in the fungoid fun-fest. The overall winner was Tony Williams, 32, a rangy, sharp-eyed restaurateur and former rock musician from Boyne City, who galloped the ridges like a maddened bull moose, collecting 90 morels—only morels count in the event—in the hour-and-a-half contest, a 'roon a minute, (If that sounds like a lot, it isn't. The record was set in 1970 by one Stan Boris, who gathered 945 morels during the hunt but was penalized 30 'roons for coming in late.)
A lack of rain is the usual reason for a poor mushroom crop, but last spring's prolonged drenching was accompanied by a spell of cold weather, and a modicum of warmth also is necessary for morels to pop up. Still, Williams' score was far better than that of Paul Whipple of Nunica, Mich., whose 60 'roons won him first place in the nonresident men's category. The women, both resident and non-, fared worse. Irene Mackie of Walloon Lake, Mich. found 55, while Rebecca Kast, who had come 500 miles—from Lancaster, Ohio—to compete, was tops among distaff outlanders, with 34. In olden times, men were supposed to be the far-ranging hunters of big game, women the gatherers of veggies nearer to home. Perhaps the poor showing of the women at the Nationals reflects an error in primitive man's distribution of labor—or maybe just a feminine weariness with the old order in consonance with late 20th-century "liberation." Whatever the case, Ms. Mackie's 55 medium-sized 'roons represented about one pound of the precious fungi, which would come to six or seven cups when chopped, three ounces dried or four tablespoons in the form of morel powder. In a New York City specialty store like Balducci's, that amount would cost $20 during the morel season (late April through early June)—not bad for 90 minutes' work.
Morels, with their nutty, subtly woodsy flavor, are not only the year's earliest wild mushrooms but also the most popular among America's rapidly growing population of mycophagists (mushroom eaters). After centuries of scorn, contempt and repugnance in America, over the past 15 years the mushroom has become one of the nation's most sought-after food items, and in its rarer forms one of the costliest
"Anglo-Saxons have always been mycophobes," says Dr. Alexander Hanchett Smith, professor emeritus of botany at the University of Michigan and one of the foremost American authorities on the fleshy fungi. "America's long disdain for mushrooms comes directly from the Scots-Irish yeomanry who settled here first. The British Isles are one of the last great bastions of mushroom hatred in the world."
Smith, a short, square-shouldered, rugged-looking man of 79 who still forages for his beloved fungi and whose pallor may be a reminder that we are, after all, what we eat, says the American attitude, up through the highest socioeconomic levels, has changed regarding mushrooms: What once was shunned as slimy and repellent (myco traces to the Greek mukēs, from which come such words as muck, moist, musty, mucus and smug) is now considered chic, exotic, Continental—not to mention natural, therefore healthy.
Smith believes that inflation, Euell Gibbons and a growing awareness (in some cases bordering on paranoia) that the American food industry was using dangerous pesticides, preservatives and dyes in the production of the very stuff of life led many Americans into a search for natural foods, untainted by the hand of commerce. Kitchen gardens bloomed in suburban backyards, where once swimming pools or crabgrass held sway. In some parts of the country, "foraging" became a weekend pastime along with golf and tennis—certainly a walk in the woods in search of wild foods like poke shoots, ramp (wild onions), dandelion greens, wild asparagus and, of course, edible mushrooms was preferable to an afternoon spent mesmerized before the tube. The ever-rising cost of living also helped the mushroom-seeker's cause. "As the price of fresh produce goes higher each year," wrote Smith and his daughter, Nancy Smith Weber, a research investigator at the University of Michigan herbarium, in their popular 1980 book, The Mushroom Hunter's Field Guide, "the idea of being able to use a resource obtainable at low cost becomes even more popular. Our yearly crop of wild mushrooms, though admittedly somewhat unpredictable, is such a resource."
Another factor, which Smith failed to mention (perhaps out of modesty), is the enormous progress that has been made recently in mycological research, much of which has helped debunk mushroom myth: for example, that toadstools are poisonous, mushrooms aren't; if a mushroom has been nibbled by another animal, it's safe to eat; leprechauns hide under toadstools; the manna that sustained the Israelites during their flight from Egypt was a sudden growth of edible mushrooms. But one thing is certain: Many mushrooms can kill you if you eat them or can make you very, very sick. It is this, more than anything, that puts people off wild mushrooms. And it's in this area—the isolation of mushroom poisons, their identification and in some (all too rare) cases, the development of antidotes—that the mycologists of our time have done so much to transmute mycophobia in America to mycophilia.