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When it rains it spores

I’ve got a secret: I despise the taste of mushrooms. I would rather eat a fist full of dirt than eat a meaty porcini. It’s ironic, then, that my fondest memories growing up revolve around mushroom hunting with my parents.

I can still picture it: the canyon walls covered with mushrooms, poking their fragrant heads from the heavy duff. The steeper the slope, the more mushrooms were hidden in the bush.

That’s how it seemed at least when hunting for hedgehog mushrooms deep inside a Mendocino park. I was ten years old and hanging on a hillside, my nails digging deep into the soil as I tried to harvest as many of the apricot-colored fungi as possible. My parents were on the other side of the redwood basin, shoving dozens of hedgehogs into their organic brown wax bags as well.

Although that was over ten years ago, I can still picture the lush forest floors dotted with various mushrooms: chanterelles, boletus edulis known as boletes, craterellus falax, each waiting to be explored and harvested. My family and I would spend entire days searching for fungi, our backpacks stuffed to the gills with water, food, and of course, plenty of mushrooms we had harvested.

We wouldn’t have known how to name these various mushrooms, though, if it weren’t for the Santa Cruz Fungus Federation, a group of well-educated scientists and nature enthusiasts in our hometown dedicated to identifying mushrooms. They would scan the pages of books, labeling a mushroom as poisonous or edible based on their smell, texture, appearance and locations in dark and dank forests.

“We pursue fungi out of hunger, curiosity and addiction,” said the Fungus Federation on their website. “We seek improved access to greener grass, deeper duff and the warmth and security of togetherness.”

My parents, Ken and Nancy Marple, were introduced to the Fungus Federation like any proper hobnobber: at a wine-tasting event at the David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz mountains.

“There was a photo of wild mushrooms—they were probably chanterelles—and we were fascinated by the photo,” my mom said, recalling their introduction to wild fungi. “David Bruce suggested we joined.”

They paid the $25 annual fee and started attending weekly meetings, dragging me along with them to learn how not to poison themselves in the wild. I was in fourth grade at the time and not extremely eager to learn about the “fungus among us,” yet I managed to accumulate a variety of knowledge in these meetings. I picked up the Latin names of various mushrooms, learning that while the boletus edulis is the king of the forest, the boletus arius is the queen.

None of these names really meant anything until we trekked into the forest, though. It was there that I could see the waxy yellow underside of a boletus edulis leading to a stock so wide I could sometimes barely wrap my fingers around it.

But the most recognizable aspect of a mushroom is its scent. I learned this when my stepfather, a passionate cook, began drying the boletes and started including them in every single meal we had from soup to salad to pasta. The earthy, dirt-like scent would permeate the house for weeks on end, an almost overbearing reminder of the great outdoors.

My mother said she remembers the heady stench of the mushrooms like my stepdad was cooking up cream of mushroom soup yesterday.

“There were too many boletes—I was getting sick of boletes,” she said. “We had to live through a hundred ways to eat boletes. It’s just like anything I’ve been sick of. Too much of anything is unpleasant.”

Horgos holds a mushroom she harvested beneath a bush at Mills. She wouldn’t eat the fungus. (Heather McDaniel)

Still, despite one too many mushroom meals, we were hooked. We would go hunting for fungus nearly every weekend in the Santa Cruz mountains, then head up to Mendocino county in the wintertime for a weekend of pure mushroom bliss.

My mom said hunting up north has led to some of her favorite memories, particularly hunting for matsutake, Japan’s favorite mushroom.

“We went matsutake hunting in Humboldt and we shoved them in your diaper bag,” she said. “It was magical.”

My stepfather agreed with her, saying the white mushroom’s scent alone can stir memories of collecting them by the pound.

“They smell wonderful, like a pine tree,” he said. “It’s a very robust pine smell.”

My parents have always been extremely tight-lipped with revealing where they harvest their mushrooms, though. For instance, matsutake mushrooms can go for $1000 per pound in Japan. They’re pretty much holy objects.

“It’s very secretive because mushrooms will generally re-grow in the same area,” my stepfather said. “Once you find a spot, you don’t want to tell people because people will go back to that spot. The prime edibles will come up in the same spot year after year. Descriptions are generally vague such as the Santa Cruz Mountains, Humboldt County, or underneath an oak tree.”

And while we knew our favorite mushrooms that we would eat for dinner, we would never consume something we were unsure of. Once my parents harvested some mushrooms only to discover via the experts at the Fungus Federation that they were hallucinogens—not exactly what we were looking for. As far as other members go? Who knows.

My parents stopped mushroom hunting after about five years when they became too busy with work. Still, they continue to eat mushrooms on a regular basis and admire their various fungus posters hanging, reminding them of scaling canyon bowls for that night’s dinner.

My parents run a real estate appraisal business out of our home, which meant 70 to 80 hour weeks for them. After work, all they’d want to do is collapse and drink a few bottles of wine. I didn’t mind because their overworking was all I knew, but mushroom hunting provided that rare opportunity for family bonding. When we were out in the woods, it was just the three of us; no computers, telephones ringing incessantly or pressing deadlines. We could spend all day digging through duff without talking about financial problems.

It was ironic, then, that what ultimately led to our shrooming demise was finances. My parents decided to invest in various properties, meaning more mortgages to pay and less free time. Still, even though we couldn’t go on daylong forays, we continued to seek out the ever-elusive apricot shade of chanterelles on the side of the road. My parents live in a heavily-wooded area of Santa Cruz, meaning we can pick up some fungus while walking the dogs. It’s like speed shrooming.

I visited my parents over Thanksgiving break and we went mushroom hunting on turkey day. It was drizzling and I wore my mom’s bright orange, water-resistant jacket and lime green pants, a vision of LL Bean gear. I climbed the hillsides of our neighborhood and dug into damp soil, handing my stepdad chanterelles so he could cut off the tips of their stocks and brush them clean.

They made me carry our 10-pound basket of goods up a giant hill, the weight making me sweat even though it was 50 degrees out.

When we returned home my stepdad made a chanterelle gratin for Thanksgiving. Even though it was loaded with cheese, I didn’t touch it. Still, I couldn’t help but be proud that I had dug those babies up a few hours earlier.