I’d been staring at the ground too long. That’s most of what foraging is, by the way. It’s ignoring the blue sky and the trees to focus your gaze on the dirt. I was walking through cobwebs, surveying the woodland floor for almost an hour, when I finally saw one: a tiny, pale chanterelle mushroom sticking up near the trail’s edge. It looked sickly, or at the very least elderly. Perhaps it was a sign that this section of the woods was untraveled, or maybe nobody had ever thought to pluck it from its habitat.
I peeled it from the ground with my paring knife and placed it into my netted, purple sack, which once housed grocery-store red onions. This lonely mushroom wasn’t the haul, mind you, but rather an indicator. When one chanterelle appears, more will follow. A few steps off the trail and they emerged in droves. Soon, my bag was filled with corpulent, spore-bearing fungi — big chanterelles with deep-orange hues and fantastical shapes, like something a Nintendo animator might draw.
Walking back with my giant bag of wild mushrooms, I ran into a couple, the first people I’d seen that day. We all scrambled to put on our masks at the distant sight of one another. “You get some chanties?” the man said in his familiar, spectacularly unusual Pittsburgh accent. “It’s a gold mine out there,” I said, trying unconsciously to disguise any hints of that same Pennsylvanian elocution. After they disappeared back into the woods, I put my mask in my pocket, where it stayed for the rest of the hike. For about 30 seconds, I was reminded that the rest of the world was focused on something other than the forest floor.
A few years back I had tasted some wild mushroom conserva courtesy of my cousin, Andy, during a trip to my hometown in Pennsylvania. Andy is a budding locavore, a self-taught forager, and a mad scientist in the kitchen. His passion is infectious. Eighty percent of the meat he consumes, he hunts himself. He cures venison and butchers whole pigs in his garage.
That first spoonful of Andy’s mushrooms, meaty chanterelles salted in a strainer, then simmered in white vinegar with gothic-looking thyme and peppercorns, is preserved in my mind, so much so that I can access that memory whenever I want. The dim lighting in my parents’ dining room, Andy standing in the kitchen with his arms confidently folded, the sound of the Mason jar lid spinning loose, and the immense joy of my first bite — stocky chanterelle mushrooms, piquant vinegar, gentle aromatics, and then the brilliant opulence of olive oil, used to preserve the mixture.
I asked Andy if I could take a jar of them back home to Los Angeles, and he obliged. Every so often, I unscrewed the lid for a small bite. I would close my eyes and feel the cold air in my hometown. If I listened carefully, I could hear the train whistles in the distance. Those mushrooms became a portal to my hometown, a culinary object so emotionally resonant, so distinct from the food I bought at my grocery store in California, that I always longed to forage and conserve a jar of my own.
I began to miss rural Pennsylvania as the pandemic encroached into summer. Like a lot of people, I felt trapped in the big city, and so in June, I went home. In Pennsylvania, everybody’s houses are set at a distance, but everyone barters home provisions, ranging from venison pastrami to crooked cucumbers to gargantuan zucchini. The summer is when the Amish sell sweet corn, and when the berry farms open their orchards. The old-timey ice cream shops end their winter break, and people start roasting whole pigs and marinated legs of lamb. It was also not lost on me that a hot, wet climate is the ideal condition for chanterelles, and that this would be the perfect time to chase that dragon: the jar of preserved mushrooms.
Once I began mushroom hunting, the calm followed. I embraced foraging, an oft-maligned word after the chef-bro boom of the 2010s. If your reaction is to recoil, you’re not alone. Before my mushroom-hunting days, I usually laughed when I saw the word “foraged” on a menu or in a magazine. Oh, did you really go out foraging, m’Lord?
The first time I went, I rode in the passenger seat of Andy’s car, down the winding rural roads of Amish country. To be honest, I didn’t immediately connect with foraging; the experience felt educational. Of course, when you’re dealing with something that can be either good in a stir-fry, consciousness-expanding, or deadly, education is important. Poisonous mushrooms actually look evil, though, an offer of good faith from Mother Nature. They often have a sinister gray or red color, with warts and scales reminiscent of the toxic fungi in fairy-tale illustrations. Andy made sure to teach me enough that I didn’t end up hallucinating through the woods — or, worse yet, dead.
People in my hometown definitely don’t fall into the stereotype of knuckle-tatted, beanie-wearing “foragers,” but they’re pretty keen on the good mushroom spots. There’s an old Polish woman, for instance, whose stiff, territorial energy I can feel whenever I show up to Gaston Park the day after a rain. Because I didn’t want to move in on another gang’s turf, I had Andy show me a few of his favorite areas. Still, it didn’t feel right: These were his discoveries, not mine. I wanted to make my own way. I wanted that excitement of stumbling across a rare mushroom, of encountering a field of freshly sprouted chanterelles. I wanted to find my own mushroom haven, and so I went to Hell’s Hollow.
