Fungus Amongus

Mar 31, 2010 at 12am

Mycological Society of San Francisco member Curt Haney warned, pointing at the grass – without looking himself – where a still-fresh dog turd lay in waiting. I barely missed it. Curt, a retired Navy guy and avid mushroom enthusiast, was looking ahead, his eyes in search of the prize – edible fungi.

It was the Sunday of daylight savings. I had forgone a late night of rocking out on Saturday night to be awake by 8:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. mushroom foray in the Outer Sunset. After a quick shower, breakfast, and packing a few items (a snack, a brown paper bag, wax paper, and a digging tool), I jumped onto my trusty bike and sped through the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park on what was fortunately a beautiful, sunny morning. I was the first to arrive at the meeting spot – a bench at Sunset and Martin Luther King Drive.

I had contacted the Mycological Society of San Francisco realizing that a huge variety of mushrooms grow naturally in San Francisco, many of which are edible and can be found in yards, lots, and sometimes even crop up between cracks in the pavement. I love the idea of being able to forage for food, but mushrooms can be a tricky bunch, with many inedible kinds and look-alike varietals that are toxic. I wanted to forage on the safe side, with expert mycologists, or those who study fungi.

Curt was the one who got back to me after I’d called the MSSF, and who suggested I join up with this mushroom hunt, led by fellow member Monique Carment. The primary mushroom months in San Francisco were nearly over (November through February being the best times), but the recent rain helped prolong the season, and Curt thought we might still come across some edibles. He said we might even be able to cook a few up on his propane stove after the hunt.

A minute after parking my bike, our leader Monique arrived. A friendly woman in her later years, with a long gray ponytail, Monique looked just as I imagined she would. She was dressed in a heather gray sweatshirt with mushrooms decorating it (like something you’d buy at one of those nature stores in the mall), a long black scarf, sensible outdoor shoes, and a white tennis hat with puffy red-and-white spotted cloth mushrooms sewn onto it; any mycologist worth his or her salt would recognize these as stuffed replica of the beautiful, hallucinogenic Amanita muscaria.

She also had a pair of binoculars hanging from her neck, for bird watching. Binoculars, it turns out, are also a handy tool for mushroom collectors, especially when foraging in places that may or may not be legal areas for it. The better to see park rangers with, my dear. Who knew mushroom foragers were such a rebellious lot?

But on this day, we wouldn’t be breaking the law. Mushroom collecting is restricted in most parks, including Golden Gate Park and the Presidio in San Francisco, but there are no rules against collecting in areas like grassy traffic medians. The medians running up and down Sunset Boulevard are a good place because the area is not restricted, but also because the city waters the area regularly, and the damp climate out in those parts maintains a fungus-friendly atmosphere. This was the third time that a MSSF foray would take place on Sunset, but Monique said that each time they found something different.

Our group was a small one, maybe because peak mushroom season was over or maybe because most people were in bed savoring that lost hour of daylight savings. There would be seven of us in total; joining me, Monique, and Curt were Beth, a returning student from San Francisco State University who is in her 60s; a mother and daughter duo whose names I didn’t catch; and Jack, a rugged, outdoorsy middle-aged guy who also came on bike.

As we started our way down the Sunset median, Curt walked ahead of us, pointing out mushrooms and more dog poop to avoid (there was lots of it). I wouldn’t describe him as quiet – his sharp tongue and twisted sense of humor were often on display that morning, but he had a laconic nature. Maybe I’m stereotyping, but it’s what I’d expect of someone from a military background.

Curt reminded me of John Locke on Lost (before the character got killed, natch) in that he’s the guy you’d want to have around if you were lost in the woods; he’s kind of a badass, too. I tried to keep up with him, because of his eagle eye, but also because he was a fountain of knowledge and had interesting stories. He said that he once found a washed-up body when he was foraging on Treasure Island, what he grimly concluded was a result of a Golden Gate Bridge suicide.

Some of the mushrooms we found were poisonous, like a silver Amanita pantherina. Most of these were not toxic enough to kill you, but were part of what Curt called the “lose your lunch bunch,” which would give you a major case of gastrointestinitis. Others, like the Helvella lacunosa, a purplish black wrinkly capped mushroom that looks somewhat like a morel, is edible but has some toxicity to it. It shouldn’t be eaten raw, but many a mushroomphile will say it’s a tasty find.

Because I wanted to see what everyone else was discovering and was trying to hear all the tidbits of information being tossed around by Monique and Curt, I wasn’t finding much on my own. But at the end of the hunt, on the south side of Sunset, I finally came upon one very special type of mushroom. I called over the group when I spotted a few white, round ping-pong-ball-sized specimens in a shady patch of grass.

Monique quickly identified them as latticed stinkhorn mushrooms. What I had found were the immature eggs, which would eventually burst open and “stink like a sewer.” Curt came over and cut one open – its insides looked like a brain, and was even gelatinous in texture like some kind of organ meat. Curt doesn’t like the taste of them, but some people do eat stinkhorn eggs.

He suggested slicing and deep-frying them – a good suggestion, considering you could deep-fry almost anything and make it taste OK. Two in our group quickly gathered up the stinkhorns, but I decided to pass. I’m not sure why, but the idea of eating something that was compared to raw sewage just didn’t appeal to me.

When we returned to our starting point, I only had some inedible mushrooms in my paper bag. I threw them back into the grass to redistribute their spores, so that their kin would one day rise again. I left empty-handed, but with a whole new respect for mushrooms, and for the people who love them.

The Mycological Society of San Francisco leads field trips, including local hunts and overnight camping trips. The events are free and open to the public. Check out their online event calendar for a schedule of upcoming forays. Meetings on the third Tuesday of each month (from September through May) at the Randall Museum. Members gather in the museum’s basement for a social hour at 7 p.m. for refreshments and snacks, a book sale, and mushroom identification. At 8 p.m. the meeting moves upstairs for MSSF news and a guest speaker. And if you’re looking for a trusty identification book, most mycologists agree that the best field guide for West Coast foraging is David Arora’s All That the Rain Promises, and More.

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