The Pacific Northwest has two main mushroom seasons, spring and fall, the seasons with the most rain, but not as cold as winter. In April, Eric and I went mushroom hunting in Sandy River Delta Park, an expansive off-leash dog park about 17 miles east of the center of Portland. Our goal was to find infamously elusive morels, but after a couple hours we had nothing and Eric had a headache. He lay down on a moss-covered log and I looked under, gasping, “Morel!” But it was only a Verpa bohemica, not a real morel, not edible. They look rather similar at first, penis-like with a wrinkly head, but the verpa has a fibrous, cotton-like interior and a cap completely detached from the shaft, described as being like a thimble resting on a finger. A few people consider verpas edible, but most experienced mushroomers will tell you that they are mildly poisonous.
Even that misleading find reinvigorated us. We targeted an area that had been subjected to a controlled burn a few years before. There’s a variety of morel called a burn morel which only appears after intense fiery destruction. There was little sign of fire damage in the acres of grasses, but patches of trees showed scorched trunks and fallen logs. Eric walked on the logs over blackberry brambles and shouted a triumphant “Whoa!” when he found large oyster mushrooms growing on a fallen cottonwood. Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) are rounded, more like clamshells than like oyster shells, but they grow in clusters like an oyster bed.
Then came the obligatory “Weirdo with Mushrooms” pictures. When we go mushroom hunting we carry the 263 page “hip pocket guide” All That the Rain Promises and More, and, when we’re in the mood to lug a load, the heavy 1056 page bible Mushrooms Demystified—both by David Aurora. A man is pictured on the cover of All the Rain Promises... wearing a tuxedo and holding a trumpet in one hand and a large cluster of orange chanterelles in the other, bigger than his hands. He grins through a massive beard. He is a weirdo with mushrooms and all the people pictured in this book are weirdoes with mushrooms. They’re smug or indiscreetly jubilant about their oversized fungus finds. Their hair is wild, their clothing nonstandard.
I snapped a photo of Eric standing triumphant in his blue ‘80s windbreaker, his dark curly hair too long, nerdy glasses crooked, raising up hefty bunches of oyster mushrooms in both hands in a forager’s victory dance.
I call whatever mushrooms we take home that weren’t the target mushrooms “the consolation prize.” Although oyster mushrooms aren’t as delicious as morels, they’re one of my favorites for their firm texture and mild flavor.
photo by a.bower@N05/ via Flickr
We ate oyster mushrooms for dinner, grilled in our first outdoor cookout of the year with Eric’s housemates. In the morning, we had a decadent oyster mushroom hash for breakfast. I took the remaining mushrooms home in a paper bag that evening, but forgot to put it in the refrigerator overnight. The bottom of bag was soggy when I put it in the fridge the next morning.
I was going to make cream of mushroom soup, but leaving the bag out overnight turned out to be a critical error. The mushrooms looked worm-eaten. They had gone from firm, fleshy, and pliable to squishy and wet, with tiny tunnels burrowed through the surface. Eric would have thrown them out, but I was reluctant to waste our bounty. Surely the compromised texture of the mushrooms wouldn’t matter when turned into soup.
Here is a recipe for cream of oyster mushroom soup:
4 tablespoons butter¼ teaspoon parsley¼ teaspoon thyme1 large onion1 quart vegetable stock1 pint heavy cream1 pound oyster mushrooms (That’s what I had remaining.)
Melt butter in a tall pot. Add parsley and thyme. Chop onion (actually, do that beforehand so you don’t run out of time and scorch the spices) and add it to the butter. While the onion browns, slice mushrooms. Start with the softest, soggiest bunch. Notice that fungus gnat maggots are fleeing out of the mushrooms at every slice. Lots of them. Push that aside and slice the other bunch of mushrooms that don’t look as damaged. Maggots are coming out of that too. Put the mushroom slices in the pan anyway. Decide not to tell Eric about the maggots. It’s just extra protein. Cook for five minutes stirring occasionally. The mushrooms, onions, spices, and butter, sure smell good, don’t they. Almost enough to make you forget what’s in the mix. Almost. Notice that the maggots aren’t cooking down. The mushrooms rapidly lose mass over medium heat, but the maggots are keeping their shape. Notice their black pin heads and sturdy white tubular bodies.
Throw it all into the compost. Not the indoor compost container, the outdoor compost bin.
Lauren Hudgins (@lehudgins) earned her MA in Publishing and her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Portland State University in 2014. Living car-free, she bikes about the gloom of the rainy Pacific Northwest to keep her endorphins flowing. When not working as a social media strategist, she blogs about food foraging and feminism with the PDXX Collective.