When Darkness Falls: Cooking and Heating in Winter as Our Forebears Did

When Darkness Falls: Cooking and Heating in Winter as Our Forebears Did

by Catherine Harper

As I write this, we are in the midst of the false spring that is so often January’s mercurial gift to the Pacific Northwest coast. Around the borders of the garden daffodil bulbs are sending up small green teeth. The days are sunny and mild, and my over-wintering broccoli has started to form heads. Is it just coincidence that just as the season tries to so mislead us the seed catalogs begin to arrive? The sunset through the trees beyond my study window has painted the sky the color of salmon, and it is not yet wholly dark, though it would have been at this time only a few weeks before. It’s an easy time to think of Imbolc ahead.

Imbolc is a celebration of first stirrings, new beginnings, gradual lengthening of days and return of the light. In this green country by the sea, where winter’s sleep is never much more than a nap, it might almost be redundant, the transition from grey, rain and green to more of the same with swelling buds. We prune the apple orchards and light a candle (the more faithfully because Imbolc is also my brother’s birthday). It is a restless season, a gradually accelerating rising toward the lighter portion of the year, and as such it can be a difficult time for reflection. And yet reflection sometimes finds us, though we did not look for it.

Recently, our house was without power for several days, and many of our plans were put on hold for that stretch. I was given ample opportunity to think of the passing of the darkest time — even as winter is still with us — and time to think of the small ways in which the light returns to us. Now, we are well set up for such occurrences, and it is not uncommon for us to heat the house and cook our dinner with the wood-burning brick oven. Similarly, we often eat by candlelight. But to fire the oven every day, banking the coals each night and then stirring them to light the fire the next morning, is something else, as it is to read and work out and clean the garage only by the light of candles and oil lamps or the short hours of daylight. What has been at most ritual, and at least conceit, becomes both drudgery and discipline.

By the third day, the eyestrain from the dimmer light even of many candles was feeling ingrained. I had learned to take a hot water bottle to bed with me every night because, while the oven could heat most of the house, the master bedroom is too far, and the bed itself bitterly cold when I first entered it. We swept and washed dishes as much as possible while we still had daylight to see our work by, and brought in wood before going to bed so that it would be there to start the morning fire. Beyond the work itself, which wasn’t excessive, the routine was exhausting — some combination of the cold and the dark and the tedium of normally simple tasks leaving me stumbling with fatigue each night. And yet, in its way, it was deeply satisfying.

In my magical work in and beyond the kitchen, much of what I do is creating a web of connections. I buy the food that is in season to make another link between myself and the turning of the year. I buy from local farmers to strengthen my connection to the land, and from people I know to strengthen my connection with the community. But we all live in and amongst many such webs, if not all of them so deliberately chosen. The pieces of our world — every aspect of our lives — is vastly interdependent, and the electrical networks are one such tangible example of the ways in which we are connected.

If there is something to be learned from building and choosing to put our energy into certain connections and so reinforce them, so is there something very basic and primal about stepping aside from some of the default connections in our lives. The break from my routine, the rhythm of tending the house and heating and lighting it by our own labors, became an opportunity to step back and consider the interconnections of our lives and the routines we had taken for granted. And, of course, a chance to consider a little the lives we might be living had we been given fewer technological blessings. I think for those who are plunged into darkness less frequently by the vagaries of the weather and the electric companies, spending the occasional stretch of time without power, perhaps the length of a meal, can still be a useful exercise.

It is generally assumed that those who are in the magickal community are well equipped with candles, but our uses of them do not necessarily emphasize the efficiency of lighting, so here are a few suggestions:

Most people know that a candle backed by a mirror or other reflector will shed more light. A candle near a white wall will also reflect its light better than one near a dark surface.

Candles much more than two inches in diameter will tend to use up the wax at the center of the candle without melting the wax on the outside, so gradually the wick and flame will drop down below the level of the outer rim of wax. This is pretty and atmospheric, but does not provide especially efficient light. On the other hand, candles of much less than one inch in diameter will burn down quite quickly, which can be useful in spell work, but is annoying for lighting purposes.

Most grocery stores carry large boxes (usually of 72 candles) of Shabbos candles in their Kosher food section. These are plain white four-inch candles that are usually quite cheap, and they are less likely to be sold out during power outages.

