The sporadic rain showers, damp air, and threatening thunderstorms that attack Western North Carolina in the early days of spring and the sweltering days of summer, provide ideal conditions for an often overlooked commodity that flourishes in this area—the mushroom.
Light, humidity, and temperature are the basic ingredients that feed the growth of this mystical and magical edible. After a good rain, one can scour the lush wooded areas of our mountainous region and find a wide variety of fungi emerging, sometimes hidden, and sometimes large and in charge, consuming what it grows upon and beckoning you to explore and possibly even taste.
Yet as we have all been taught, plucking a mushroom from the earth and popping it in your mouth can be a grave mistake, and mushroom hunting as a means for dinner, or as a hobby, comes with an amount of risk. Luckily there is a plethora of resources in this area for every kind of mushroom enthusiast, whether hunting and foraging is your pleasure, or cultivating in your backyard is your desire.
It’s All in the Hunt
Mushrooms are a food source, and most people who trek through the wilderness to find them enjoy the taste. There are also a number of medicinal properties and health benefits that draw people to the quest. And many people in this area, and across the country, search for the fungus, among other natural edibles, as a nostalgic means of returning to a simpler way of life in which we historically hunted and gathered our food.
Alan Muskat, a self-proclaimed philosoforager, believes that anything but wild foods is bad for you. He often refers to “BC”—Before Costco, a time when we were all foragers. He is a wild foods educator and has successfully created a business in which he leads interested hunters and community members on wild food adventures. His company, No Taste Like Home, leads expeditions into the forest to correctly identify, harvest, appreciate, and eat wild plants and mushrooms.
Alan believes in cooperative foraging and views all of nature as friends and family. To him it is important to return to the traditional and natural way of eating. His philosophy touts not just a way to eat dinner, but a way of getting involved and creating a sense of home, of safety and belonging, and of ownership and caring. Through this process he feels that you can discover that most things are not dangerous.
That being said, Alan also urges potential foragers not just to refer to books and online information but to learn from a field guide. He says there are several thousand types of wild mushrooms on the continent and less than a dozen are known to be deadly. At least 300 might make you sick, sometimes to the point of warding off mushrooms or food altogether. Alan himself has unfortunately been exposed to the dark side mushrooms have to offer, yet it hasn’t deterred him from the hunt.
Knowledge is key in this industry, and in his book Wild Mushrooms, A Taste of Enchantment, Alan quotes Gary Lincoff, “Every mushroom is edible—once.”
For more information, or to learn how to mushroom hunt visit NoTasteLikeHome.org.
The Science Guys
When searching for mushrooms, one usually pictures delving deep into the woods, but driving through West Asheville you might stumble upon a brightly painted building decorated with Alice in Wonderland-esque red mushroom caps on one side, and brainy porous morels on the other, set against a blue background and green grass. This small building, tucked away off of the main bustle of Haywood Road houses an operation encompassing everything mushroom related.
Asheville Fungi’s Mushroom Central fulfills a niche market not commonly found in the United States. The retail space offers information, equipment, and supplies for anyone from the most basic to expert cultivators of mushrooms. While the owners still enjoy foraging for mushrooms in the wild, their real passion lies in the cultivation process and the controlled creations of mushroom spawn and cultures in their sterile lab.
Joe Allawos, a biology instructor at A-B Tech, and Chris Parker met due to their mutual enthusiasm for mushrooms, and paired up with a silent entrepreneurial partner to open the shop. While Chris runs the daily operations of the retail space, Joe focuses on the marketing and operation of the website and online sales.
Upon entering the store you are greeted with shelves of books and mushroom memorabilia on one wall, tinctures on another, coolers filled with freshly harvested meaty fungi, starter kits of sawdust and grain, and venturing even further back are the sterile rooms where all the magic happens. This is where the cultures are created in small petri dishes like so many science experiments, giving birth to these specialized organisms that will grow into intricate shapes and colors. The cultures are sold in the store as well as around the world through online sales.
The grow room is located beneath the retail space. Interestingly enough, Joe is severely allergic to mushroom spores and opts out of venturing downstairs, although this doesn’t affect his love for mushrooms or the taste of them. He warns that the spores often cause your nose to itch and, after descending the wooden plank leading to the ominous room, it will immediately be apparent if you have a mushroom allergy.
It is damp and musty with puddles of water on the concrete floors. The fluorescent lighting blankets shelves upon shelves of basketball sized inoculation bags containing materials such as sawdust, grain, coffee grounds, brewing remnants, and the mushroom spawn that grows out of them. These materials that are considered waste to other businesses are gold for mushroom growers, making the process fairly cost efficient.
The bags have dates on them, and as the mushrooms grow, they are harvested, and then regenerate for further fruitage. The dank atmosphere is perfect for mushroom growth and it is obvious that this is the birthplace of a wide variety of fungal species.
