Searching for Wood Folk at ‘Shroom Fest

At the annual mushroom-pickers' gathering, so much to look at, and so many weirdos to talk to.

The best-dressed person at the Fungus Fair was J — well, except for the blond guy with his hair done up in little pink barrettes and a white accordion slung over his back, but who knows what his trip was. Clad in a black jacket adorned with badges for his favorite bands, J stood out from the rest of the casually hippie-esque crowd. He said his name was J — just J. Having just a letter for a name means you don’t have to deal with extraneous things such as vowels or stupid meddling consonants. As J himself put it, “I don’t want to use up the extra ink in the universe.”

It was just after the end of the food demo. Chefs from a Napa restaurant had sautéed porcini mushrooms in garlic and then paired them with a plain egg custard. Everyone was bemoaning the size of the smallish samples — which prompted the woman busy handing out samples to snap “This is a sample, not lunch!” — when the nebulously mystical J strolled by.

There was something about J; a Cat Stevens sort of sensibility. It was obvious that he knew a thing or two about mushrooms. “Mushrooms have divinatory powers,” he confided. And then — it was so weird — he provided an example. “Well, I found my bicycle that way. Mushrooms allowed me to divine where I could find a bike, and I did,” he said, grinning beatifically.

J’s purpose in attending the mushroom fair was to learn more about identifying and collecting fungi — mostly, as he put it, “for recreational use.” Other people had other reasons. All in all, several hundred of them dropped by the Oakland Museum earlier this month for the Mycological Society of San Francisco’s 34th Annual Fungus Fair. The popular fair consisted of two full days of lectures, cooking demonstrations, mushroom-related art displays, and the sale of all kinds of wild mushrooms (but sorry, not the kind J wanted).

He had no trouble finding the Fungus Fair, probably because the universe wanted him to be there. But just to make sure that no one else would miss the assembled multitudes, cute little cut-out paper mushrooms were taped to the carpet, and pointed to the action. Of course, they weren’t really necessary. The faint, dirty smell of porcini, shiitakes, oysters, chanterelles, and their many edible and inedible peers was an olfactory beacon that pointed fairgoers to their destination.

There was a lot to look at: huge displays of mushrooms and experts who could help struggling mycologists distinguish a Boletus piperatoides from a Boletus piperatus. At the mushroom stand, cooks of all stripes nuzzled their faces next to the baskets of fungi, breathing in their scent, happy as pigs in France rooting their snouts beneath an oak tree. People walked around and attended lectures such as “Common and Not-So-Common Edible Wild Mushrooms” or “Mushrooms from the Lost World: Mycological Explorations in Guyana.”

So much to do, so many weirdos to talk to.

Consider, for instance, Black Unicorn, who has been an amateur mycologist for the past six months. Black Unicorn said extensive research has shown him that faeries and gnomes like to hang out by mushrooms. Aside from the sudden and possibly frightening opportunity to see the “wood folk,” what else does he find so fascinating about mushrooms — besides, of course, hallucinating about faeries and gnomes? “I don’t know, I guess it’s the taboo aspect of it. They could be poisonous,” he said with a giggle. “Supposedly the most poisonous mushrooms are the most delicious, but unfortunately, they give you a lot of bad side effects, like bloody diarrhea.” Or death, of course — best not to leave that side effect unmentioned.

Which begged the question, what exactly is Black Unicorn’s mushroom specialty: What species does he most like to cook? Black Unicorn thought about the question for a minute and took a bite of his savory porcini custard sample. “I find a lot of oyster mushrooms; so usually I do just a simple stir-fry,” he said, licking the last of the custard of his plastic spoon. “Do you think we could get some more samples?”

Attendance was brisk on the first day of the fair, in part because it was raining that Saturday. But mushroom people rejoice in rain, for it portends the birth of more mushrooms. Consequently, there weren’t as many people at the fair on the following day. That’s the bad thing about having a fungus fair during the prime fungus-gathering season; people in the know are itching to be out overturning wood chips, brambles, even cow shit — wherever there might be a prince or princess, or maybe even a king.

Mark McFarland of Oakland was so happy to be at the fair that he wore a pair of red long johns decorated with white splotches. “I wanted to look like a Siberian Amanita,” he explained, referring to a particularly striking breed of poisonous mushroom. Like so many other fairgoers, McFarland said he ingests certain mushrooms to achieve a feeling of well-being. “I like the spiritual aspect of them,” he said, as he strolled off to look at some real amanitas with his wife.

But as it got later and jackets started coming off, others sensed a tension in the room. There were nervous jokes about the mild weather. “Bad day to be at a fair, I should be out on a foray,” and “yeah, the Boletus are happening right now as we speak.” Cue the nervous laugher. Because what if? What if a patch of black chanterelles magically appeared at your favorite spot in the Oakland Hills this morning while you were at the Fungus Fair?

Mushrooms have a way of doing that, making one think magic thoughts.

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