The Unique Optimism of Being a Mushroom Forager in Southern California

In our parched part of the country, finding mushrooms can be like striking gold. But that doesn’t stop members of the Los Angeles Mycological Society from grabbing their baskets and trying
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“Guys! We found a mushroom!” a woman enthusiastically hollers back to a group of thee people meandering about the woods. Their eyes take a break from scanning the largely unproductive forest ground, and they rush over to see what the fuss is about. Sounding the alarm is a self-described “crazy Hungarian” who moved to Los Angeles decades ago to be a costume designer. She verbalizes rather quickly, and in great detail, how the industry is depraved and immoral, and that she gave it up as a result. Now she finds herself somewhere in the San Bernardino Mountains, nearly 6,000 feet from sea level, humbly foraging for mushrooms amid what has been a relentlessly dry and futile season. The group inches closer, the parched ground crunching beneath their feet, to examine several mushroom caps dotted on a fallen conifer tree. People start to converge and introduce themselves; mushrooms have drawn these strangers together like a magnet. They are all card carrying members of the Los Angeles Mycology Society (LAMS).

“Is it edible?” someone asks.

Steven Pencall, the organizer of the foray, responds wryly, “That depends: Do you like the taste of shoe leather? Or cardboard?”

Pencall educates the group on cryptoporous volvatus, also known as the veiled polypore. It is a smooth, pale, roundish fungus that, yes, does kind of taste like shoe leather. Still, there’s something otherworldly about mushrooms, even the uninspiring ones, like they’re evidence of another dimension that’s slowly encroaching into ours.

Members of the group meet the bland, encased fungi with the excitement of scientists discovering alien life. Somebody picks one up and brings it with them, occasionally tossing it in the air and catching it like a tennis ball found on a walk through Griffith Park. The veiled polypore, flavorless and aggressively ho-hum, would be the only mushroom found on this particular Saturday morning jaunt. Such is life when you’re mushroom hunting in rain-deprived Southern California.

mushrooms
A laccaria amethysteo-occidentalis found in the Santa Ana Mountains in 2010

Los Angeles Mycological Society

Pencall has been with LAMS for 40 years. He is a rangy, gray-bearded man in his sixties. He wears a beaten straw hat that the sun has worn badly near the top of his head. His green backpack is weathered and frayed, the thin material held together with pins in sections. He drove his white 1991 Honda Civic wagon, which has 300,000 miles on it, up to this small mountain town to lead the foray. He is kind, gentle, thoughtful, and seemingly incapable of raising his voice. An unassuming leader, yes, but then you remember what mushroom foraging is. It’s a dirty, wandering, frugal, and often fruitless endeavor that attracts the most curious, and perhaps the most grateful of us.

“Occasionally, every five years, we have a really good season where the ‘shrooms are quite abundant,” Pencall says. “In the ’90s and 2005, when we had particularly wet winters, where there were morels in the hundreds. I can remember one day I found 400. That was 1998—’98 was an El Niño year.”

Pencall made sure to tell people to temper their expectations on this particular trip due to the dry season, but the email list filled up instantly.

Pencall has a real ’90s nostalgia for rain, and for good reason: Los Angeles averages only about 14 or 15 inches in a year, a pittance by God to the people of Southern California. And that’s what makes mushrooms so scarce in the area. Morels, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and the like all need humidity to develop. Pencall made sure to tell people to temper their expectations on this particular trip due to the dry season, but even with the clear warning the email list filled up instantly.

At the outset of the foray, 30 people gathered in a picnic area, signed waivers, and listened to Pencall give his spiel on “convoy etiquette.” He is responsible for the safety of all 30 members on the excursion.

There’s a couple from New Jersey, who on their first foray, immediately realize the irony of just now getting into foraging in a place where it rarely rains. Another couple optimistically carries a pair of neatly padded picnic baskets which look like they could hold 20 pounds of mushrooms each. There’s a mix of amateurs and vets alike, all brought here by the hope that they might find some gold in a desert. Forays don’t happen often, and it’s pretty rare to see somebody reveal a foraging spot, as Pencall has.

“People will show you mushrooms, but people won’t be very forthcoming about where they got them,” Pencall says. “I have some spots I only show certain members of my own family.”

He laughs. Pencall doesn’t reveal which members of his family aren’t privy to his spots, but it sounds like there might be a pecking order.

“It’s like publishing a treasure map,” he adds. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re doing or they’re just trashing their habitat.”

And that’s what makes LAMS such a unique and refreshing group. There is seedy, territorial competitiveness rampant in mushroom foraging because it is essentially treasure hunting. In places like San Francisco, fine dining restaurants pay foragers handsomely to spend their days scouring the wilderness for rare and edible treats. All across the country where habitats facilitate them, mushroom hunting can be lucrative work. The more abundant mushrooms are, the more money there is to be made, and the easier it is to encroach on somebody’s cache of gems. Professional foragers, cranky locals, and delusional treasure hunters all provide roadblocks to the eager beginner. But here in Southern California, where rainy seasons are about as frequent as visits from the Pope and the mushrooms don’t grow with any real consistency, there’s not much gold to hoard. Mushrooms are lacking in Los Angeles, and that’s why there’s a real warmth and sticktoitiveness among the LAMS members. There has to be because the climate is dire.

Walking about the mountain forest for two hours, all 30 members of LAMS come up empty handed. As the futility sets in, Steven picks up an empty tallboy of Modelo off the ground and puts it in his basket. Somebody else follows his lead and picks up an empty Doritos bag. The picnic baskets meant for collecting earthy, meaty morels are now filled with trash.

Back at the meeting place, the whole group converges from their separate forest excursions. Dogs meet. People start to eat their packed lunches. Everybody passes around the veiled polypore and marvels at its mediocrity. Steve shrugs, but nobody seems disappointed. The expectations were always low, and perhaps the optimism was misplaced, but the world could use a little more idealism, togetherness, and transparency.

It could also use a little more rain.


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