In Search of Chicken of the Woods

When it comes to wild mushrooms, you can’t be too careful. Only once have I been lucky enough to find morels, which I did cook and eat, but I’ve never been bold enough to eat any other fungi of the forest. Until last week. My friend “Randy” (not his real name) posted an intriguing picture on Facebook. It was clearly some kind of fungus, pale yellow-pink in color and so big that it dwarfed Randy’s foot.

“What is that?” I posted in response.

That’s how I came to learn about gourmet mushrooms known as Chicken of the Woods. Randy had found one near his house and kindly offered to share some with me. He advised me to rinse the mushroom with water and dab it dry with a paper towel. Don’t submerge it, he warned. It soaks up water like a sponge. Once clean and dry, all that’s left to do is cut it up and sauté it in butter until tender. That’s a recipe even I can follow.

But before I heated up the skillet, I did some research on Chicken of the Woods. I discovered it’s a nickname given to several different mushrooms, one of which grows on dead or decaying oak and other hardwood trees. That’s not where Randy found his. About two feet long and a foot wide, it was growing out of the ground under an oak tree.

“I became interested in wild mushrooms a couple of years ago and have been trying to learn what’s safe to eat,” Randy told me. “Some mushrooms can make you sick. Others can kill you. I was pretty sure this one was okay, but I sent a picture of it to a friend who’s an expert just to be sure. He said it was my lucky day and to enjoy.”

I followed Randy’s instructions and cooked the piece of mushroom he’d given me. It was delicious. And, yeah, it tasted a lot like chicken.

Which, of course, made me want to find some Chicken of the Woods on my own. The good news is that there are woods aplenty where I live. The bad news is that I was working full-time at the election office. The heat and humidity of late July made it almost unbearable to be outside even in the evening. Also, I’m nervous about ticks and therefore try to avoid tromping through the woods in the summertime.

But the lure was just too great. Last Saturday, I got up early, doused myself with Deep Woods Off and headed out. I looked on the ground under every oak tree I could find. No Chicken of the Woods. I searched on the numerous dead branches and rotting logs and tree stumps I came across. Still no Chicken of the Woods.

After an hour, I gave up.

Which is probably just as well. Randy lent me a book entitled “Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America: A Field-to-Kitchen Guide” by David W. Fischer and Alan E. Besette. The more I read, the more I learned. For instance, I learned that people who study fungi are called mycologists. People who eat wild mushrooms are called mycophagists. Mycophobia, as you might guess, means fear of mushrooms.

I also learned “The Mycophagist’s Ten Commandments.” Never, ever eat a mushroom unless it’s positively identified as edible. Eat only mushrooms free from insect infestation. Eat mushrooms only in moderate quantity. Don’t pick mushrooms from contaminated habitats. There are six more commandments, equally as dire. Reading them was enough to give me full-blown mycophobia.

I guess I’ll just have to rely on Randy to keep me supplied with Chicken of the Woods. And, no, I won’t tell you his real name or where he lives.

(August 8, 2020)