How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Identifying 29 Wild, Edible Mushrooms  |  Storey Publishing; Oct. 5

On a recent foggy Friday afternoon, Frank Hyman is searching for mushrooms in Duke Park. It’s a hit-or-miss foraging day, but near the tennis courts, he squats to look at the base of a tree where a spiny cluster of orange mushrooms—they look like the Pan’s Labyrinth hand dipped in Cheeto dust—grows.

To a novice, the cluster looks something like the popular edible mushroom variety, chanterelles, but looks can be deceiving: these, he says, are jack-o’-lanterns.

“When it’s that dark, these things will glow,” Hyman says. “And that is trippy and amazing. But they will also make you sick as a dog for a couple of days.”

Hyman, age 60, is here to make sure that those hunting for mushrooms do not get sick as a dog. The title of his new mushroom manual spells this out clearly: How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Identifying 29 Wild, Edible Mushrooms.

Published October 5 by Storey Publishing, the 256-page book is a colorful and accessible guide to a hobby with a barrier to entry that’s often perceived as high. This perception, in fact, is why Hyman has taken me to a downtown Durham park near his house and not a more heavily wooded location.

“I wanted to bring you here and go into the park to get away from this idea that the only way to forage is to get in the car and go off to some woods,” he says. “Because mushrooms are everywhere.”

This is true. Anyone who has ever had a damp square inch of front yard grass knows that mushrooms can sprout in the dark of night with astonishing speed. They also stitch the world together: fungi are the largest source of living particles in the air and produce more than 50 megatons of spores (roughly equivalent to the weight of 500,00 blue whales), and 90 percent of plants are dependent on fungi for nutrients.

Still, their dark fairy-tale associations with dirt, rot, fleshy textures, and poison have lent them an intimidating air of mystery, despite their relative low risk.

This fear, according to Hyman, is mycophobia, a centuries-old carry-over from English colonialism, which, as he writes in the book, created an attitude of “disdain for potentially dangerous mushrooms” and then spread to other English-speaking countries governed by Britain, including the United States and, along the way, Durham, North Carolina.

How to Forage for Mushrooms without Dying is one antidote to mycophobia: Hyman, who is also a designer, laid the pocket-sized book out with impressive visual appeal.

After a few healthy introductions to mushroom parts and mushroom basics, Hyman guides readers through 29 different edible mushroom types, sprinkling digestible essays throughout.

While most foraging books rely on Latin terminology and overly esoteric language, Hyman’s take on the genre is more intuitive. Each mushroom variety is paired with checklists:  the “what, where & when” of mushroom types and field ID lists (every item, he emphasizes, must be correct in order for readers to forage the mushroom).

Hyman’s research has paid off: the book has been picked up by national retailers, ranging from Urban Outfitters to REI.

It also found great timing: the pandemic saw an uptick in interest in fungi, from home fermentation to foraging, as people spent more time at home. People also began to look to foodways experts for guidance, like the Durham cultural preservationist Justin Robinson (whose Instagram handle is @countrygentlemancooks), who was recently featured in a New York Times article about Black foragers.

But, although widespread interest in mushrooms has seen a recent uptick, Hyman’s roots in the natural world go deep. He’s a charismatic, down-to-earth talker—a George Saunders of foraging—and since the late eighties has cobbled together a living through a roving interest in the natural world.

This living has included accomplishments (slightly undermined by the friendly Comic Sans font they are outlined in on his website) like serving on the Durham City Council, getting arrested at Moral Monday protests, writing an erstwhile gardening column for the INDY, and leading an effort to legalize backyard hens in Durham.

Hyman’s first connection with mushrooms, as he remembers it, was during his 20s in South Carolina, where he spotted an indigo milk cap mushroom, which, when broken apart, leaks chalky blue milk.

“I didn’t know who would help me identify it,” he says. “I didn’t even know there were mushroom guidebooks, right? I was just like, ‘Wow, that color is amazing. I’m gonna learn about mushrooms one day.’”

Now in Duke Park, as it grows dark, Hyman continues to point out the spots where mushrooms grow during rainier periods. As we walk up the street, he spots hen of the woods—a chunky brown mushroom that ruffles out at the base of a tree—and kneels to investigate. It’s a prized foraging find.

“They can be kind of gray to brown and in-between,” he says, just as a neighboring screen door opens and a man steps out and yells over, “Hey, that’s my mushroom!”

The neighbor is joking, though, and knows Hyman well.

“We had some big uglies in our yard a few weeks ago,” the neighbor says, referring to a patch of mushrooms. “Did you come get them?”

Hyman cheerfully says that he didn’t—maybe another forager snagged them.

For now, he’s just excited to share today’s prize. And with that, he gently pries the hen of the woods from the tree, brown-bags it, and gives careful instructions for how to cook it later.

Securing an edible mushroom directly from a local tree does feel a bit like being in a fairy tale—but the kind with a happy ending. 

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