I wrote this in 2013 for Dave Mossop at Yukon College as part of my course requirements for NOST 201, A natural history of the North. However, it had been rattling around in my head for some time. Please do not use this to identify a mushroom; get expert advice.
I’m going to tell you the story of my very personal relationship with a mushroom.
I had met Lactarius deliciosus a few times at a friend’s place. Julie Frisch was, at that time, a natural history interpreter in the Tombstone Territorial Park, spending summers in an old cabin a short ways up the Dempster Highway.
Julie calls this mushroom “orange delicious”. It’s also known as a saffron milk cap or red pine mushroom. I had happily dined on eggs, rice and mushrooms as her guest. But at that time, that mushroom was more her friend than mine.
One September, when Julie had returned to Hillcrest from her cabin, the mushrooms were so plentiful she just couldn’t keep them to herself. So we went out walking with serrated knives and paper bags lining our cloth ones. She introduced me to the mushrooms and where to find them.
Different people learn in different ways, but I think learning an edible mushroom from another person is the best way to do it. I’m not the kind of person who by nature reads manuals or field guides. Besides, lists in a book don’t necessarily correspond readily to local knowledge.
Knowing from Julie that this was the only mushroom in the area that exudes orange sap when it’s cut is knowledge not only of this mushroom, but of the other mushrooms behind my house.
Walking with her in the mushroom’s natural habitat, seeing which ones she finds and which ones look similar but aren’t quite right, yields a more certain way of knowing. Besides, Julie is in herself evidence of the authority of her knowledge; she has eaten these mushrooms avidly for years and she is still alive.
When I see this mushroom, I recognize it as a whole, as a friend, instead of listing its traits. I listen for it, and imagine that it calls out to me. I feel that it’s my mushroom.
I cook with this mushroom differently than Julie does. Julie dries them and adds them to rice, but that treatment changes the flavour into something different than the mushroom I love.
I fry them in butter, and the orange sap emerges and blends with the butter in a rich orange sauce-like liquid. Often I add a small amount of soy sauce, whose salt draws the sap out further. Even cooked they have a crunch to them among all this richness.
I’ve discovered the mushroom is wonderful on pizza and a complete waste of time battered and deep fried. If I’m feeling really fancy, I add whipping cream and make a cream reduction, into which I nestle chicken thighs cooked with just salt and pepper so the top skin is crispy. I did mention that my relationship with this mushroom is a kind of love affair, right?
But it’s only physical for maybe six weeks per year.
One fall I was trying to control myself, thinking I should leave the mushrooms alone for a couple of days, let them recover after a rain, give them some space. But then I came upon one growing right in the middle of the path, where someone was just going to step on it anyway. It’s easy to dream that this is a kind of dialogue. So I threw my aloofness to the wind and just enjoyed the too-brief moment of its fruiting.
This does not mean I forget my mushroom when the paths are full of snow. All winter I walk there, dreaming of the mushroom’s mycelium under the snow. The vegetative part of a mushroom, the mycelium, can be enormous, with vast regions of white threads sewn through the leaf mould, like neurons in a wide-spread brain.
I wonder if my mushroom dreams in the winter. I know I dream of it.