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Fungi fanatics find food on the forest floor

John Hawkins drives the edge of his fingernail into the underside of a mushroom, slicing across its buttery gills. Beads of royal blue ink, the defining feature of this indigo milky species, ooze up from the cut. He then paints his forehead with the fresh fungi blood. 

Now marked with the mushroom smear from his latest conquest, Hawkins plunges deeper into the forest with warrior-like stealth. He soon discovers an amanita species known as “Caesar’s mushroom.” (It was a favorite of the early Roman emperors.) The fiery orange ‘shroom can be consumed raw. Thank goodness, because Hawkins didn’t eat breakfast that morning. He nibbles away at the tender cap before finding another, double-fisting fungi. 

After attending a seminar on how to safely hunt for mushrooms, Hawkins, who describes his occupation as an “agri-scaper” (someone who creates landscaping designs solely with edible plants), and a handful of other foragers were lucky enough to test their knowledge in the woods at Down Yonder Farm in Hillsborough. The group — three women and four men, millennials to baby boomers — represents but a fraction of local fungi fanatics. And no, these are not the psychedelic kinds. 

The indigo milky mushroom oozes a royal blue liquid if you cut into it. Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal

The mushroom hunting excursion and seminar is led by 63-year-old Frank Hyman: a college dropout (“it’s really just a vocational school for rich kids”), former Durham City Council member, and author of “How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying.” That’s his lesson for the day. 

For the foraging community, “it’s this kind of ridiculously fun activity that involves finding gourmet food that’s laying around for free,” says Hyman. Being outside is the best part. He wakes up “hungry for breakfast and vitamin D” and then finds his food on the forest floor.

Puffballs and Chicken of the Woods

On a recent Saturday, before the invite-only foraging expedition, more than 30 mushroom fanatics gather in the farm’s meeting room. A picture of Hyman is projected on a screen at the front of the room. He’s beaming next to 33 pounds of lion’s mane, a monstrous mushroom species with a shaggy appearance. The crowd arrives brimming with questions, scribbling answers in their notebooks (phones aren’t allowed in Hyman’s classes).

Are dogs affected by poisonous mushrooms the same as humans? Yes, dogs are mammals.

If you harvest a lion’s mane with some brown inside, can you just cut off the brown and eat the rest? Yes, just like an apple. 

Can you talk about canning and marinating? No, Hyman won’t. He’s not a canner, and there’s not enough time to discuss marinating. Check Google (even though he considers the internet to be a “relative net loss to society.”)

Hyman says the key to successful mushroom hunting is judgment, not intelligence. The consequences for mushroom misjudgment can be serious, particularly if the wrong species are consumed. The effects can include liquefied livers and kidneys. 

As Hyman clicks through a slide presentation showing different mushrooms, hands shoot up to identify each species. It’s clear the attendees know their way around a ‘shroom or two. More slides present pictures of “food porn.” (Mushrooms sauteed in butter.)

After the workshop, the farm’s owner, Jessie Gladdek, brings out a buffet of puffballs Hyman foraged for guests to bring home. She unloads the bulbous lumps from Whole Foods grocery bags, dirt raining down onto the table. Puffballs have a tofu-like texture — the largest ones are as big as cantaloupes. 

Amateur mushroom hunter Stacy Murphy lives on 35 acres of land in Virgilina, Va. where she spots mushrooms all the time on her walks. When she’s not foraging, Murphy can be found renovating historic properties and managing rental properties. The day before the workshop, she was shocked to find an impressive 4-pound specimen.

“I turned the corner, and I looked up, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, it’s chicken of the woods!’” With a texture said to resemble poultry, chicken of the woods grows in “shelves” on deciduous trees. “It’s a gateway drug,” Murphy says of the species, because it gets people hooked on wanting to find more. She uses the flesh in her halal “chicken” recipe. 

Nothing tops the euphoric feeling of finding your dinner in a tree. “Foraging is like the best Easter egg hunt you’ve ever been on,” says Hyman. Throw the fungi in a hot pan with oil, add some seasoning, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Just like that, dinner is served.

Breakfast for Dinner

After the presentation, Murphy joins Hawkins and the rest of the group hunting. In addition to finding clusters of Caesar’s mushrooms and the indigo milkys, the foragers encounter an unsuspecting pure white specimen that Hyman believes to be an Amanita mushroom known as a death angel, which can cause liver failure and death. After we published this story, we heard from another expert that it was a different type of bright white Amanita. Hyman then confirmed it was not a death angel and was in fact another type of Amanita, although he said it also could be dangerous.

Frank Hyman explains the risks of eating dangerous mushrooms to Stacy Murphy.  Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal

Thankfully, Hyman and the owner of Down Yonder Farm have had sufficient practice in ID-ing mushrooms. Their still-functioning organs testify to that. But for Hawkins, his forehead marked with the indigo milky— it is his first time foraging for fungi. He’s pleased to go home with a nice haul.

That night, he prepares breakfast for dinner. He begins by cooking his bacon on the stove, leaving the excess grease in the pan. To the pan, Hawkins adds chopped chunks of the freshly foraged indigo milky mushrooms, letting them sear in the bacon fat. 

He adds parsley, garlic, and a little bit of salt. They simmer over low heat for about 25 minutes, the blue blood mixing with the fatty oils until the mushrooms crisp to a dark greenish-blue.

Then, Hawkins feasts on an indigo milky mushroom omelet— the yellow eggs stained slightly by residual blue ink. “It was, like, yielding, but semi-rubbery,” he says, “almost like cheese— like a squeaky cheese.”

Now, he forages nearly every day. “Those things were really good.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify details about certain types of mushrooms. 

Photo at top, John Hawkins nibbles on edible Caesar’s mushrooms after marking his forehead with the ink of an indigo milky. Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal