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Top 4 Things Wild Mushrooming Taught Me

Editor’s Note:

Well kids, it’s been a pretty fruitful fall wild mushrooming season here in North Carolina, which may account for the lack of posts this past week. Rest assured, I will be putting up more posts on mushroom identification soon, but I ended up with a windfall of maitake and lion’s mane and have spent the better part of 5 nights cleaning and storing them, which put a bit of a drag on my writing schedule!

Lion's mane
One of the reasons I haven’t been blogging as much as I usually do. Lion’s mane! Photo by Anna McHugh.

Today, I want to share a few key insights that I’ve gained from my wild mushrooming adventures. It is a rare thing to find something you’re deeply passionate about, and when I discovered wild mushrooming, it was like someone had snapped on the attic light and gone to town with the feather duster, clearing out a multitude of attitudinal dust bunnies and cognitive cobwebs. Anyhow, here are the top 4 things I’ve learned from wild mushroom hunting.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

4 Things I Learned From Wild Mushrooming

Learning about fungi and their role in wild ecosystems has taught me countless things about nature. If I were to list all the weird stuff I’ve learned since I took up wild mushrooming, I’d have a book in short order. Today I am going to focus more on those big-picture things that truly changed my perspective about life, the universe, everything, and (of course) the number 42.

Life is Mysterious

Before I got into wild mushrooming, I was in a bit of a rut: I was working in the juvenile court system and had gotten myself into a very troubling mindset whereby I felt like everything was too predictable, too immutable, and life had lost a considerable amount of its zest and mystery.

Then, along came the mushrooms. At first it was just idle curiosity and a desire to know more about the natural world, and since I was living in the Pacific Northwest, mushrooms were an indelible part of the landscape. I looked for canonical resources that would tell me everything I’d need to know…and promptly realized that no such resources existed. Even the most authoritative guides on mushrooms frequently are at odds with one another, and the constant stream of mycological discoveries, while once daunting to me, became a source of excitement…because we, as a mycophilic collective, are uncovering new mysterious fungal behaviors all the time!

One example that springs to mind is the curious case of the underwater mushroom, Psathyrella aquaticaThis strange little bugger is a classic cap-and-stem mushroom that, yes, grows in freshwater rivers, completely submerged. Which is just inherently strange. After all, fungi require oxygen to breathe and generally rely on air currents to spread their spores, and so the very idea of a mushroom growing underwater is…well…counterintuitive.
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The Story of White Mountain Mushrooms

Editor’s Note:

Well, it’s been a busy week for me, and as such I have fallen behind on my writing for this blog. However, I want to take some time today to point my fellow fungal fanciers in the direction of White Mountain Mushrooms, which is a gourmet and medicinal mushroom company that was recently founded by ardent mycophiles Parker and Jimmie Veitch.

White Mountain Mushrooms
Brothers and mycophiles Parker and Jimmie Veitch, co-founders of White Mountain Mushrooms.

If you’ve been active in the North Carolina mushroom scene for any length of time, you’ve surely run into one or both of these fellows before, and their identification work with our native NC Piedmont species is second to none. I am so thrilled that White Mountain Mushrooms has come into the world, and I suspect that their venture will benefit many mycologically curious people in the future. Read onward for a snapshot of some of the projects and services White Mountain Mushrooms is offering to us folks who enjoy the mysterious and magical world of wild gourmet and medicinal mushrooms!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

White Mountain Mushrooms – Passionate Purveyors of Fine Fungi

White Mountain Mushrooms is a labor of love, born of a long-time fascination with fungi shared by brothers Parker and Jimmie Veitch. Parker was one of the first mushroomers I met when I moved to North Carolina in 2013, and his dedication to exploring the mycological world and sharing it with others runs deep. Although he is a rather quiet chap, Parker rarely misses an opportunity to help people out – from suggesting mushroom hunting locations to sharing his extensive identification know-how, Parker is a touchstone to us North Carolina mushroom folk.