I have often seen candle jars used in outdoor rituals, but seldom seen them used indoors in the manner in which we employ them. These are versatile lanterns that can be comfortably carried or set down, provide light in all directions and are fairly kid and cat safe because they can be tipped over without ill effect. To make one, wash and remove the label from a large spaghetti sauce jar or other large glass jar. (Hot water will soften the glue that holds on the label.) Find two candles that are not taller than the jar. Light one candle, pour a few drops of its hot wax into the jar and then quickly stick the bottom of the other candle to the jar bottom with the hot wax. The jar, being glass, allows light to shine all around, and is far enough from the flame that it doesn’t get hot enough to burn your hands when carried.

Oil lamps are a convenient light source, but only the lamps with properly ventilated chimneys are able to provide especially bright light. In my experience the lamps burn best when the wick is at least occasionally trimmed, and the end of the wick is roughened or frayed a bit by rubbing a knife-edge across it. Oil lamps also provide much better light when their reservoirs are full than when they are near empty.

Cooking

I should have known when we bought a house already equipped with a fireplace, woodstove and the built-in barbeque that was later converted into my brick oven that we lived in an area where power supply could be a bit uncertain. Instead, to my surprise, six weeks later we were treated to three days in the dark with a woodstove I hadn’t entirely made friends with and a foot of icy slush on the roads. But the corollary to our frequent outages is that we are well set up to deal with them, with wood stove and brick ovens, lamps, sconces and chandeliers. Most houses, and apartments even more so, are not so well prepared.

Now, I assume people who already have woodstoves, brick ovens, grills, barbeques, masonry cookers and other such relatively expensive fixtures are already fairly well acquainted with their use, but a few tips anyway: If you haven’t cooked over your woodstove, it’s good to keep in mind that most of them that are not built specifically for cooking will provide only the equivalent of low heat from a standard burner unless you fire them very hot. You’ll have better luck simmering a stew than frying an egg on them, and you might want to put a pot of water on top right off so you don’t have to wait later on for it to warm. Barbeques and grills can be used year round in our mild climate, but they should be used outside if you are fond of breathing. (Though one can often use a hibachi or other small grill in one’s fireplace, assuming that the fireplace is large enough to accommodate it and that the draw is strong enough.)

Luckily, the lack of such amenities doesn’t put you out of the running. If you would like to cook over flame, don’t have wood-burning appliances and don’t want to invest in expensive equipment, there are a number of low-cost options. The simplest is the tried-and-true can of Sterno or similar canned heat product. These are readily available at grocery stores and fairly safe for indoor use, unlike most camping stoves, which need a lot of ventilation and should only be used outside. For a few bucks more you can buy a collapsible Sterno “stove” from your local army surplus or camping supplies store, which will shelter the flame and support a cooking pot.

The collapsible Sterno “stoves” or other similar trivets can also be used above tea lights (which are good for warming tinned soup, if less good for more serious cooking, though you can do a bit when you use more than one at a time), alcohol burners or other simple flames. We have been using our fondue burner, which is essentially a small adjustable alcohol burner with a heavy iron trivet, as a general-purpose stove, and it boils water quite readily. Fondue burners can be found at culinary stores, and other types of alcohol burners can be purchased through chemistry supply companies.

Most of these improvised burners will not give you as evenly distributed heat as will most stoves, so you must either use them with thick-bottomed pots that distribute heat well on their own or make soups, sauces and other largely liquid things that will not mind the uneven heat so much. Another good standby is couscous. You can add one part couscous to two parts boiling water and then cover it and let it cook away from the flame entirely (this also makes for fairly fuel-efficient food, which is why couscous is a backpacking favorite).

If you are fortunate enough to have a fireplace, more options are available to you (though if you have attempted to cook over a fireplace without appropriate equipment you already know that other than hotdogs and marshmallows, your options can be rather limited). An open fire is romantic, but to cook over it effectively requires some preparation. First of all, for most things it is much more effective to cook over hot coals than open flame. So you’re often best off building a fairly large, hot fire and letting it burn down before you attempt to cook over it. (For a similar effect you can use charcoal briquettes in your fireplace or add them to your wood fire.)

