There’s Food Out There — You Just Have to Look

I emerged from the bushes the other day onto the street where our neighbors, Brooke and Doug, were strolling by, looking somewhat taken aback by the man climbing out of the trees.

“Hello,” I said, holding two large white mushrooms.

“Wow, those are beautiful!” said Brooke. “What are they?”

.

“There are amanita ocreata — destroying angels. One of the deadliest mushrooms in the world.”

Her joyful face melted away, and she took a couple steps back. Now there is a great irony in the fact that a few hours later, she would be eating wild mushrooms that I picked.

“I did hear that you are an expert on wild mushrooms,” she said. I shrugged and said, “Sorta,” and somehow she still trusted me when I left a bag of chanterelles on the mailbox for them later that afternoon.

I had been running in the state park earlier that morning (back when that was still a thing), when something conspicuously orange caught me eye in the oak leaf duff deep in the middle of a huge patch of poison oak. I climbed down carefully through that ornery weed to have my suspicions confirmed — chanterelles! And a lot of them. (Hence my subsequent sharing with miscellaneous friends and neighbors.)

Southern California produces the world’s largest chanterelles (those years that are rainy enough for us to actually find them). A single mushroom can weigh two pounds, and feed a family of five (I only wish my children would learn to enjoy them…) Besides chanterelles and the carpet of live oak acorns on our property that could theoretically feed us for six months, there are many other things growing in our nearby fields and woods that are edible.

Miner’s lettuce

I once took a guided walk with a naturalist up in our state park, and he showed us many different edible foods (besides deer and rabbits) — there was the wild sage plant, whose flowers turned to chia seeds; another small plant was a wild buckwheat, whose seeds could presumably be collected, pounded and baked into some sort of breadlike something.

One of my favorite wild foods in our area is miner’s lettuce, a beautiful, delicate green that presents a lovely addition to a salad. Sometimes, when I am nerding out or doing an expensive dinner for a client, I will pick the little circular cups, and fill them with something exquisite and delicious — a mini salad, perhaps; or caviar.

Some people in other places have better wild foods than we do — the wild mushrooms at my mother’s house could make us a wealthy family if we ever set our minds to it. And I always covet the bounty of the Northwest — not just mushrooms, but fiddlehead ferns, wild ramps, berries of all kinds, oysters and salmon. But you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.

With prolific late winter rains in Southern California, the chanterelles have been abundant. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances posting photos of their catch on social media. The smart (i.e. cautious) have come to me for a positive ID. While there isn’t much you can mistake for a chanterelle if you know what you’re looking for, I do worry that people will become emboldened and go on to sample other mushrooms they find growing. Hopefully not the destroying angel. The morning I found the chanterelles in the park, I also discovered a large patch of what I was pretty sure was amanita velosa — the springtime amanita, supposedly one of the most delicious mushrooms. But with amanitas — the family of mushrooms containing the two most deadly specimens on earth — “pretty sure” isn’t good enough… even after 30 years hunting mushrooms, I’m wary of just about all amanitas.

I went out on the lower part of our property this morning to see if there might be any other mushrooms growing. I discovered several more beautiful snow white destroying angels, some russulas described by one of the mushroom books as “edible but insipid,” and some large agaricus — relatives of the common grocery store mushroom. These I was carrying home to attempt an identification when, emerging from the same cluster of bushes, I encountered another neighbor couple, Megan and Gregory, out on the street.

“Oooh! Those are beautiful!” said Megan. “Good for you for getting your own food!”

Agaricus

They were certainly beautiful. I was skeptical of their edibility, though — the telltale almond scent of the edible agaricus that grow near us was missing. But no worry — there was a pot of borscht on the stove back at the house, I’d done well on chanterelles already this year, and we weren’t yet at the stage where the pantry and fridge were running bare (there was even plenty of Ben & Jerry’s still in the freezer!). For now, foraging remained nothing more than just a lovely way to pass some pandemic time…

11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea Cleall
    Apr 09, 2020 @ 21:51:33

    Very happy to hear you’re not trying to distinguish one amanita from another. oxoxxo

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Apr 09, 2020 @ 21:58:02

      I can hardly even bring myself to eat that coccora that grows up near your house — which is GIANT and doesn’t look like any other amanita. But it’s still an amanita.

      Reply

  2. Joy Neubert
    Apr 09, 2020 @ 22:20:53

    Thank you, Sean, again for your foodie adventures. They are always so interesting and educational.
    I want to take a edible food walk!
    Joy Neubert In the Buck family

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Apr 09, 2020 @ 22:43:57

      Hi Joy, always a pleasure to hear from you. Remember the big shaggy white mushroom we were eating last time in Big Wolf? Hope to see you guys up there again one of the next couple summers. Love to Bob! //s

      Reply

  3. ~M
    Apr 10, 2020 @ 17:33:38

    I used to live in California and my grandfather was an expert when it came to identifying mushrooms. It’s too bad for me, I didn’t pay good enough attention to what he was trying to teach me about them. I wish I would have listened more. I can’t identify a single one of them! This is a great post. I wish I had someone here where I’m at now, to teach me all these things.

    Reply

  4. zoedog66
    Apr 10, 2020 @ 19:10:31

    Love your blog – keep blogging! And greetings from Australia 🙂 Melinda

    Reply

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