Although Parker moved to Maine and launched White Mountain Mushrooms far afield from the NC Piedmont, he remains an active part of the local mushrooming community here in the North Carolina Triangle, and he and Jimmie chose to sponsor the Piedmont Mycological Society so as to keep the spirit of kinship alive among us NC foragers. His brother Jimmie is similarly involved with mycological communities around the nation, and their knowledge is a valuable resource to beginners and advanced mushroomers alike.
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How to Find Hen of the Woods Mushrooms

Editor’s Note:

Hen of the woods under oak
This oak tree has a significant number of hen of the woods mushrooms fruiting from its roots. Photo by Keith Miklas. Licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Today I’d like to explain a little bit about exactly where to find hen of the woods mushrooms because they’re totally excellent edibles and they grow in some abundance east of the Rocky Mountains. Hen of the woods’ scientific name is Grifola frondosa, and this leafy, brown-and-white mushroom is the princess of the fall mushroom season for us North Carolina mushroom hunters.

So, gentle reader, if you’re having a touch of trouble finding hen of the woods, read onward for my own personal guidelines for how to find them!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Overview of Hen of the Woods – Grifola frondosa

Hen of the woods is also known as maitake, so if you’re interested in trying this mushroom and are having difficulty locking one down in the wild, I suggest visiting an Asian market post haste and picking up a cultivated specimen. These delightfully chewy and meaty mushrooms make excellent additions to soups, sauteed dishes, and sauces.

The fruiting body of hen of the woods grows on the ground at the base of trees and is made up of a large number of leafy fingers or protrusions. Hen of the woods is a polypore, which means that the underside of the leaves are covered with tons of small holes that drop spores as the mushroom matures. The top of the leaves is a brown color that often has little concentric growth bands. The leaves of this mushroom give it its common name “hen of the woods” because it looks a little like a giant hen in repose at the base of a tree. When it’s young, this mushroom is dense and has a series of pits and pockets that eventually grow into leaves, and it looks a little bit like a malformed brown and white brain emerging from the ground.

Grifola frondosa is iconic and very difficult to misidentify and is a pretty safe mushroom for beginners. Lookalikes for hen of the woods are nontoxic and edible for the most part. A possible exception is the very long-shot lookalike Laetiporus persicinus, which fruits in the summer and is not listed as edible in the field guides I typically use. The closest lookalike species, in my opinion, is the black-staining polypore, Meripilus sumstinea, followed by Berkeley’s polypore, Bondarzewia berkeleyii, both of which are edible if not terribly inspiring. For more on all these species, take a look at this post about chicken of the woods (Laetiporus) mushrooms from a few months ago.

Meripilus giganteus
The black-staining polypore has larger “fingers” than hen of the woods and has more distinctive growth zones. Photo by Prashanthns. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Grifola frondosa can get quite large, sometimes in excess of 10 pounds per specimen. It is best to collect this mushroom when its colors are rich and chocolate-brown, because as it ages, it can turn dull brown or gray, and at that point it tends to become a little tough and less succulent. Also, it’s important to not harvest this mushroom too early. If you find a hen of the woods in its infancy, mark the spot and return in a 5 to 10 days. If you gather them too young, the leaves will be filled with pockets of dirt and grit that is very difficult to remove. As the leaves unfurl and expand, that grime is much easier to brush off or wash away.

Where to Find Hen of the Woods

Hen of the woods is a fall mushroom, and it starts to emerge once night time temperatures dip into the low 60s or high 50s and there are some consistently cool daytime temperatures and, of course, a bit of rain. Although these mushrooms can grow to tremendous size, they are not terrifically quick to do so; they tend to pop up and expand over the course of a week or even two, which means you can carefully watch them and harvest them when the time is just right!
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Christopher Hobbs and Medicinal Mushrooms – Audio Interview

Editor’s Note:

Medicinal mushroom
Trametes versicolor, AKA the turkey tail, is a potent and common medicinal mushroom. Photo by Jason Hollinger. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

The time has come yet again for mushroom radio theater, wherein I share a bit of audio from my archive of recordings from Crazy About Mushrooms: Conversations With Fungus Fanaticsthe radio documentary I produced about fungi and the people who love them.