Next, of course, you need some way of supporting your food over the fire. A spit can be improvised, but is often fairly difficult to manage, especially in modern fireplaces. For the least expensive route, one can rely on the camper’s favorite of wrapping food in tinfoil and setting it among the coals and ashes (not directly in the hottest part of the fire) to cook. “Hobo stew” is a combination of meat and vegetables cooked by this method, a bit of a chancy proposition, but fun, simple, and potentially tasty. Or, most camping supplies stores sell inexpensive lightweight collapsible grills that can fit in your fireplace. These can hold pots and pans as well as grill meat and vegetables.

Of course, if you want to get at all serious about cooking in your fireplace, you should at least look at what is often considered the most flexible of fireside cooking tools, the Dutch oven. It has been claimed, and to a great extent demonstrated, that pretty much any dish from the Western European tradition, and a great many others from elsewhere, can be made in a Dutch oven. The Dutch oven is a heavy cast iron pot with feet that will hold it above burning coals and a rimmed lid that will allow you to place additional coals on top of it. They come in a variety of sizes, and can be used to make anything from wedding cakes to stews to omlettes. Dutch oven cooking is a subject one could write a book about, and indeed many people have.

In the end, there is the eating. Almost by definition it is a dinner by candlelight, but it need not be a formal one. We hand out one bowl, spoon, and fork apiece, because bowls are harder to spill food from and more amenable to being held in one’s lap while you sit in front of the fire or curl up with a blanket in the living room. Fewer dishes are a blessing when light and hot water are limited, too. Like the food we make camping, a meal cooked at home over fire is fully realized in its simplicity. Even tinned soup and crackers becomes delicious as our labors give us a more intimate connection to the food and its preparation. Fire, food and hunger are primal things.

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Connecting with the Earth as Darkness Deepens

Connecting with the Earth as Darkness Deepens

by Catherine Harper

About now, the summer garden is coming into its full splendor. This is what most people think of when you say garden — tomatoes and peppers, corn and beans, squash, melons, cucumbers, grapes and berries… all right, mentioning berries is almost cheating in the Pacific Northwest, where some kind of berry is in season for more than half the year. But that only makes up for the shortcomings of our climate regarding other staples of the classic American garden — here, the corn season is short, as are most varieties of corn suited for our growing season. Tomatoes are almost a religion in themselves, for they will not thrive without substantial assistance. Peppers and eggplants are more difficult yet, causing many people who don’t like zucchini to overplant it, just so they have something growing with enthusiasm. Melons, too, are temperamental. But still, with luck and practice these luscious foods do grow, and it’s a season of wonder for the garden.

It’s a strange thing that just as the garden begins to bear in earnest, and you can hardly see a way to eat or save all the beans and squash that you’ve grown, is when you need to begin preparing for fall and winter crops. Of course, this is a less common sort of gardening these days when gardening for most of us is a luxury rather than a matter of survival. The popular gardens emphasize the delicate fruits of summer, which are most productive, and most notably different than their pale grocery-store counterparts.

Winter gardening isn’t so much about bounty and bulk but having a few fresh things you can add to your meals throughout the cold seasons. By extension, it’s also about understanding the seasons, and connecting with the outdoors when it isn’t fun and easy. Our winters, while dark and wet, are relatively warm, and green. The world around us keeps moving and changing, whether we’re paying attention or not. And the beets and kales and onions of the winter garden are tastier than you might imagine, even as they allow you to take this piece of the season, of the outdoors, and make it a part of yourself.

Winter gardens, while less productive, are also less labor-intensive than their summer counterparts. The plants aren’t tender, and require little extra fussing. (Of course, if you want to grow plants that aren’t really that cold-hardy, or have quicker-growing plants with bigger yields, you can fuss to your heart’s content.) Unlike during our relatively dry summers, supplemental water is rarely necessary. Weeds don’t grow much, and so won’t get in your way, and most garden pests are either dead or elsewhere.

A winter garden will profit from rich soil but will actually do better without a lot of supplemental fertilizer — large amounts of available nutrients will only encourage lots of tender young growth, which is more susceptible to temperature fluctuation. Full sun is also important — not because many of the plants are usually thought of as needing “full sun” but because our winter days are so short and cloud cover so heavy that every extra bit of light will help.

Most of the plants for a winter garden are started around the beginning of August. I almost exclusively start mine in containers, and only plant them into beds after some of the summer produce has been cleared. Nurseries are increasingly carrying winter starts as well, though the selection tends to be limited.

