Northeastern Pennsylvania mushroom club puts the fun in fungi



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NANICOKE, Pennsylvania — To most people, the light brown colored plant is a mushroom. It's as simple as that.

But to nine people inside a classroom at the Advanced Technology Center at Luzerne County Community College in Nanticoke on a recent Friday night, it's an Armillaria. But they just don't know its name or its characteristics, they also know where to find it, how to prepare it in a meal and that it tastes pretty darn good. And they've got the recipes to prove it.

They've entered the room, each carrying a basket, a sectioned tray, a cloth shopping bag and some paper bags which contain Armillarias and other types of mushrooms that are far from the plastic wrapped Buttons and Shiitakes found in the local supermarket. And that's when things get interesting as the men and women, ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s, lay their discoveries on a table and then pass them around the group to touch, smell and name.

It's kind of like show and tell.

You can call these people treasure hunters, but treasure hunters of a different sort. They pick mushrooms in their spare time and then bring in their finds for other foragers to identify.

The members of the Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club come armed with tools like identification manuals, cameras, jeweler's loupes and pocket knives, but they also bring something else that's intangible yet easily distinguishable. And that is an appreciation and enthusiasm for what they do.

You could say that this group really puts the fun in fungi.

Dave Wasilewski, president, reaches into a bag and announces "This is the star of the show." In his hand is a Chanterelle, which he proclaims is one of the most sought after mushrooms. "It's highly edible and is served in fancy restaurants," he said. "It's great with wild game, chicken and fish and can even be pickled."

Wasilewski, wearing a camera around his neck as he often photographs his finds and sends them to the Mushroom Observer online site, said the goal of the club is to promote the understanding and appreciation of wild fungi. He feels that fungi are an essential component of a healthy functioning eco-system.

Becoming a mushroom lover doesn't just happen overnight, but it usually starts with the desire to hunt for something edible as it did with Wasilewski about 37 years ago. And that's what happened with newcomers Wendy Hilenski of Mountain Top and her father Jim Piech of Dorrance Township. "I can't really say that mushrooms are my favorite food, but I do enjoy the taste of them," she said. "They're good and earthy."

Whenever she and her dad locate a new find, they usually saute or stir-fry it in butter by itself to savor the taste rather than incorporate it into an existing dish.

"I can't believe just how many edible mushrooms can be found locally," Piech said.

Wasilewski takes center stage at the meeting picking up the finds and occasionally pulling out a pocketknife to slice a stem and see the underlying color. "Some types of mushrooms have a staining color, usually blue," he said as group members assemble around him and murmur in amazement as the stem of the fungi does indeed turn blue upon the first cut.

As a mushroom is passed around for the group to observe, Wasilewski encourages them to smell it, noting that "Odor can help identify a mushroom. Some have very distinctive smells."

He often refers to a mushroom grower's handbook as a reference guide, kind of like the mushroom lover's Bible to double-check on an identification as well as its common and scientific name. Sometimes it's not easy as one plant can look very similar to another. He jokes that "Some say mushrooms have never read the book because they don't look like they're supposed to."

Some members are mainly concerned with learning to identify a few wild edibles. That's why they bring in bags and baskets of their finds to each monthly meeting, where a spirited discussion takes place in identifying the fungi to genus/species.

The group usually shares cooking tips, recipes and sometimes even prepared dishes (all featuring mushrooms, of course). Members pull out their cell phones which display photos of their culinary skills with tales of past suppers of macaroni and cheese and mushrooms or pizzas topped with a bounty of 'shrooms.

The first question Wasilewski usually gets from the general public is "How do you know which ones are good to eat?" He said there is no easy answer to this question.

That is why the group leader is quick to stress there are no reliable shortcuts to identify toxic mushrooms. His best advice even to the most avid forager is "If collecting for the table: 'When in doubt, throw it out.'" Or, as he joked about a potentially deadly 'shroom at a recent meeting, "Don't taste it, it's probably a killer."

According to Wasilewski, mushrooms are found in diverse settings. "Some types of mushrooms may pop up almost any place," he said. "Some types associate with specific types of trees. Some are more likely to appear in a garden than in the forest."

Ten years ago friends used to laugh at Wasilewski's passion for mushrooms, he recalls. Now with budding interest in local cuisine, more people returning to nature and reports touting the health benefits of fungi, the mushroom lover and his plants are getting some new found respect.


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Information from: Times Leader, http://www.timesleader.com

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