Continuing on the tour to the greenhouse next door, Joe excitedly points out a large growth of mushrooms protruding in one large clump. He explains that these are Reishi mushrooms and they are his top sellers. He can barely keep them on the shelves.
[quote float=”right”]Chris emphasizes his main rule: “Don’t put it in your mouth unless you know what it is.”[/quote]In the parking lot, Chris is unloading a few items from the trunk of his car, and Joe stops him to discuss one of the mushrooms in hand. What ensues is an excited discussion on what this mushroom could be, with a bit of back and forth banter, some sniffing, and then a taste. Joe’s reaction to the bitter taste speaks volumes and cures any desire to partake, not that you should be so brave. He emphasizes his main rule: “Don’t put it in your mouth unless you know what it is.”
This type of interaction becomes commonplace when speaking with mushroom aficionados. An important part of the process is comparison, camaraderie, and research. It creates a conversation that to an outsider may seem like an entirely different language, but it is born out of a mutual concept that these strange and interesting organisms are one of earth’s mysteries that we have a lot to learn about and at the same time brings us together in a unique way.
Mushroom Central offers monthly classes to those wanting to learn more about the process of cultivating mushrooms, as well as individualized consultations. You can find their mushroom produce at local farmer’s markets and restaurants. And if you find a special cap and stem in the garden or woods, please step through the door between the painted ‘shrooms and these guys will be happy to discuss.
The second Wednesday of every month the Asheville Mushroom Club hosts a monthly meeting that is open to the public at the WNC Nature Center. The perks of being a member of the club range from forays and mushroom hunting adventures, to fellowship with like-minded mycophagists (mushroom eaters), to expert mycologist advice and findings.
On a hot and muggy spring evening, what started out as a handful of people quickly turned into an almost at-capacity room full of warm and friendly individuals from all walks of nature.
There was a sense of ease as everyone walked around or chatted with the person next to them. Some had brought physical mushroom samples they had found in nature, or their backyard, and there was a constant conversation about what each was. A young gentleman shared photographs from a recent excursion on the Appalachian Trail, and “oohs” and “ahs” were expended as people flipped through them.
At the start of the meeting all of the first timers introduced themselves with a brief description of why they were there, ranging from childhood interest in mushrooms, to out-of-towners that love the taste of mushrooms, to writers researching what the mushroom craze is all about.
A speaker, Walt Sturgis, presented a slide show titled “Just for the Smell of it,” in which he displayed the many mushrooms he has encountered and how he has learned to identify them through their scent. Some he fondly recalls as smelling like coconut, while others unfortunately remind him of boiled urine. Throughout the presentation, mushrooms are passed from person to person with guesses on what that smell might be. Anise, garlic, maple syrup, and even bacon are a few of the descriptors used for the various finds.
What that smell means to one person might mean something entirely different to another person. The overall theme of the evening is how these smells trigger nostalgia to times past or a memory from long ago.
Identifying what mushroom you are dealing with is an essential and vital part of hunting for mushrooms, and knowing how to make that identification can save your life, or at least your lunch, but the thrill of the hunt runs deeper than just good food.
Community is the Essence of the Hunt
Morel, Reishi, Oyster, Chanterelle, Shitake, Lion’s Mane, Chicken Mushroom, Milk Cap, Porcini, Truffle, Tooth Fungus, Gypsy, Horn of Plenty are just a few of the common names of the thousands of mushrooms that grow wild and are cultivated. Some may make you sick, and yes, some are even deadly, but to those that hunt this mysterious fungi the risk is minimal and worth the reward.
There are two schools of thought that accompany mushrooms. One is that they should be hunted in the wild as our ancestors have done for centuries, minimizing the effects to nature, and returning to our foraging roots while adding to our diet. The other is the intrigue of this specialized organism and our ability to grow, create new strains, and experiment utilizing waste products and producing them commercially or for individual use.
No matter if the hunt is what you are after, or creation is your game, the overreaching motif is a sense of community. The act of mushrooming has created a dialogue based on what our region has to offer, what our knowledge of this distinctive organism is, and how it connects a network of individuals in a communal aspect. Not to mention that most of them taste good, are good for you, and just look really cool.
This article is intended to provide general information only. Always seek the advice of a medical health professional before touching or eating anything not inspected by FDA. Information provided is not designed to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any illness or injury. You should not eat any wild edible plants, mushrooms, or any fungal species, herbs, weeds, trees, or bushes before speaking with a certified and professionally trained individual. Always consult a health care professional or medical doctor when suffering from any health ailment, disease, illness, or injury, or before attempting any traditional or folk remedies. As with any natural product, they can be toxic if misused.
The information found herein is, to the best of our knowledge, correct. However, errors through omission cannot be ruled out. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the individual to ensure the safety of anything they choose to ingest.
No liability exists against Universal Media Inc. or its DBA: Capital At Play; nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness, or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of content produced by Capital At Play or through using any of the plants and mushrooms mentioned by Capital At Play, or its associates.
Don’t put it in your mouth unless you know what it is.