A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Fungi and Fun Guys

by Maria Reidelbach   

Foraging seems to be an activity alien to a modern lifestyle, but I’ve noticed that there are everyday parallels of this ancient practice. An example: back in the day, my Manhattan neighborhood had the only miniature golf course in the city. Run by a community nonprofit, these wonderful putting greens were sweetly sited on the southernmost pier on the Hudson River. After 9/11, because it was adjacent to the World Trade Center, the mini golf course was used as a dump and debris sorting ground. A year later, the course was still sad and bedraggled. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it needed a healing makeover, but funds were scarce. So artist Ken Brown and I, with the help of community volunteers, renovated the mini golf using mostly scavenged, recycled materials. We made mosaics with broken plates (many from nearby upscale restaurants) and flowers from colorful plastic shopping bags and bottles. On recycling pick-up days, I biked the neighborhood streets. Some colors were especially rare; when we spotted a violet-hued plastic bottle, we rejoiced. Surrounded by New York City glitz and bling, we discovered that even throw-aways could become compelling objects of desire—it’s all a matter of attitude. It’s a happy day when someone else’s trash becomes your treasure!

Shifting your attitude about an art material is one thing; changing your mind about something that you put in your mouth and swallow is a bit different. Although I began learning foraging at my mother’s knee and have not stopped since, there are still plenty of edible wild flora, fauna, and fungi that I have never tasted. And it’s a funny thing—when I find a new plant or mushroom to try, even if I’m certain of its identification and safety, I’m usually a little creeped out by eating a “weed.” I’ve observed that many folks react same way. For millennia, this instinctive wariness must have kept us from poisoning ourselves. However, over the eons, we humans did slowly broaden our diet, discovering and cultivating more and more foods, at least until relatively recently.

In the last century, agriculture became industrialized and food became a commodity. Fruit and vegetables were bred to be durable—to withstand the tumbles and bumps of shipping and days or weeks spent in trucks, trains, and even planes. Variety diminished with the desire to standardize the product for millions of people. These days, the majority of Americans eat only 13 different vegetables—and potatoes make up more than half the veggies most people eat! It’s a delicious culinary adventure to try new foods, and, because there are thousands of phytonutrients in plants, in different combinations, it’s healthiest to eat a wide variety of fruit, veggies and mushrooms.
Mycological clubs are a great way to learn about mushroom
hunting. Lead by expert members, this group examines the 
varieties they’ve found together.

I’ve discovered a great way to overcome the fear factor. There’s strength in numbers—join with others to learn about and eat new wild foods! Almost 20 years ago I joined the New York Mycological Society to learn more about mushrooms and to become a more confident forager, cook, and diner. Through guided walks led by the most experienced members of the group, I learned about habitats and collecting methods. At Monday study nights, members would bring all the mysterious and bizarre fungi that we had collected over the weekend, and we would geek out with piles of reference books, learning to decipher arcane descriptions, puzzling out terms like “squamulose” and “olivaceous.” (In case you’re wondering, squamulose means patchily hairy, and olivaceous means deep green.) There’s nothing like having a knowledgeable friend beside you who can point to a plant or fungus and confirm its identification.

We had tastings! If wariness of new foods is in our genes, I think that comfort in sharing food must be as well. The root words of “company” are Latin for “share bread,” after all. We would cook up our edible finds simply, in a little butter, and what fun! Somehow it was so much less scary with fellow adventurers.

Here in the Mid-Hudson Valley, there are a bunch of group options to learn about foraging. Closest to my heart is the Mid-Hudson Mycological Association. This wonderful nonprofit is run entirely by volunteers. There are guided walks throughout region starting May through the first frost. The MHMA has lectures throughout the year with guest speakers and workshops on things like cultivating mushrooms, dying cloth, and wine-making, and a special annual group dinner. Plus they’ve got an active Facebook page where you can keep up with the latest news and finds.

Plant foraging is taught by several local groups and experts. Wild Earth is a nonprofit that runs nature-based programs for kids, teens, adults, families, even business groups. They teach through mentorship. Learning about wild foods begins with a focus on building in-depth knowledge about a few choice edibles: how they appear in different seasons, look-alikes, preparation and cooking, and—especially important—how to integrate wild plants into your everyday diet. This is an ideal way to really get to know a plant.

Through Wild Earth, Dina Falconi, author, food activist, and one of our region’s most knowledgeable herbalists, teaches a class that meets monthly throughout the growing season. Although Dina can give one-on-one lessons, she points out that learning in a group has cultural resonance and is more affordable. Her teaching encompasses edible and medicinal plants, plus plants used in body care products, focusing on how to use plants for food, healing, and skin care.

Susun Weed is another fantastic local resource. Nationally known as an herbalist and author, Susun teaches workshops and intensive courses throughout the year, many of them focused on herbal medicine, but some including culinary foraging. She also offers work exchanges for fees.

Of course, you can always forage and cook with a group of friends. If none of you is an expert, you can stick to guide books featuring easy-to-identify varieties of plants and mushrooms. You will benefit from many eyes—both in the woods, fields, and gardens, and later to confirm identification. Plus you can share a toast over the abundance of delicious food that you formerly passed by as mere weeds.

Some sources to check out:

• Mid-Hudson Mycological Association: midhudsonmyco.org and on Facebook
• Wild Earth: wildearth.org
• Dina Falconi: foragingandfeasting.com
• Susun Weed’s Wise Woman Center: herbshealing.com

Maria Reidelbach is an author and applied artist who lives, works and eats in Accord, NY. Contact her at maria@corncow.com.