Alliums

If you want to take a first swing at winter gardening, and you’re in the mood for easy successes without a lot of effort, alliums are a good place to start. Plant onion sets (pearl-size onion bulbs) for green onions, or any old garlic that happens to be sprouting. If you’re only interested in the greens (and garlic greens, if you haven’t tried them, are a wonderful treat), little preparation is needed — dig a shallow trench a couple of inches deep, space your bulbs about two inches apart, and cover. You can do this any time, though you’ll find the maintenance easier if you wait until later August. While the weather is still hot and dry, provide water as needed. The greens are useable at any time after they emerge. Delicious, ignored by most pests and impervious to poor soil, alliums grow easily this way.

Of course, if you want to actually produce storage onions and garlic, you should give them very rich soil, hold off planting the garlic until October or so and start the onions from seed around Imbolc. If you’re going to go to that much work, you might consider starting overwintering leeks from seeds in late August, and planting them out in the fall with garlic.

Brassicas

In the fall and winter months, “seasonal color” beds are planted with these odd things that look like purple and white cabbages. This first impression is essentially correct — these are ornamental kales, kales being perhaps the hardiest member of a family that also includes cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mustard and collards. If you spend much time growing brassicas, their similarities become more and more obvious. When small, they mostly (with the partial exception of mustard) look like the same plant, though the broccoli has been bred to produce a large head of closely packed buds, and Brussels sprouts have been coaxed into producing miniature cabbages along the length of their stalks (though in fact a regular cabbage will often produce sprouts similar to Brussels sprouts after the main head has been cut). Kales, closer than other cultivated varieties to the wild type, produce ruffled leaves that don’t form a true head. And I’m almost afraid to speculate exactly what was done to induce the poor plants to turn into cauliflower.

If you’re looking for an easy start, look to the primitive vigor of the kales — there’s a reason they’re so commonly used as an ornamental; pretty or not, the things are tough. Properly speaking, these plants should be started from seed by the middle of July, so these might be good ones to buy as starts, planting them out in September. Many varieties are available, in shades of green, red and purple — I favor the variable wild garden kale mixes, but even the ornamental varieties are perfectly edible. Kales keep me in greens for soups and stir fries all winter long.

Once you’ve come to know kales, the rest of the family is not much of a stretch. Keep in mind, though, that some varieties of broccoli will produce a fall harvest, while others will overwinter and produce heads in spring. Cauliflower is similar, and Brussels sprouts need to be started early just to be ready in spring. Fall-harvested mustard and cabbage will be sweeter for growing into a cold season.

Other greens

If you really don’t want to put a lot of effort into your garden, but you’d like fresh salad greens, here’s what I’d recommend: Prepare a patch of earth (to save weeding later on, clear it and then cover it with clear plastic during a few scorching summer days — the concentrated heat will kill weed seeds). Get a packet of mache (or cornsalad) seeds, sprinkle them over the ground, rake them in, and then walk away. If you’re in a hurry for your mild-flavored greens, water a bit, but if that’s too much for you, never mind. When things get damp again, they’ll sprout and grow into little rosettes of tender spoon-shaped leaves. If you cut off the leaves and leave the roots, they’ll grow more leaves. If you harvest most of the plants and let a couple go to seed, the process will start over again. With very little care, you can be kept in greens from fall through about May, when they go to seed — longer if you replant earlier in the year. This is just about the only plant that is really growing during December and January, a period through which most plants at best preserve the status quo.

Lettuce, spinach and chard are my other favorite fall and winter greens. All can be grown from seed, either as fall greens or as overwintering ones (with spinach and chard, the difference is a bit academic, but if you wish to overwinter lettuce, select a variety intended for that purpose). If you want a lot of greens through the winter, it may be worthwhile to consider giving your greens bed some kind of protection, such as a cold frame or tunnel cloche (a system of u-shaped supports holding up a piece of plastic, keeping the plants and the ground they’re in a few degrees warmer).

Root vegetables

My favorite root vegetables are carrots and radishes, which are traditionally sown together. The radishes come up almost immediately, and can be harvested at the end of the month. The carrots, on the other hand, are in it for the long haul, and carrots are planted now to overwinter for a spring harvest. Carrots can be a very hardy crop, sometimes growing to cudgel-like proportions, but they should be planted only where there is at least eight inches of soil before you hit clay. If this does not describe your garden, and you like carrots, it might be time to consider a raised bed.