Hell’s Hollow is a national park and trail in New Castle, Pennsylvania, about a mile down the road from my childhood home. Apparently, it’s called Hell’s Hollow because some time ago a man fell asleep in those woods, and when he woke up, he was convinced that the place he was in was actually Hell. Are the woods deep and dark? Sure. Spooky at night? Yeah, of course. But, Hell? As in the place where sinners go and are tormented for eternity? Like, Satan-owned and -operated Hell? I scoff at the idea whenever I pass the old wooden sign for the trail. What kind of idiot would think that the woods is Hell? It’s beautiful out here. I mean look, there’s a flowing river. Why would the Devil keep a freshwater source in an eternity of suffering? Rule No. 1 of Hell must be to stay hydrated. Rule No. 2? No running.
Hell’s Hollow has been a constant throughout my life. When I was a kid, my mom and dad let me splash around the creek trying to catch minnows and small crabs. When I was 10, I gleefully collected rocks and declared that I was going to be a geologist (my family would be disappointed). As teens, my friends and I smoked shag weed and smashed cans of Mountain Dew together like Stone Cold Steve Austin there. The point is, I’ve been wandering around Hell’s Hollow my whole life, and it never dawned on me that I would ever find myself foraging there. But sure enough, it was my spot.
I did not expect hunting for mushrooms to clear my head the way it did. People say that about prep work, by the way. They say that peeling potatoes and kneading dough lets the mind wander and alleviates stress. But, to me, prep work is just that: work. Dicing onions pierces the eyes, lemon juice stings, and I will always associate chopping parsley with the incoming threat of a dinner rush at one of my restaurant jobs. When people say that cooking soothes the mind, they’re not taking into account all the people who do this shit for a living. What are those people supposed to do to get away from themselves? For me, I found that wandering in the woods alone with a sense of purpose was exactly the thing I needed to weather the fire tornado of anxiety the pandemic had produced.
The act of foraging, a completely unchanged activity in a pandemic, possesses the acute ability to make me forget about the state of things entirely. Specifically, it was easy to forget about a global virus. Hunting for mushrooms in the woods alone is already distanced; there are no guidelines to follow. Walk down the street in Los Angeles and you’re immediately reminded that restaurants are shut down and live performance spaces are shuttered. But in the woods? Go ahead — sneeze full force in any direction you please. Let off some steam, pal. You’ve earned it. Sure, I had a mask, but it stayed in my pocket on the off chance that I ran into another human being, though I was more likely to spot a deer.
This wasn’t just a way to pass time, mind you. These weren’t nature walks I was taking. There’s a sense of ambition at the core of mushroom hunting. Purpose, the thing so many of us have felt without this year, I suddenly possessed. When there’s purpose, there’s a sense of reward, and when I’m hunting for mushrooms it feels like I’m achieving something tangible. All my energy is focused, my aim clear. Instead of staring at the ceiling in my studio apartment, I found myself scanning the ground for edible treasure. The dopamine you receive from finding a cluster of chanterelle mushrooms in the damp woods is immense, somehow both frivolous and survivalist. There’s a real sense of childlike treasure-hunting tied to foraging.
Take the elusive cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis, which is as rare as mushrooms come. They grow sporadically; their appearance is psychedelic and aquatic. It looks coral in a way, like a living, breathing self-sustaining organism that belongs at the bottom of the ocean. Jarring, then, to find one surrounded by leaves and mossy logs. The mushroom itself is wavy and ethereal, with petals like a flower. It’s so rare that when Andy and I found one, he jumped in the air with excitement. For seven years he had been hunting for a cauliflower mushroom, and he finally got it. His triumph felt like my triumph, and in a way, it was. Later, I fried the petals of the cauliflower mushroom in oil and ate them salted. The texture was outstanding and the flavor delicate, like a homemade noodle but with the specific earthiness of a fungus. “How many people are eating a cauliflower mushroom right now?” I thought.
I felt like jumping in the air like Andy when I spotted that lone, feeble chanterelle in Hell’s Hollow. To reach that first chantie was a hero’s journey, past a path that leads to a dazzling waterfall, down a steep hill, across a stream, and through a tunnel of decaying trees. The air starts to cool down and a trained nose can begin to smell the faint notes of mushrooms in the air. Clusters of chanterelles appear like small towns; they are golden trumpets that politely announce their presence with colorful glee. Oyster mushrooms grow shelf-like on the sides of trees, and chicken of the woods, these endlessly useful and tasty orange half-moons, light up your eyes like a gorgeous sunset. That’s the thing about wild mushrooms — once you see them, you can’t unsee them. After an education in foraging, you’ll be forever scanning your surroundings, trying to manifest treasure.
As I carried back my sack of mushrooms that first time, I thought about that man who woke up in Hell’s Hollow in the night. How must he have felt? Aimless, one would assume. Probably searching for a way out of the darkness. Disoriented, without a clue where he might be in relation to the outside world. Maybe that’s what Hell is. Maybe it’s quite simply feeling lost and alone. The pandemic can feel like that, as though you’re traversing an endless dark wilderness hoping to catch a light in the distance that’ll guide you back to society. But is that a new feeling? Hasn’t it always been that way? Maybe all of life has just been wandering in the dark.
Anyway, I’m glad to be walking through the woods with a purpose.
Danny Palumbo is a comedian and writer living in Los Angeles.