I must have become fond of foraging on my first date with my husband. I had met him only weeks before, when hunting for a garage where I could park my motorcycle. This was in San Francisco; my landlady had complained of my parking the cycle in her garage, and David had a garage he was willing to rent. It wasn’t long before he stopped charging me rent and we began dating. That is a story we loved telling our children. Anyhow, for our first date he invited me to an event he thought would be different and possibly exciting: a display of wild mushrooms gathered by the San Francisco Mycological society. After two hours peering at mushrooms, we felt we knew enough to hunt our own so we drove to the Presidio to look for blewitts under Eucalyptus trees. We found some and cooked them that evening for dinner. Incredible that we weren’t poisoned by our lack of knowledge. Instead, a lifelong interest in collecting mushrooms, edible or just beautiful, began.
But I always had trouble finding morels. I did find one once, improbably, while waiting for a ride at Disneyland. It was growing under a bench. And another one, single, growing under a tree at SF Community college where I was taking land surveying classes so that I could join archaeology expeditions as a mapper. Both times, people asked me what I held in my hand and I lied to lead them astray, “Oh, it’s a poisonous mushroom. Interesting, though, isn’t it?”
So, yesterday I joined a group led by a commercial mushroom hunter. We drove high into the Sierra mountains along a snaky road to spots where fires had charred – but not completely burned – cypress stands. Although I was on time, I was the last to arrive for the carpools in a local Safeway market and discovered they had been joking about my name, wondering if I was related to the British Camilla. Then I asked for a moment so I could jump into the Safeway and grab a Starbucks Coffee. I was the oldest member of the group by several decades, except for the leader Patrick, who had long gray hair pulled into a pony tail. He warned us there would be plenty of hiking. Were we all up for it?
Once we began collecting, Patrick made a number of wisecracks at my expense: “You can’t find mushrooms carrying a coffee cup!”, “You have to LOOK to find the morels, Camilla. You might have to get on your hands and knees.”; and when I had difficulty finding any, he pulled some out of his pocket and handed them to me saying, “We knew you would be the last to find any, so I saved these for you.”
I laughed because I was indeed having trouble finding morels but on the next stop I caught up with them, finding more than anyone else. The wisecracks stopped. When we parted for the day, Patrick came over to me and remarked, “I’m really glad you came, Camilla! You were a real trooper.” I looked at him quizzically and he repeated, “You were a real trooper!” Something about me, I realized with a jolt, had given Patrick the feeling that I would be a wet blanket on the trip. What was it? My age? My coffee? My name, linked with an unpopular British woman? All I could think of to say was, “You don’t even know me.” Did I have to wear a resume on my shirt to win his respect? Should I have told him about my frequent trail runs, my stints in wild Afghanistan, the fact that I would be stopping on the way home to climb into a tree to gather wild mulberries? Maybe I should visit a plastic surgeon after all, so that my face kept better pace with my spirit. Yikes.
I will dry the morels and use them as garnishes on breakfast plates for appreciative guests who don’t mind wild mushrooms. The mulberries I already served this morning, tossed with strawberries and pomegranates from my yard.