It’s a little late already to start beets, but beets are one of the few root vegetables that can be started in containers and then transplanted, so it might be worth your while to look for starts. Turnips might make it from seed now, if you get them in quick.

Legumes

What could be better than fresh peas for Thanksgiving? Peas planted in late summer will — with a little bit of luck with the weather — bear through the fall. A pea inoculant can only help.

Fava beans, too, are often planted in the fall. While they won’t give you a winter harvest, they’re a good cover crop, that can be tilled into the soil come spring, or they can be left to bear their wonderful beans.

What’s Your Seasonal Allergies IQ? (Quiz!)

What’s Your Seasonal Allergies IQ? (Quiz!)

  • Katie Waldeck

Ah, springtime. The flowers are blooming, the temperature’s rising, people are at long last beginning to enjoy the outdoors again. But there’s also a far less pleasant aspect of spring – seasonal allergies come to rear their ugly heads.

So how much do you know about your dreaded seasonal allergies? Take this quiz to test your knowledge!

 

Questions Part I

1. Which of these weather conditions are the most ideal for seasonal allergy sufferers?
A. Hot, dry and windy.
B. Cold and windy.
C. Cold, wet and wind-free.
D. None of the above — they’re all bad.

2. True or false: eating locally-sourced honey will help alleviate spring allergies.
A. True.
B. False.

3. The worst time of day for allergy suffers is:
A. The early morning, 5AM-10AM.
B. Overnight, 10PM-5AM.
C. Midday, 10AM-4PM.
D. They’re all equally as bad.

 

Questions Part II

4. True or False: your lifestyle affects your development of allergies.

A. True.
B. False.

5. Which of the following is least likely to trigger your seasonal allergies?
A. Grasses.
B. Weeds.
C. Flowers.
D. Trees.

6. Which of the following is an easy way to combat pollen?

A. Wash your hair before bed.
B. Close windows and doors.
C. Wear natural fabrics.
D. All of the above.
E. None of the above.

 

Answers Part I

1. Which of these weather conditions are the most ideal for seasonal allergy sufferers?
A. Hot, dry and windy.
B. Cold and windy.
C. Cold, wet and wind-free.
D. None of the above — they’re all bad.

Portland, Ore. and Seattle, Wash. are the best cities for allergy suffers. Why? Windless days make it much harder for pollen to travel around, and rain usually washes it away! Pack your bags and head to the great Pacific Northwest!

2. True or false: eating locally-sourced honey will help alleviate spring allergies.
A. True.
B. False.

A bit of a trick question. Consuming local honey has never been proven to reduce allergy symptoms, but it hasn’t explicitly been disproven either. Even if it did, it might not even contain the kinds of allergens you’re triggered by.

3. The worst time of day for allergy suffers is:
A. The early morning, 5AM-10AM.
B. Overnight, 10PM-5AM.
C. Midday, 10AM-4PM.
D. They’re all equally as bad.

Pollen counts are worst during the middle of the day — better hold off on that jog til after dinner!

Answers Part II

4. True or False: your lifestyle affects your development of allergies.

A. True.
B. False.

You’re off the hook on this one. Nope, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to yourself to develop allergies. Don’t let that be a free pass, though!

5. Which of the following is least likely to trigger your seasonal allergies?

A. Grasses.
B. Weeds.
C. Flowers.
D. Trees.

Though it has been seen among florists, common folk are very rarely allergic to flowers. What you’re likely allergic to is the pollen from grasses, trees and weeds. Buy yourself a bouquet (or pick one from your garden) to celebrate this fact!

6. Which of the following is an easy way to combat pollen?

A. Wash your hair before bed.
B. Close windows and doors.
C. Wear natural fabrics.
D. All of the above.
E. None of the above.

These are all easy techniques for reducing pollen levels inside of your home. You can also look to your air conditioning system for help — make sure the humidity level is below 50% and that you change your filters as often as recommended.