Today’s interview comes from Dr. Christopher Hobbs, who is a noteworthy herbalist, phylogenetic researcher, and author of Medicinal Mushrooms. This book is a seminal English-language examination of different fungi that can be used to treat and prevent disease, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to understand the uses of different species medicinal mushrooms throughout the ages.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Medicinal Mushrooms – A Partnership Between People and Fungi

This audio segment is most of the “medicinal mushrooms” chapter of an hour-long documentary, and the bulk of it is my interview material from Dr. Hobbs. However, do not be alarmed if you click the MP3 and you hear me talking a little bit about the history of fungi as medicine by way of a brief introduction.

One editorial note is in order here: in the audio, I incorrectly state that ling zhe, (aka reishi or Ganoderma lucidum) is called the 1,000-year mushroom because of its reputation for increasing longevity. In fact, it’s actually the 10,000-year mushroom, which I suppose stands as even more significant proof that Chinese herbalists identified this species as one of the most potent medicinal mushrooms in their pharmacopeia.

Anna and Dr. Hobbs on Medicinal Mushrooms

North Carolina’s Wild Turkey Tail and Reishi

For those who are interested in exploring the world of medicinally valuable fungi, there are numerous routes one can take. There is of course a host of different vendors for high-quality mushroom tinctures and supplements, and then there is the cheapskate mushroom hunter’s option: wild crafting your own medicinal mushrooms in the forest.

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Macrocybe Titans – North America’s Big Honkin’ Monster Mushroom

Editor’s Note:

Mycology is fascinating to me because fungi constantly remind me of the inherent weirdness of life, and Macrocybe titans is a good example. As a human being, it seems “natural” to have a provincial, species-centric view of the universe, whereby our path down Evolution Road seems the most logical and beneficial. However, when I learn more about mushrooms, I find that my inflated esteem for kingdom Animalia has yet another pinhole through which my pride escapes, because the tremendous adaptability and resilience of fungal organisms is astonishing.

Macrocybe titans Southern Border University
This specimen of Macrocybe titans was over 40 pounds. Photo credit: Southern Border University Center.

Today I want to talk about Macrocybe titans, which produces probably the largest gilled fruiting bodies in the Western Hemisphere. This monster grows wild in Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica, and other tropical habitats, and from all accounts its range is spreading northward and westward. If you’re a mycophobe, you might want to skip this entry, because Macrocybe titans is one of those species that might give you giant mushroom nightmares!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Macrocybe Titans, the Big-Ass Mushroom

Macrocybe titans is a gilled mushroom in the Tricholomataceae family, and as such it’s a classic cap-and-stem mushroom with tightly packed whitish-cream gills that get wavy in age. The mushroom is normally a buff or cream color, and it often has dark, backward-bent scales on the stem. In addition, the stem frequently has noticeable vertical striations that one author describes as similar to the stripes on a candy cane (in shape, not color).

Macrocybe titans has a habit of coming up in clusters of several individuals, sometimes from a common base, and the base of the stems are often bent laterally so there is a crook where the mushroom meets the ground. Many collections of this species include a variety of mushrooms of different sizes, and some of them are pitifully tiny. It is almost as though the Macrocybe titans mycelium is overly enthusiastic and produces numerous mushrooms, then promptly and runs out of juice to grow all those specimens to full size.

The thing that makes Macrocybe titans so remarkable is its size: its cap can exceed 3 feet in diameter, and some specimens have weighted in excess of 40 pounds and grown well over 2 feet tall. This mushroom is edible, but care must be taken with identification, because it’s entirely possible there are other Macrocybe mushrooms that look similar that might not be so wholesome. Full disclosure: I have never eaten this species, nor have I personally spoken with anyone about the experience of consuming it.
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Your First 4 Mushrooms – A Novice Mushroom Hunter’s Hitlist

Editor’s Note:

Last weekend, I had the privilege of leading a mushroom walk at Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute. As I have come to expect, the class was filled with curious, enthusiastic students, a good number of whom self-identified as novice mushroom hunters, and I shared with them my strongest opinion about wild mushroom hunting: you should not eat a wild mushroom unless you’re totally positive that you know what that mushroom is.

