When early humans first embraced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, there was a lot of experimentation (along with parental disapproval and conservative condemnation; it was practically the ’60s). Tools like sharpened sticks, vine ropes, and big rocks made the hunting part a little easier, but there were only verbal resources for finding out what berries were delicious and which might choke you.
Out in the wilderness of what we now know as New England, the native peoples of Narragansett, Wampanoag, Niantic and more would gather all kinds of edible things in the bountiful woodlands. Much of what they gathered was edible mushrooms, berries and wild grains. After much practice and lots of cues from nature, they figured out which of these were edible or medicinal and which they needed to avoid.
Today, mushroom foraging has become a unique sport in the wet and mild spring and fall, and saw a boom of intererst during the hobby-fostering period at the beginning of the pandemic. Eager foragers wandered through the woods, looking up at the tree trunks and down to the base of the roots.
Before any emerging hobbyist hits the woods, the most important step is to get educated. Mushroom poisoning is a real danger, sending dozens to the ER with a few fatalities every year, almost always from misidentification. Luckily, there are a multitude of resources used by beginners and experts alike to find the right fungi.
PVD chef and professional mushroom forager Spike Mikulski recommends beginners join free Facebook groups such as Foraging Southern New England to see what other seasoned foragers are finding and for free help with mushroom identification. Just don’t ask specifically where they found it: It’s always a secret!
There are many quality books on mushroom foraging, but online is generally the best place to start since it’s usually free and quick to help ID your finds. Websites like the Mushroom Observer are incredible for creating a personal online log of photos and notes on your collection, as well as connecting you with other foragers. It’s kinda like a personal Pokédex for edible and non-edible mushrooms!
When it comes to finding the right location to start foraging, city parks and private land are your best bet. Keep in mind that RI doesn’t allow foraging in state parks or on Audubon Society land, but there are plenty of local land-trusts, conservations, and recreation areas that encourage residents to utilize their resources. Wild mushrooms are typically found growing on decaying organic matter in cool, moist areas such as forests, but life finds a way even in peculiar circumstances: I’ve spotted turkey tail mushrooms growing on the base of a tree on Rochambeau Ave in PVD! Chef Mikulski recommends looking for oak trees, since they are known to host all kinds of edible species of mushroom.
Some of the commonly found edible mushrooms are chicken of the woods mushrooms (bright orange and yellow with a chicken-like texture), puffball mushrooms (white and puffy with no color and a very mild taste), maitake, aka hen of the woods (dark brown-gray with a savory flavor), chanterelles (bright orange with a funnel shape and a meaty texture) and the rarest of them all, morel mushrooms (gray honeycomb appearance and a woodsy nutty flavor).
There are many mushrooms that are edible but not delicious, some with mild toxins that might upset your stomach, and of course mushrooms like the death cap that can put the lights out in a matter of days. A macabre saying among mushroom hunters is: “You can eat any mushroom… once.” Don’t consume anything you are not certain of.
It’s worth mentioning that generally, wild mushrooms shouldn’t be eaten raw as they may contain trace amounts of non-lethal toxins that can upset the stomach when not treated with heat. In addition, all mushrooms, even the grocery store white buttons, contain a natural polysaccharide called chitin which is indigestible in its raw form. All mushrooms should be cooked, even if it’s just a light saute or roast; otherwise, you are locking your body out of all the incredible protein, vitamins, and other micronutrients mushrooms have to offer. You’ll only get the fiber, though, when the chitin is intact.
Fun fact: Long before vegan diets became trendy, there were some people that ate plant-based simply because they couldn’t hunt!
Once you have identified and harvested your mushrooms, there is a huge array of ways to prepare them. If it is your first time with a new mushroom, it’s best to simply saute it in some olive oil and finish with flaky salt to get the pure flavor of the mushroom.
Once you are familiar with the rich, savory, smoky, nutty or earthy complexity and unique textures that wild mushrooms bring, you can incorporate them in all kinds of dishes. Try them with pasta, pizza, quiches, sandwiches, over polenta, battered and fried, roasted with other vegetables and whatever else your palette pleases. Drying them for later use or mushroom powders are always great ways to preserve them well beyond the season. There are over 100 kinds of edible foraged mushrooms in New England and your imagination is the limit when you feast on your bounty!
For people who might already be avid hobbyists, there are steps you can take to legally harvest mushrooms to sell to restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, etc. Mikulski worked with the state of RI to develop state policies including storage practices and delivery details for wild mushrooms. The program is very comprehensive and grants sales of the largest number of edible mushroom species allowed in any state. He offers an annual master foraging class and exam (and dinner!) to certify foragers to become Mushroom ID Experts. Details about his annual class in August are usually posted on the aforementioned Foraging Southern New England Facebook page.
Foraging keeps the mind and body active while immersing you in the natural world and connecting more deeply to the food you eat and share with your family. There are hundreds of thousands of types of mushrooms on this beautiful planet, some absolutely delicious, some that will bring you on a mystical journey, and some that might try to kill you. Be smart, have fun, and enjoy the hunt!