Part 2: Back in the City:
I woke up Monday after my weekend in Wisconsin and groaned. We live in Chicago, in a very urban and working- class part of the city, and as soon as my eyes opened I remembered I was no longer in Wisconsin. I was no longer free to idle my days (even though it was basically one full day) my day exploring new spots. I have one full day a week to forage product for sales to restaurants, and that’s Monday.
I dropped my sweetie at her work, and headed to a spot I’ve been hitting since I was 19 years old. I walked into a mowed savanna, note that I’d not been out in my spots for two weeks thanks to the afore mentioned chigger crisis, and almost immediately found my first Maitake. That’s never a good sign. There’s nothing like seeing the first obvious one, and never finding another. But that wasn’t the case, half the trees that hit in that savanna had fully ripe, open fronded Hen of the Woods. I got there at 9:00 AM and by 9:20 had to empty the one large, flat bottom bag I brought. Out of the Jeep came the second and the empty first.
By 11:00 AM I unloaded again.
The entire woods usually takes two and a half hours to walk. I spent two hours in the easy part. I was taking photos of every Maitake I harvested, but that wouldn’t last too long. I moved the Jeep closer to another area of the 160 acre woods, that would take a little hiking with full bags, and jumped out to find nothing for a full fifteen minutes. But then I suddenly had 35 pound bags on each shoulder, I had to drop back at the Jeep, regardless of what I missed.Then it was time to hit my favorite part of the woods.
This particular part is not well traveled, and has Oaks over 150 years old. Almost all produce Hen of the Woods, but to get there from where I parked I have to walk through a hard and barren area where the Honey Fungus has killed off over an acre of trees. All of them had been stripped of their bark several years ago, all had been producing with diminishing returns and I expected none to be fruiting, all were. Damn. Had to walk back with another 40 pounds!
I got to my favorite spot, where in 2007 I harvested an 85 pound Hen of the Woods from a dead Oak, 30 inches tall, and 24 inches wide. I had had to walk back to my truck to pick up burlap coffee sacks and cut the mushroom down the middle to carry it out in two pieces! Some of the Oak trees in this area of the woods are 8 to 10 foot around, the branches massive.
Two weeks back when I was last out hunting Maitake here, I made a visit to my favorite tree; a tree that usually gifts me four to eight Hens each year, only to see that the storm a few days before had torn it’s crown off, only one branch remains. I audibly cried out and put my hands on that tree.
My old friend hadn’t produce Hens this year, but so many of it’s neighbors had that I had to again empty my bags, and I moved the Jeep once again, closer to where I was hunting. I noticed someone walking their dog, I wondered if he’d heard me talking to the Oaks, thanking them for the harvest as I always do. Thinking it might help him see I was not a crazy person I chatted with him and told him I was a mushroom hunter, showed him a nice 3 pound Maitake, and that if he sees one he should take it and eat it. Not sure if he thought I was more or less crazy then when he’d heard me talking to the trees, but at least he humored me.
By 11:00 AM I was texting with a Chef and customer whose company and conversation I enjoy and agreed to take him out that afternoon at 2:00 PM. I called all picking off at 1:20 so I could get back to the Jeep and travel to meet him for a foray. It’s amazingly hard to stop harvesting such wonderful gifts from my friends the Oak trees. I hit the trail. No stopping to to check trees even if they were only a few feet off the trail but found several more anyway. At some point the bags got heavy enough that I had to put blinders on. . By the time I was back at the Jeep I had harvested 145 pound of Maitake, and it was only 1:40 PM.
I raced north to meet my friend and en route asked a fellow forager to meet him. I was only a half hour late, ecstatic, and when I showed them my harvest so were they. The spot I picked was also a spot I’ve been hunting for over ten years, another Oak Savanna, bordered by a slight ridge (very slight compared to what I’d just been hiking in Wisconsin) with old Oaks. We walked the small Savanna and found one perfect Hen, and moved on to the next spot half a mile away.
On the way I noticed a half dozen puffballs fruiting and pulled over. They were confused why I stopped until I asked if they had seen them. We walked a block back through the woods and found the site, seven were too old to harvest, but one three pounder was perfect. The Chef got that one.
We got to the next spot and walked a woods that has done wonders for my mental health. During my worst times I would take an hour to just walk through, noticing, noting, and acknowledging the wildlife, the trees especially. There is nothing like a 200 year old tree to put the previous three months into perspective.
The previous year my sweety had found a standing Oak that was flush with a Leatiporus, not sulphureus, but the marshmallow yellow pored chicken of the woods, It thinks it’s cincinnatus, and never gets hard. I’ve heard that it’s recently been ID’d as a new species, Last year the trunk collapsed, but I harvested it twice during the late fall. I announced to the guys that up ahead there’s a stump, it’s not mine, it’s hers if there’s Chicken on it. Quickly we came across it and the guys respected that, and I got to take my sweetie several pounds of really good marshmallowy Chicken of the Woods.
We rounded out that set of small woods, about 20 acres of Oaks and Maples and went just east and I agreed, even though I had had more than enough, since I’d been hauling mushrooms since 9:00 AM and it was 5:00 PM) I agreed to run one small Oak savanna with them that usually produces. We stopped on the way there to harvest some really nice yellow crab apples. The savanna didn’t yield much, and the guys went off into the deep Oak forest. Like any good foray leader, I followed them. The end of the story is that I managed about ten more pound of really nice marshmallow Chicken and a few pounds of Sulphureus, and a dozen Hen of the woods, all averaging one to two pounds, and my buddies did likewise.
I didn’t get home until about 8:00 PM, but I had a total haul of about 170 pounds of mushrooms. The other foragers I work with found about 70 or 80 each. I gave twenty away, and we sold out on Tuesday. Wednesday was for me, a light day. Just 29 pounds of maitake, 65 from a friend on Tuesday, and the other two harvested about 50 more. We sold out again on Wednesday! We then harvested from our greenhouse on Thursday and, sold out of all out wild mushrooms, with a few orders to fill for Friday. I went far south and wound up with about 60 pounds, one coworker with 35, and we sold out again.
Today was a foray for educational purposes, led by me, and only a few people showed up, but it was a fun time and my eight year- old son and I managed to harvest 55 pounds in an hour and a half.
All told we sold about 400 hundred pounds of wild mushrooms this past week, and we’re seriously considering that we can improve that to about 550 pounds, all harvested by the three of us, all fresh, and all truly wild.
Want to be a part of it? I’ll see you in the woods.