Friday, June 19, 2015

Chicken of the Woods

“Did you see that giant chicken!?” exclaimed my co-worker Jayme as she stepped out of her Jeep in my driveway. My puzzled look must have answered her question. “There’s a huge chicken of the woods right next to your driveway! It’s bright orange. I can’t believe you missed it!”

Jayme’s excitement was warranted. Chicken of the woods (a.k.a sulphur shelf) are choice edible mushrooms, and she is an enthusiastic mychophagist (mushroom-eater) and wild forager. A little embarrassed that I had missed such a neat find, I joined her and Steve, her partner, on a quick hike back up our long gravel drive. “I won’t tell you where it is,” she teased, “let’s see if you can find it yourself.”

Once I was looking, it wasn’t hard, but I did discover why I hadn’t seen it before. Tucked away up a steep bank, several yards back in a balsam thicket, the cluster glowed orange on the cut stump of a fallen tree. We grabbed baby birch stems and kicked our toes into the dirt, clambering up the near-vertical road cut.

It was impressive. Nearly two feet across, with layer upon layer of rippling brackets giving it a ruffled appearance, the yellow edges and undersides contrasting with rich, orange caps – this mushroom was beautiful.  It is also unmistakable. David Arora, author of “Mushrooms Demystified”, includes chicken of the woods in his “foolproof four.” Upon closer inspection, we found that the cluster was fresh, clean, and flexible. Just ripe for eating.

We reached into the mass, and gently tugged free a few of the most fresh and tender looking caps. The flesh was cool and moist to the touch, with a texture like fine velvet. Part of this consistency comes from it being a polypore. Unlike stereotypical mushrooms with the umbrella-like cap and radiating gills, polypore mushrooms are composed of many small, vertical tubes. Reproductive spores are produced on the sides of the tubes, and use gravity to disperse out of the bottom opening. From there, the spores use wind and animals to disperse them into a new home, eventually growing more mushrooms.

The pore structure also contributes to the succulent, stringy texture of the caps, which reminds some people of chicken meat. Soon we had tugged free enough caps to share with everyone for dinner.

Cooking mushrooms is extremely important for both safety and nutrition. Heat can denature toxins, kill nematodes, and break down tough cell walls to give our bodies access to nutrients. After wiping off a few specks of “trail spice,” we added the orange caps to a warm skillet in a pool of melted butter and garlic. With a lid to help keep in the juices, the “chickens” were soon sizzling merrily.

The first bite was the best: chewy but tender, with a light lemony undertone and a touch of the savory umami flavor, too. Though we wanted to keep eating, each of us tasted only a couple of small pieces. Chicken of the woods causes mild stomach upset in some, and allergic reactions in a very few. With any wild mushroom, it is best to try only a little at first, to gauge how your body will react.

After a comfortable night, I headed back to the stump to collect more. The wood still looked solid, so I suspect that this fungus will be back again next year. Chicken of the woods is a parasite (it kills trees) and saprobe (it decomposes dead trees), most commonly on oaks. After years of decay, it renders the wood – especially the heartwood – into a friable mess of brown cubes. Until then, it may fruit in the same place year after year.

And until then, I will continue making it part of my dinner. As I pulled off more chunks for my skillet, I noticed slugs and flies dotting the yellow undersides of the brackets. In just a few days, its brittle flesh would be riddled with insects, slug trails, and beetle holes. The fungus will die back. The decomposer will decompose.

The tree feeds the fungus. The fungus feeds the animals. Eventually the soil will feed a tree. And somewhere in that cycle, is me.

Chicken of the Woods, Photo by Emily Stone

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