Vermont's super-soaker summer may have rained on your parade, but it was a wet dream for mushroom hunters. "It doesn't get better than this," says Robert Resnik on a recent search for off-trail edibles. Mushrooms are everywhere -- "You just have to look," he says. Although he won't reveal the coordinates of this particular spot -- like fishermen, serious fungus followers are loathe to share their intel -- Resnik quickly proves to be an enthusiastic guide to the woods' wondrous warts.
Ecstatic is more like it. He greets late-season chanterelles with groans of pleasure, and squeals at the sight of four dozen pear-shaped puffballs growing on the side of a dead stump. He admires the rosy russula his "Eastern European relatives used to gather" and even praises the snot-like "jelly babies" he picks out of the ground. Latin name: Leotia viscosa.
Biologically speaking, fungi are an essential part of the forest ecology. As intermediaries between dead and living matter, they serve a dual function: facilitating decay by secreting acids and enzymes that break down plant matter and assisting living plants with nutrients they can't get any other way. Scientists are currently looking into their potential as pesticides, eco-filters and anti-viral agents. "Medicine" never tasted so good.
Resnik and his ilk are interested in fungi as food -- and will go the distance to find them. Perhaps not as far as France, where the pig-assisted pursuit of truffles is an annual culinary tradition. The New England woods are full of delicious strains, as evidenced by seasonal "specials" at finer restaurants like Trattoria Delia and Pauline's. Shade and moisture promote growth, and the mushrooms last longer in chilly temperatures. "Our cold and wet weather is pretty ideal," Resnik says, palming two slithery, walnut-like green and yellow blobs. "It's a slimy business. You're dealing with slugs, rot, that sort of thing. You can't be squeamish about texture."
Flavor is largely what motivates this 51-year-old amateur mycologist, who is a co-director of the Fletcher Free Library. Growing up, Resnik never got a taste of wild mushroom risotto. His mom cooked recipes out of American Housewife. "'Things on crackers' was one of her specialties," he recalls. Now a self-described "foodie," Resnik makes a mean morel souffle. Some mushrooms deepen the taste of a dish, he explains. "Others add high notes."
Today Resnik's on the lookout for porcini, a large, flavorful mushroom that looks like a hamburger bun. It's "almost irresistible" in a dish he prepares with chicken and leeks. Resnik is also partial to black trumpets. "With eggs," he vows, "they're life-changing."
Freshness is another motivator for mushroom hunters. And you can't get much more organic. "You can eat them without worrying about Round-Up or Agent Orange," Resnik offers with a chuckle. And at the end of the day, he hauls home free food that's simply not available anywhere else. City Market may stock shitakes, but they don't have the "honey mushrooms" that are now starting to appear on Vermont forest floors. "You can't have them unless you pick them yourself," he points out, "or somebody you trust gives them to you."
It's a crucial qualifier, and one that keeps most 21st-century folk buying button mushrooms from the grocery store. If you don't know your spore, picking your own can be deadly. Amongst the mild-mannered morels and unassuming shrumps are "some dragons," as Resnik puts it. He pulls a poisonous pigskin puffball out of the ground and gives it a squeeze. A puff of black seed escapes, like smoke.
Still, "scleroderma" is kid stuff compared to the deadly "amanita" --legend has it the stately white mushroom served as Lucretia Borgia's murder weapon. The toxins attack the liver and kidneys. "It's 10 to 18 hours before you start screaming," Resnik reports, pointing out the ubiquitous and archetypal fungus that could kill "three of us."
Resnik used to sell mushrooms to local restaurants -- they fetched between eight and 15 dollars a pound -- but no longer has the time. Also, "There are some people selling who shouldn't be," he warns. "I don't want to get into that." He was also alarmed to find a local health-food store selling a wild variety they recommended eating raw -- a no-no, according to Resnik. "I'm just afraid somebody's going to buy from a pinhead and that'll be it."
He may not be a doctor, or even a scientist, but Resnik is considered a regional expert on the subject of deadly fungi. The New England Poison Center has called him seven times this summer to identify fungi in potential poisoning cases. Typically, they send a picture of the mushroom over the computer. "Sometimes you're looking at a chewed-up one," Resnik says.
There have been house calls, too. Resnik was summoned to Fletcher Allen when a 20-month-old baby was admitted for eating an unidentified mushroom. "They sent a taxi for me," Resnik recalls. "Everybody's excited. I walk in and the doctor is holding the mushroom." It was a harmless russula. "On the way back, the cabbie wanted to know if the little girl was going to be all right."
Despite the risks involved, Resnik is mostly self-taught in mycology. As he likes to say, "There are no old, bold mushroom hunters." While an undergrad, he took some forestry courses at the University of Vermont, but switched to English because he dreaded dendrology. Now he rattles off Latin names like song lyrics: Hydnum repandum, Laccaria laccata.
His first academic exposure to mushrooming was through a Church Street Center class. Richmond resident Roz Payne, Vermont's other mushroom expert, taught the course in the fall of 1986. Resnik recalls, "It was a day like this -- there were mushrooms everywhere." He spent the winter reading up on the subject and now owns approximately 150 mushroom reference books.
He's passed on his wisdom, too, through the Vermont Mycology Club. The group of fungi fans used to meet regularly for mushroom hunts and slide shows. But there were too many hangers-on who just wanted to be led to the best spots. Others joined the club in hopes of getting turned onto psilocybin 'shrooms. There are some pychedelics out there, Resnik acknowledges, "but most of them don't grow in this climate."
These days, Resnik is more likely to be searching solo. But having an audience brings out the educator in him. He turns one specimen upside down and gently runs a knife against the mushroom's pleated underskirt, or gills. A white liquid wells up where he's touched it. "Lactarius piperatus," he pronounces with glee. "There's a kind of milk inside." Over the course of the season, this fungus will be taken over by another to yield a "lobster mushroom" --orange-colored, fishy-smelling and delicious.
Resnik finds a perfect porcini, too, and before long, it's frying in olive oil at his home in Burlington's South End. He throws in some sample chanterelles and black trumpets for variety. No seasoning can improve on the rich flavor of these earthy offerings that are somewhere between meat and vegetable, land and sky. You'd expect nothing less from one of nature's most functional -- and fleeting --foods.