Mushrooms are fascinating. Yeah, we've all seen Fantastic Fungi and loved it, and some of us have taken a deeper dive with Merlin Sheldrake's Entangled Life. Some of us have tripped on them, and some of us just like to eat the edible varieties because their flavor is unparalleled and oftentimes transcendent. But it's always amazed me that many of the same people who think nothing of gobbling down a handful of psychoactive mushrooms of dubious provenance are, ironically, absolutely terrified of foraging the wild tasty edible ones.
While edible mushroom foraging tends to frighten most Americans, the foraging of edible fungi and plants is quite common throughout most of the rest of the world. And it's a shame so many Americans are intimidated by it, because some of the most desirable, rarified, and delicious fungi money can buy might be growing right in your own backyard. Or close enough.
Mason Goes Mushrooming is a first-of-its-kind children's book. But it's a children's book in disguise; it's really a book for forage-curious adults who also want to teach their kids something about mycology and the foraging of edible fungi while going along for the ride and learning not to be freaked the fuck out by it. The book does this by simply and brilliantly demystifying the identification process, and showing us that foraging is, ultimately, a harmless woodland treasure hunt.
The story reads and feels much like the classic children's books of the 1970s familiar among many Gen-Xers, and weaves simple education into the story of a mushroom-foraging kid. Mason's a third-generation mushroomer (and the son of the author, Melany Kahn, a forager and educator) who harvests wild edible fungi through early spring, mid and late summer, and fall. And he doesn't die doing it. Mason hunts a different variety of mushroom for each season (yes, they grow in seasons, just like fruit), and walks amateur foragers through a handful of simple, foolproof distinctions. The book concludes with an easy identification guide, and a kid-friendly recipe closes each chapter. Watercolor illustrations are by Ellen Korbonski.
I've been an armchair mycologist for a few years with a stack of fungi identification books packed with grad school-level density, and after all my independent study, I could only confidently identify two varieties with 100% certainly (and one of them, famously, has no flavor). Armed with nothing but the information I gleaned from Mason Goes Mushrooming (yes, a book for children), I successfully foraged my first morels, which I found growing right under my apple trees, and, later in summer, discovered that I have a motherlode of Lobster mushrooms that had been coming up every year in the exact same spot (a now-undisclosed corner of my yard), that I had never noticed before, only because I didn't know what to look for.
Mason Goes Mushrooming covers four common edible mushrooms: morels, chanterelles, lobster mushrooms, and black trumpets, and provides a few obvious distinctions to keep you from making a wrong move. Poisonous lookalikes? Not so much. Three of the four mushrooms covered in the book have no lookalikes, and for the one that does, you only need to know one simple thing to spot the fake. The beauty of Mason Goes Mushrooming is that it quietly defangs the fear of death-by-mushroom almost like a sleight-of-hand trick. Knowledge is power, and foraging is fun.