I was 7 or 8, and my favorite aunt, Rose Wallman, who often borrowed me from my parents because she was childless, came to take me for an afternoon mushrooming expedition in Forest Park, New York. Aunt Rose was equipped with a basket from Woolworth's and a copy of The Little Golden Book of Mushrooms. I was thrilled to go foraging with her because I had been reading the Heidi books and it seemed like something Heidi would do, even though Aunt Rose and I were not in the Alps. Forest Park was as close as you could come to a real forest in the borough of Queens. Aunt Rose, as much a neophyte mycologist as I was, delighted me by appearing to rely on my judgement in matters of life and death. We would spot a mushroom and consult The Little Golden Book, searching for a matching illustration. Mushroom or toadstool? would be the question. (At this point in my narrative, the tax attorney interrupted me with a withering pronouncement: "There are no toadstools—only toxic mushrooms." "To me at 8, they were toadstools," I said firmly, and shortly afterward went home alone.)
To continue my story, anything we both designated "mushroom" would be promptly picked. By the end of the afternoon we had gathered quite a variety; golden and in various shades of brown, they lay nestled in Aunt Rose's basket with clinging bits of moss and pine needles. The tax attorney told me he did not necessarily eat the rare specimens he collected; my aunt, however, was planning to sauté the whole lot in parsley butter but said she could not take the responsibility of inviting me to share the feast. All evening I worried about her, until the phone rang. Aunt Rose had not only survived but reported to me that the mushrooms were delicious, and ever since I have regretted not sampling that dish seasoned with a bit of danger.
I thought of Aunt Rose quite often after I bought a small cabin in Vermont on the edge of the woods. She would have been pleased that I finally had my own Forest Park, complete with deer, moose, porcupines, and a mythical bear or two. Where my lawn ends, there are wild apple trees and blackberry brambles. In the fall after it rains, I'm likely to find boletes in the garden. My friends and neighbors up there are experienced mushroom hunters who wisely collect only what they're absolutely sure of and eat everything they gather. Strings of dried mushrooms hang from the rafters of their kitchens. If you're out driving with them, they're likely to stop the car to harvest giant speckled pheasant's backs jutting from dead elms along the roadside or the slightly phosphorescent shaggy manes that show up at night, luminous in the headlights. I've heard tales of giant puffballs, big enough to serve six, and of certain outcroppings of morels in hillside cow pastures. If you ask, "But where exactly do you find your morels?" you won't get an answer—such secrets are respected by all—but you will get an invitation to come to dinner and try some.
Next: What brings purpose and suspense to my rambles