When Darkness Falls: Cooking and Heating in Winter as Our Forebears Did

When Darkness Falls: Cooking and Heating in Winter as Our Forebears Did

by Catherine Harper

As I write this, we are in the midst of the false spring that is so often January’s mercurial gift to the Pacific Northwest coast. Around the borders of the garden daffodil bulbs are sending up small green teeth. The days are sunny and mild, and my over-wintering broccoli has started to form heads. Is it just coincidence that just as the season tries to so mislead us the seed catalogs begin to arrive? The sunset through the trees beyond my study window has painted the sky the color of salmon, and it is not yet wholly dark, though it would have been at this time only a few weeks before. It’s an easy time to think of Imbolc ahead.

Imbolc is a celebration of first stirrings, new beginnings, gradual lengthening of days and return of the light. In this green country by the sea, where winter’s sleep is never much more than a nap, it might almost be redundant, the transition from grey, rain and green to more of the same with swelling buds. We prune the apple orchards and light a candle (the more faithfully because Imbolc is also my brother’s birthday). It is a restless season, a gradually accelerating rising toward the lighter portion of the year, and as such it can be a difficult time for reflection. And yet reflection sometimes finds us, though we did not look for it.

Recently, our house was without power for several days, and many of our plans were put on hold for that stretch. I was given ample opportunity to think of the passing of the darkest time — even as winter is still with us — and time to think of the small ways in which the light returns to us. Now, we are well set up for such occurrences, and it is not uncommon for us to heat the house and cook our dinner with the wood-burning brick oven. Similarly, we often eat by candlelight. But to fire the oven every day, banking the coals each night and then stirring them to light the fire the next morning, is something else, as it is to read and work out and clean the garage only by the light of candles and oil lamps or the short hours of daylight. What has been at most ritual, and at least conceit, becomes both drudgery and discipline.

By the third day, the eyestrain from the dimmer light even of many candles was feeling ingrained. I had learned to take a hot water bottle to bed with me every night because, while the oven could heat most of the house, the master bedroom is too far, and the bed itself bitterly cold when I first entered it. We swept and washed dishes as much as possible while we still had daylight to see our work by, and brought in wood before going to bed so that it would be there to start the morning fire. Beyond the work itself, which wasn’t excessive, the routine was exhausting — some combination of the cold and the dark and the tedium of normally simple tasks leaving me stumbling with fatigue each night. And yet, in its way, it was deeply satisfying.

In my magical work in and beyond the kitchen, much of what I do is creating a web of connections. I buy the food that is in season to make another link between myself and the turning of the year. I buy from local farmers to strengthen my connection to the land, and from people I know to strengthen my connection with the community. But we all live in and amongst many such webs, if not all of them so deliberately chosen. The pieces of our world — every aspect of our lives — is vastly interdependent, and the electrical networks are one such tangible example of the ways in which we are connected.

If there is something to be learned from building and choosing to put our energy into certain connections and so reinforce them, so is there something very basic and primal about stepping aside from some of the default connections in our lives. The break from my routine, the rhythm of tending the house and heating and lighting it by our own labors, became an opportunity to step back and consider the interconnections of our lives and the routines we had taken for granted. And, of course, a chance to consider a little the lives we might be living had we been given fewer technological blessings. I think for those who are plunged into darkness less frequently by the vagaries of the weather and the electric companies, spending the occasional stretch of time without power, perhaps the length of a meal, can still be a useful exercise.

It is generally assumed that those who are in the magickal community are well equipped with candles, but our uses of them do not necessarily emphasize the efficiency of lighting, so here are a few suggestions:

Most people know that a candle backed by a mirror or other reflector will shed more light. A candle near a white wall will also reflect its light better than one near a dark surface.

Candles much more than two inches in diameter will tend to use up the wax at the center of the candle without melting the wax on the outside, so gradually the wick and flame will drop down below the level of the outer rim of wax. This is pretty and atmospheric, but does not provide especially efficient light. On the other hand, candles of much less than one inch in diameter will burn down quite quickly, which can be useful in spell work, but is annoying for lighting purposes.

Most grocery stores carry large boxes (usually of 72 candles) of Shabbos candles in their Kosher food section. These are plain white four-inch candles that are usually quite cheap, and they are less likely to be sold out during power outages.