Laetiporus sulfureus
The sulfur shelf or chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulfureus. Photo by Doug Bowman. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

There are two reasons for this. First and most obvious, you don’t want to go eating a mushroom you do not know, just in case it’s a toxic species. Second, the anxiety of eating an unknown species can throw both a novice mushroom hunter and a seasoned forager for a loop, giving rise to much worry and unnecessary pacing around the house wondering if you’ve made a terrible mistake. This post outlines the first 4 edible mushrooms you should learn if you’re a novice mushroom hunter, plus a couple tips on which genera/species groups you should become familiar with so that you can avoid accidentally eating a disagreeable species.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

A Novice Mushroom Hunter’s Top 4 Hitlist

If you’re an experienced mushroom identifier, you probably know that it’s not always easy to get each and every mushroom you find into a tidy genus/species box. The fact that field identification is sometimes impossible, coupled with the large number of fungal species that are unnamed, can make this task quite challenging. If you’re just starting out, this reality can almost feel chilling, but rest assured, there are plenty of mushrooms that we’re familiar with to a degree that they can be considered “safe bets.” Here are the top 4 you should learn.

Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus Species

Laetiporus cincinnatus
My favorite type of chicken of the woods mushroom, Laetiporus cincinnatus. Photo by T. Kewin. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

There are a few species in the genus Laetiporus that are commonly called chicken of the woods or sulfur shelf, and this should be one of the first species groups you ever learn if you’re a novice mushroom hunter seeking to find gourmet wild species.

These are large polypore mushrooms, meaning that the bottom of the cap is covered in a huge number of little pores that produce spores. Chicken of the woods mushrooms grow both on wood and on the ground, and they are characterized by a yellow or white porous fertile surface and a brightly colored, shelving fruiting body that is orange to orange-pink. The top of specimens have distinctive concentric growth zones, which gives them a banded look. The mushrooms are smooth (not slimy or sticky), although sometimes you will find lumps and bumps on the surface of the cap.
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A Lesson in Lepidella – Overview of Common NC Amanitas

Editor’s Note:

Lepidella - Amanita abrupta
Amanita abrupta is a really good example of a Lepidella. Photo by Yasunori Koide. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

When I first started hunting mushrooms in North Carolina, I was awestruck by the diversity of fungi that fill our forests and fields. In particular, North Carolina is rich in Lepidella mushrooms, which is a section of the Amanita genus. Experts opine that there are likely more than 1,000 Amanita taxa worldwide, and I would be downright shocked if the genus’ species count is any lower than that.

For more information on the genus as a whole, check out this overview of the Amanitas. Also, Studies in the Amanitaceae is an excellent resource that’s well worth exploring if you want to get your head around the Amanita family, which includes the genera Amanita and Limicella.

I figured it would be worthwhile to explore the key morphological features of Lepidella mushrooms that are visible to the naked eye because they’re large macrofungi that are quite common in North Carolina and other eastern U.S. states. In fact, you can hardly avoid Lepidellas, even if you’re a bird watcher, hiker, mountain biker, or forest-friendly mycophobe. So strap on your mushroom taxonomy boots and let’s dive into an overview of Lepidella!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Lepidella, the Giant Mushrooms of Genus Amanita

Before I begin, I will state that Lepidellas aren’t always ginormous, but many of them are on the large side for mushrooms. If you’re breaking mushrooms up into size categories in your mind, I would place many Lepidellas in the “big honkin’ mushroom” bucket (along with chicken of the woods and its kin) because many of North Carolina’s common Lepidellas are the size of dinner plates or even hubcabs when they’re mature.

