Foraging the Forests for Fungi\r\n\r\nMost of us buy our food from the grocery store. Alan Muskat gathers his food from the forest.\r\n\r\nHe collects dandelion greens and nettles for salads, and he harvests an assortment of wild berries, but it\u2019s his talent for tracking down tasty toadstools that\u2019s earned him the nickname \u201cMushroom Man.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cOnce you attune your eyes to mushrooms, you notice what you\u2019ve never noticed before: hidden edible treasures, in plain sight,\u201d says Muskat.\r\n\r\nFor 15 years, he has been gathering mushrooms from lush Southern Appalachian forests. He has sold hundreds of pounds of this found food to regional restaurants each year, and he also guides mushroom workshops and expeditions. Muskat\u2019s focus on fungus has attracted the national spotlight: he has been featured on food shows nationwide and dined with celebrity cooks from the country\u2019s finest restaurants.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nPhoto Courtesy of Sandra Cohen-Rose\r\n\r\n\u201cMushrooms are as delicious as they are nutritious, and they\u2019re all fresh, local, organic, and free,\u201d says Muskat. They\u2019re loaded with minerals and vitamins, especially B and D, and they taste meaty because they\u2019re packed with protein. So why aren\u2019t more people gathering these incredible edibles? Fungophobia, says Muskat.\r\n\r\n\u201cMushrooms are far more beneficial and less dangerous than most Americans believe,\u201d he says. There are over 10,000 mushroom species on this continent, and only five or six are deadly poisonous. He encourages novice mushroom hunters to focus on the five most common mushrooms in Southern Appalachian forests\u2014and their nonedible look-alikes. The best way to learn is to hike with an expert.\r\n\r\n\u201cEating wild mushrooms\u2014like driving and having sex\u2014has some measure of risk. But practically everybody does it anyway,\u201d he says. In Spain, France, Russia, and most of the non-Anglo-Saxon world, mushroom hunting is virtually a national pastime: children gather mushrooms before they can read and write, and mushroom meals are a culinary conversation piece. Even here in Southern Appalachia, mountain folk religiously gather morels every spring.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\nPhoto by HardWorkingHippie Via Flickr\r\n\r\nHarvesting mushrooms takes some work, but not as much as you might think. Muskat finds more mushrooms in neighborhoods than in remote forests. And don\u2019t worry about over-harvesting mushrooms, says Muskat. Picking mushrooms is like picking berries; as long as you don\u2019t destroy the fungus from which it grows, mushrooms will continue to sprout. Mushrooms are the fruiting part of a vast underground network of fungus strands called mycelium. These underground webs are vital in recycling nutrients, feeding trees, and replenishing ecosystems.\r\n\r\n\u201cMost of us want to use mushrooms, typically for food or medicine. But you will gain far more from befriending fungi than by using them,\u201d says Muskat. \u201cMaking friends with fungi involves getting to know them: understanding and appreciating their role in the environment and learning what they want in exchange.\u201d\r\n\r\nMuskat uses clever and creative methods to educate others about mushrooms and their essential ecological roles\u2014including humorous memory aids (\u201cThe poisonous Amanita mushroom is pronounced like the 80s Hall and Oates song \u201cManeater\u201d) and even a mushroom rap. It\u2019s all aimed at reconnecting people to the wild.\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n"Chicken of the Woods" Photo by Vic Nanda\r\n\r\n\u201cWild food makes you wild\u2014that is, free,\u201d he says. \u201cGathering your own food is a lesson in self-esteem that you can carry over into other areas of your life. Can you learn the skills and trust yourself enough to eat what you alone have identified, or will you always need to eat processed food wrapped in cellophane?\u201d \u2022\r\n\r\nWant to learn more about the world wide web of wild mushrooms? Attend Muskat\u2019s Making Friends with Fungus workshop on September 4 or his Off the Eaten Path wild foods retreat beginning September 10. Visit alanmuskat.com for more info.\r\n\r\nFUNGI FORAGING TIPS\r\n\u2022 In general, the more mature the forest, the more mushrooms you\u2019ll find.\r\n\r\n\u2022 Some mushrooms are more common under specific trees. For chanterelles, go to deciduous woods. Boletes often prefer pine forests.\r\n\r\n\u2022 The best time to search for mushrooms is about five days after a good rain.\r\n\r\n\u2022 Avoid areas where mushrooms could have soaked up toxins, like a golf course, well-manicured (pesticide-laden) lawn, or places downwind of a coal-fired plant.\r\n\r\n\u2022 The first time you are eating a new edible species, cook some, but eat only a tablespoon. Any bad response\u2014like nausea or an upset stomach\u2014will usually happen within two hours.\r\n\r\n\u2022 Cook wild mushrooms well: When a guidebook says a variety is edible, it\u2019s talking about the cooked version of it.