I have often seen candle jars used in outdoor rituals, but seldom seen them used indoors in the manner in which we employ them. These are versatile lanterns that can be comfortably carried or set down, provide light in all directions and are fairly kid and cat safe because they can be tipped over without ill effect. To make one, wash and remove the label from a large spaghetti sauce jar or other large glass jar. (Hot water will soften the glue that holds on the label.) Find two candles that are not taller than the jar. Light one candle, pour a few drops of its hot wax into the jar and then quickly stick the bottom of the other candle to the jar bottom with the hot wax. The jar, being glass, allows light to shine all around, and is far enough from the flame that it doesn’t get hot enough to burn your hands when carried.

Oil lamps are a convenient light source, but only the lamps with properly ventilated chimneys are able to provide especially bright light. In my experience the lamps burn best when the wick is at least occasionally trimmed, and the end of the wick is roughened or frayed a bit by rubbing a knife-edge across it. Oil lamps also provide much better light when their reservoirs are full than when they are near empty.

Cooking

I should have known when we bought a house already equipped with a fireplace, woodstove and the built-in barbeque that was later converted into my brick oven that we lived in an area where power supply could be a bit uncertain. Instead, to my surprise, six weeks later we were treated to three days in the dark with a woodstove I hadn’t entirely made friends with and a foot of icy slush on the roads. But the corollary to our frequent outages is that we are well set up to deal with them, with wood stove and brick ovens, lamps, sconces and chandeliers. Most houses, and apartments even more so, are not so well prepared.

Now, I assume people who already have woodstoves, brick ovens, grills, barbeques, masonry cookers and other such relatively expensive fixtures are already fairly well acquainted with their use, but a few tips anyway: If you haven’t cooked over your woodstove, it’s good to keep in mind that most of them that are not built specifically for cooking will provide only the equivalent of low heat from a standard burner unless you fire them very hot. You’ll have better luck simmering a stew than frying an egg on them, and you might want to put a pot of water on top right off so you don’t have to wait later on for it to warm. Barbeques and grills can be used year round in our mild climate, but they should be used outside if you are fond of breathing. (Though one can often use a hibachi or other small grill in one’s fireplace, assuming that the fireplace is large enough to accommodate it and that the draw is strong enough.)

Luckily, the lack of such amenities doesn’t put you out of the running. If you would like to cook over flame, don’t have wood-burning appliances and don’t want to invest in expensive equipment, there are a number of low-cost options. The simplest is the tried-and-true can of Sterno or similar canned heat product. These are readily available at grocery stores and fairly safe for indoor use, unlike most camping stoves, which need a lot of ventilation and should only be used outside. For a few bucks more you can buy a collapsible Sterno “stove” from your local army surplus or camping supplies store, which will shelter the flame and support a cooking pot.

The collapsible Sterno “stoves” or other similar trivets can also be used above tea lights (which are good for warming tinned soup, if less good for more serious cooking, though you can do a bit when you use more than one at a time), alcohol burners or other simple flames. We have been using our fondue burner, which is essentially a small adjustable alcohol burner with a heavy iron trivet, as a general-purpose stove, and it boils water quite readily. Fondue burners can be found at culinary stores, and other types of alcohol burners can be purchased through chemistry supply companies.

Most of these improvised burners will not give you as evenly distributed heat as will most stoves, so you must either use them with thick-bottomed pots that distribute heat well on their own or make soups, sauces and other largely liquid things that will not mind the uneven heat so much. Another good standby is couscous. You can add one part couscous to two parts boiling water and then cover it and let it cook away from the flame entirely (this also makes for fairly fuel-efficient food, which is why couscous is a backpacking favorite).

If you are fortunate enough to have a fireplace, more options are available to you (though if you have attempted to cook over a fireplace without appropriate equipment you already know that other than hotdogs and marshmallows, your options can be rather limited). An open fire is romantic, but to cook over it effectively requires some preparation. First of all, for most things it is much more effective to cook over hot coals than open flame. So you’re often best off building a fairly large, hot fire and letting it burn down before you attempt to cook over it. (For a similar effect you can use charcoal briquettes in your fireplace or add them to your wood fire.)

Next, of course, you need some way of supporting your food over the fire. A spit can be improvised, but is often fairly difficult to manage, especially in modern fireplaces. For the least expensive route, one can rely on the camper’s favorite of wrapping food in tinfoil and setting it among the coals and ashes (not directly in the hottest part of the fire) to cook. “Hobo stew” is a combination of meat and vegetables cooked by this method, a bit of a chancy proposition, but fun, simple, and potentially tasty. Or, most camping supplies stores sell inexpensive lightweight collapsible grills that can fit in your fireplace. These can hold pots and pans as well as grill meat and vegetables.