For more on the taxonomical issues surrounding Lepidella, see the section below. For the purposes of this post, I will be looking at the section Lepidella, as opposed to the sub-genus Lepidella, which contains mushrooms as varied and diverse as Amanita phalloides (commonly called the death cap mushroom) and Amanita franchetii, a lovely brown warted mushroom with a cream-and-yellow skirt on the stalk. Section Lepidella is challenging for mushroom identifiers of all experience levels and many of the species are not terribly well-defined, but they share a few common characteristics that make a basic field identification to Lepidella (sort of) straightforward.

Key Features of Lepidella Section Mushrooms

Cap Margin Appendiculate

One prominent feature of Lepidella that can be determined in the field is the flesh on the edge of the cap, which is appendiculate. Appendiculate simply means that there are bits of woolly or powdery material attached to the margin of the cap, although this material often wears or washes off as the mushroom matures.
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Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute Foray, 10/3

Editor’s Note:

Craterellus fallax
The black trumpet mushroom, Craterellus fallax. Note how the younger specimen looks like a flared tube, and the mature specimens are flowery and irregular. Photo by Eva Skific.

From time to time I offer mushroom walks and identification classes, and this coming Saturday, October 3, I am going to be leading a foray at Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute in Chapel Hill, NC.

This post is for those of you who are attending, as well as others who are wondering what mushrooms to look for around the North Carolina Triangle in this coming week or two, so even if you’re not coming to the mushroom foray, hopefully this post will be useful to you!

Edited to Add:

I am going to be bringing some fresh hen of the woods with me, so even if we don’t find any great edible mushrooms on the foray, we’ll have something tasty to sample! I was lucky enough to find a sizable hen (Grifola frondosa) in Black Mountain, NC this past weekend, and there’s definitely enough to share!

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute – Habitats and Overview

Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute is a great place for wild mushroom hunting because it has a variety of classic NC Piedmont habitats, all of which are close to the central grounds of the farm. Pickards Mountain is a farm, educational center, and ongoing sustainability/community-building project that offers a wide array of leadership classes, internships, and workshops on sustainable agriculture, foraging, and other self-sufficiency topics.

Laetiporus sulfureus
The sulfur shelf or chicken of the woods, Laetiporus sulfureus. Photo by Doug Bowman. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

As for my mushroom walk at Pickards Mountain, here are a few of the mushroom species we should be on the lookout for this weekend. If you’re not coming to the foray, you should note these species as well, because if you’re interested in eating delicious North Carolina wild mushrooms, these are a few of the stars of the show during this transitional period between summer and fall.

Black Trumpets, Craterellus fallax

The eastern black trumpet mushroom, Craterellus fallax, grows with hardwoods all around the eastern United States and other spots east of the Rocky Mountains. Ranging from jet-black in color to brown-grey, the black trumpet is also a delicious edible mushroom. Sadly, it’s a bit hard to spot, but it often grows in low-lying areas where there is ample moisture. Inside stump holes, on the edges of irrigation ditches, and other semi-saturated environments are often home to Craterellus fallax. For more information, check out this post about Craterellus fallax and other edible members of the Craterellus genus.
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Why You Should Join a Mycological Society

Editor’s Note:

Mycological Society Dance Party
Sometimes, mycological societies descend into dance-party extravaganzas. Photo by Anna McHugh.

Well kids, it’s about high time to high tail it to the annual North American Mycological Association foray up Asheville way, and I must confess I’m stupid excited about it. In honor of the upcoming festivities, I figured I’d outline a few of the massive benefits of joining a mycological society or mushroom club, if you happen to have one in your region.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Mycological Societies: The Good, The Weird, The Smart

Mycological societies are not the most common social/scientific organizations out there, and sadly, many communities do not have them. Never fear, however! If you live in a part of the U.S. that lacks a formal mycological society, you could always get motivated and create an informal Meetup or Facebook group to organize mushroom-related events, activities, and information-sharing.

