When you go for a walk at this time of the year in the SE Alaskan rainforest you're going to find a wide variety of mushrooms popping up everywhere you step. It seemed to me, as I made the trek to pump water, that there were more mushrooms this year than I'd ever seen before.
As I took pictures of them I thought about how my Russian and Irish forebears would have been on polar ends of a debate on the merits of fungi.
For instance, I have an old Russian cookbook which devotes an entire section to mushrooms. "For many centuries," the book proclaims, "mushrooms have formed a part of the staple diet of the Russians. Consequently it is natural that the Russians eat many varieties of fungus which culinarily less adventurous people avoid mainly because they fear poisoning."
The Russians have no such fear, and, in fact, celebrate with gusto all things mushrooms, but particularly the gathering of them. "No one would hesitate to cancel an important engagement if it should fall on the day of the mushroom gathering," the cookbook's author assures us.
The Irish, however, could not be blamed for developing a fear of fungi, even of the non-poisonous variety. Fungi, for the most part, live discreetly and decently on dead organic matter in soil and decaying wood. But there is a separate breed of fungi that have taken up evil habits. They have become parasites of living plants and animals.
The Irish discovered this to their great cost. In 1845 to 1860 the great Irish Famine was caused by a potato blight, a fungus disease which destroyed the main food crop of the Irish population. This particular parasitic fungus was responsible for the deaths, by starvation, of a million people. Another million and a half were forced to emigrate, many of them, including my forebears, setting off for America.
On the other hand, both the Russians and the Irish might find common ground in their love for the produce of one particular form of fungi: Yeast.
It's true that some yeasts are harmful, but let's not forget that yeast is essential for the production of beer, an assortment of breads, and various cheeses.
I have to say that the love of all three has managed to survive through the generations down to this day in my family.
Many locals here like to gather mushrooms at this time of the year, careful to select only the edible ones, avoiding the poisonous. (I'm not an expert on mushrooms, so I haven't named any, in case I'm wrong.) Always make absolutely sure you can identify a mushroom before you pop it into your mouth.
Since I can't eat mushrooms I left the ones I came across in my autumnal trek where they were, prey for slugs, but otherwise living a happy, if damp, life.
For those who would enjoy a common Russian treat, here is a recipe for Marinated Mushrooms:
2 lb small mushrooms
1 pint vinegar and water mixed
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Wash mushrooms, remove stalks, and cook gently in hot, salted water until tender. Drain and leave until quite cold.
Bring the vinegar-water with bayleaves and peppercorns to the boil, simmer for 10 minutes and leave until cold. Strain.
Pack the mushrooms into jars, add the vinegar-water, and cover tightly. Leave for several days before using. Or pack the mushrooms while still hot into scalded jars, cover with the marinade, seal tightly and leave for 2 weeks in a cool place before using.
(Recipe taken from Russian Cooking by Robin Howe, p. 44: "In the days before the Russian Revolution country housewives pickled mushrooms by the barrel.")
Tara Neilson (ADOW)