Nearly every time I’m out for a trail run, I come upon something that makes me think back to one of the interviews I’ve done for Mountain Xpress with some of the many local wild-skills experts. These days, I can’t seem to go more than a mile without stooping down to get a whiff of a familiar flower or nibble on some choice edible. For the most part, though, I'm still a little nervous about trying things without an experienced ethnobotanist by my side — particularly where mushrooms are concerned.
I've heard too many gruesome stories about how one bite of a poisonous mushroom won't just kill a person but will rake hot coals through their mind and intestines for days before the reaper comes. So when I spotted what I thought was chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) over the July 4 weekend, I didn't even touch it.
"Might be deadly poisonous," I whispered to myself. But that didn't stop me from pulling out my phone to snap a photo I could e-mail to Asheville's Mushroom Man, Alan Muskat.
I've seen him handle lethal mushrooms, such as the infamous death angel, with the finesse of a snake charmer. He's also one of the most trusted suppliers of mushrooms to local restaurants, making him my go-to guy when it comes to discerning the deadly from the delectable.
After my run was over, Muskat replied with the good news that I had, in fact, run across some “chicken.” With many mushrooms, it's just about impossible to make a judgment call like that based on a photo alone, but he assured me that was what I had.
The next day, I e-mailed to tell him I was going after the prize and hoped to meet up with him later for a positive, in-person ID. After a 15-minute drive from Asheville, I pulled over, tightened my shoelaces, snapped on a giant fanny pack, grabbed my knife and took off running.
Halfway up the mountain, I found the fallen log I’d spied it growing on the day before, relishing the bright-orange fans that beckoned to me.
Before I’d even finished lopping them all off the old, dead wood, I was typing my eureka moment to Muskat on my BlackBerry. Almost immediately, he sent back directions to his house and invited me over. But the mushrooms wouldn’t fit in my pouch, so I squished, pressed and finally zipped over the chicken's soft edges, cramming them all in. I must have looked ridiculous running back to the car with this massively bloated sack bobbing at my waist, but I was more worried about crushing my catch during the four-mile return trip.
Soon after, I found myself seated at Muskat's table, watching as he slowly sifted through my stash, like a jeweler fingering his prized gems. A little too old to be sold to restaurants, he explained, but still edible. I left him the lion's share and took the rest over to a friend's cookout.
The folks who didn't know what I’d brought kept asking how I’d cooked the chicken. "With sliced mushrooms," I replied.
To learn more about edible mushrooms in the Southern Appalachians, check out Muskat's website at http://www.alanmuskat.com. Upcoming workshops include “Wild Mushrooms: A Taste of Enchantment” with chef William Dissen of The Market Place on Wednesday, Aug. 4.
[Freelance writer Jonathan Poston calls Asheville home.]