If you’re lucky enough to live in a region where there’s a bona fide mycological society, there is no doubt that you should join up, even if (or especially if) you’re a novice and don’t know much about mushroom hunting, identification, or other mushroomy topics. Mycological societies, in my experience, bring together a group of interesting, weird-in-a-good-way people who are tremendously generous with their knowledge, and most of them don’t even get tired of hearing the novice mushroom hunter’s constant refrain (What is it? Can I eat it?).

Here are the top benefits of joining your friendly local mycological society.

Cortinarius erythraeus
Cortinarius erythraeus is one of those “more obscure” mushrooms you could learn about at a mycological society meeting. Photo by TimmiT. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

Mycological Society Sponsored Mushroom Forays and Camps

Although I love going mushrooming with a few close friends and sometimes I like to even hide the fact that I’m mushroom hunting, very few things are as fun as annual or seasonal mushroom forays with a mycological society or mushroom club. The advantages of going to a mushroom foray are varied, not the least of which is the opportunity to meet a bunch of people who share your passion for mushrooms in a setting where you can jabber on about your interests totally unfettered by concerns that people will think you’re off your rocker.

As I’ve explained on this blog before, some people just don’t understand mycology and think that “mushroom people” are weird. Well, that’s largely true, and nowhere is this more on display than at a mycological society foray. You’re likely to meet some engineers, tech industry brainiacs, wily old coots who can take you through the 7 different species names of the shiitake mushroom (Lentinula edodes, at least for now), back-to-the landers who live off-grid, chefs, urban foragers, biochemists, organic farmers, a few writers, and numerous other fun fungus lovers of all sorts.

Not only are mycological society forays a great place to meet people you’d otherwise never have a chance to get to know, you’re likely to learn some stuff about mushrooms that you never even considered, even if you’re a diehard mycophile like me. Here is a brief list of things I’ve learned at mushroom camps over the years.

3 Mushrooms Not to Discuss With People That Have Mycophobia

Editor’s Note:

Ramaria formosa
Ramaria formosa might open the eyes of a mild mycophobe to the wonders of mushrooms. Photo by Alan Rockefeller. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.

I think wild mushrooms are the bees knees, but shortly after I started hunting chanterelles I discovered mycophobia, a strange condition that causes people to react to fungi with an array of negative emotions, from terror and panic to disgust. Now, I am a huge advocate of transparent mycophilia, by which I mean I love to share info on where to find gourmet mushrooms, how to identify wild fungi, and other mushroomy topics that amuse me.

However, there are some things that I am hesitant to discuss with mycophobic people. Below you will find 3 species that I think may best be left alone when discussing your mycological passions with people who are confused, perturbed, or even frightened of your hobby.

Yours In Fungal Fancy,

Mushroom Anna

Mycophobia – Symptoms and Treatment

Some people with mycophobia can easily be cured. You probably know the type, it’s that friend of yours who seems kind of distant when you tell him/her that you’re into wild mushroom foraging, or the one who asks you weird mushroom hunting questions. This person, when pressed, will likely confide in you that they don’t really like mushrooms because they’re little more than a crappy salad topping that tastes like chalk.

This sort of mycophobe is easy to deal with. You have a few options:

  1. Take them on a mushroom foray. Once they see the diversity and beauty of mushrooms, they might become inspired. Worst case scenario, you took them for a pleasant walk in the woods and jabbered Latin at them for a couple hours.
  2. Make them a delicious wild mushroom dish that’s nonthreatening. Those who have been fed a pack of mycophobic lies their entire lives (for instance, the untrue notion that Agaricus bisporus is just totally fine raw) are likely to respond to mushroom dishes that are flavorful and delicious. Try using a species that’s not too intense; save your beefsteak polypore for another day, and whip out the porcini or shiitake recipes. If you’re flush with cash or own a fancy, truffle-seeking dog, you could go whole hog and shave some truffle bits on a creamy pasta dish. The path to healing, when it comes to mild mycophobia, is often through the belly.
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