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Meet The Mushroom: Forage With The Illinois Mycological Association

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Sep 4, 2014 4:30PM

2014_09_mushrooms_melissawiley1.jpg Mushrooms are magical. Closer cousins of animals than plants while occupying a kingdom all their own, fungi feed on the same organic matter they help to decompose. Any member of the Illinois Mycological Association is more than willing to tell you of the treasures they find while foraging in the woods. And the results of this Saturday’s coming foray, an all-out bonanza on the IMA calendar, will be on exhibit this Sunday at the Chicago Botanic Garden so you can witness what few chefs ever encounter in the kitchen.

“If you stay on the culinary beaten path, most restaurants cook solely with little button mushrooms, largely sourced from Pennsylvania, and a few other cultivated ones. So most people never get to experience the tremendous diversity of mushrooms all around us,” Rebecca Fyffe, Illinois Mycological Association president, told Chicagoist.

“We want to show how ubiquitous fungi are,” she continued. “In your fridge, for example, your soda’s syrup is often made from fungi, not corn syrup. Or look inside your closet and pull out a pair of stone-washed jeans. They look that way only because they were thrown in a vat with fungi. So at this Sunday’s annual mushroom show we’ll bring in famous mycologists for lectures as well as host culinary and other related exhibits. I’m personally bringing insects colonized by fungi, over 150 specimens.”

Mycology, IMA members demonstrate time and time again, means more than adding mushrooms to your pasta sauce. It’s the study of fungi as a source of food, medicine, alterations in consciousness and deadly poison, all at our doorstep or the tip of our tongues. “We have several deadly mushrooms in the region, including the death angel, an Amanita species, a small deadly Lepiota, and the small brown deadly Galerina,” Patrick Leacock, adjunct curator of mycology at the Field Museum of Natural History, informed us.

Perhaps it’s mushrooms’ potential to end or prolong life as we know it that makes hunting for them such a thrill. Whatever your motive, IMA members encourage you to join and become a member yourself so you can stalk your favorite fungi on foot. As a prelude to the Chicago Botanic Garden show, members at this Saturday’s foray will select some of the choicest mushrooms fresh for Sunday’s display as well as picnic far from any city sirens while listening to keynote speaker Tom Volk, a renowned mycologist with the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse, whose blue hair and kilt pale in comparison to the color of his real-life mushroom chronicles. Volk underwent a heart transplant in 2006, requiring him to take an immunosuppressant derived from fungi to prevent his body’s rejection of his new organ. The tattoos on his arms now delineate the anatomy of his healing, signifying the growth of a morel and the date of his transplant higher near his shoulder.

According to Fyffe, more than one of the society's members have found mushrooms to be a medical saving grace, paired with chemo and radiation for treating different forms of cancer. This healing prospect attracts new members while deepening veterans’ interest as much as any new recipe or the exhilaration of Saturday morning foraging sprees. “I had a tumor on my ovary that I got rid of with the help of medicinal mushrooms,” Fyffe told us. “I could feel it shrinking and resolving, and my doctor at Northwestern—not a hippy doctor, mind you—thought it was a miracle. He said he’d never seen a tumor that big and solid go away without surgery.”

“There’s this rare antioxidant that your body needs but can’t manufacture itself,” she went on to say. “The best food source of it is liver. But if I want big doses of it and don’t want to eat liver all the time, I need oyster mushrooms and porcini as a source of rare nutrients.”

More mundane magic, however, may come in the form of the cooking contest potluck picnic Saturday afternoon, when members enter their casserole or soufflé into the fungal fray with mushrooms ordered specifically to the purpose from all across the country into one of seven categories. Fyffe was so determined to win last year that the judges created a new category for her complex new dish with mushrooms sourced from the West Coast, she gleefully confessed.

She also emphasized the fact that everyone, no matter their expertise in mycology or the lack of it, is welcome to join the IMA and attend the forays then hunt their hearts out. All mushrooms collected, she also noted, serve solely scientific and educational purposes. Novices will be in the company of experts to spot new mushrooms and identify poisonous ones. But according to Leacock, even experts acknowledge there’s still much to learn in this communal field research. “You can find 60 different fungi in the woods on a single day, while a grocery store has only a few kinds. My interest during these forays lies in documenting their occurrence. But we are still learning where they grow and how to identify the different species.”

As holds true for any story remotely related to wildlife, scientific understanding vies with ongoing environmental degradation and urban encroachment of natural habitats. “We have more than a thousand species of mushrooms and other macro-fungi in the immediate Chicago area, while Central and Southern Illinois have more southern species that we don't find up here,” Leacock explained.

“We do have rare species but don't know if any are under threat specifically, though all species are under threat to some degree from air pollution, particularly nitrogen deposition, which decreases certain kinds of mushroom diversity. Development, of course, continues to remove habitats. The health of the mushrooms depends on the health of the woodlands, savannas and prairies, so any habitat restoration that helps the plants also benefits the mushrooms in turn.”

If you’re unable to participate in the foray this Saturday or attend Sunday’s show, the IMA hosts monthly meetings that double as potlucks as well as bimonthly forays May through October.