Of course, if you want to get at all serious about cooking in your fireplace, you should at least look at what is often considered the most flexible of fireside cooking tools, the Dutch oven. It has been claimed, and to a great extent demonstrated, that pretty much any dish from the Western European tradition, and a great many others from elsewhere, can be made in a Dutch oven. The Dutch oven is a heavy cast iron pot with feet that will hold it above burning coals and a rimmed lid that will allow you to place additional coals on top of it. They come in a variety of sizes, and can be used to make anything from wedding cakes to stews to omlettes. Dutch oven cooking is a subject one could write a book about, and indeed many people have. A good place to start if you’re interested in exploring it further is http//www.idos.com, the home page of the international Dutch oven society. (For a more witchy-looking alternative, http://www.actionafrica.com/castironpots.html offers a large variety of cast iron cauldrons that can be used in a similar manner.)

In the end, there is the eating. Almost by definition it is a dinner by candlelight, but it need not be a formal one. We hand out one bowl, spoon, and fork apiece, because bowls are harder to spill food from and more amenable to being held in one’s lap while you sit in front of the fire or curl up with a blanket in the living room. Fewer dishes are a blessing when light and hot water are limited, too. Like the food we make camping, a meal cooked at home over fire is fully realized in its simplicity. Even tinned soup and crackers becomes delicious as our labors give us a more intimate connection to the food and its preparation. Fire, food and hunger are primal things.

A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn

A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn

 

by Catherine Harper

Sometime in September I wake up and the sky is gray, the day is cool, the bright golden harvest has begun its descent into the quieter late autumn, and even as much as I love the sun, I am relieved. It’s as if the shorter days give me license to stay content inside, writing and cooking, or to cover up outside after I have become a little weary of sun and skin. By the time the weather turns, I am always ready to turn a bit inward. It has been a sunny summer and a good, warm harvest, and now it is time for things to be a bit more muted and for rest.

By Mabon, I should have a cord or two of apple wood stacked for the oven. The bright fruits of summer are finishing in the garden, the winter squash thinking about hardening their shells, the beans and tomatoes coming in. The sunny days are some of the best for hiking and bicycling, cooler weather bringing us out of summer’s languor. But the Indian summer, if we are so lucky as to be granted one, is transitory, a red and gold finale to the light half of the year, and the gray days and rains are waiting.

What is startling about our winters is not so much the amount of rain (well, maybe some years), for all the press that it gets, but the contrast between our mild climate and the dark that descends on us. For all that we see little snow or freezing, the Puget Sound is decidedly north, and through the equinox the length of the days shifts rapidly, swinging toward the winter days, which are barely more than half the length of their long summer counterparts. Add the frequently overcast sky, which lets so little light through, and non-natives who have spent the summer munching cherries and blackberries through our 10 o’clock twilight often find themselves fleeing south.

But the dark time of the year is not without its pleasure, a period of rest and contemplation after the frenetic summer. It is a wonderful time for the pleasures of the table, with maybe even a fire on the heart, or a soup simmering on the back of the stove. People begin to move indoors again; life becomes private. And in the fall many of us go into the woods, alone or in quiet twos and threes, and spend time among the shadowed places, relishing the cool, the dark, the rain, and looking for mushrooms.

Mushrooms have a mixed reputation in this country, especially those vast arrays of species that aren’t the familiar grocery store buttons. Esteemed by foodies, feared or scorned by much of the populace, valued by some for their hallucinogenic properties, most people seem to approach mushrooms with opinions already formed. It should not be a surprise, since so much of our culture we have inherited, with our language, from the English, who are, compared to many of their mushroom-loving European brethren, noted fungiphobes. (Which is not to say the English never partake, but merely they tended to regard the mushrooms with a skepticism quite different from the affection of the French and Eastern Europeans, or the wild adoration of many Russians, to name a few.)

The Pacific Northwest has been greatly blessed by the mushroom gods, and we are a veritable haven for fungi. The woods and wet falls and springs are ideal for mushrooms, and we have one of the larger and most reliable fruitings of anywhere in the country. Even in the city, on lawns, in parks and landscaped patches, we have an unusually rich and diverse community of fungi (though care should always be taken when hunting in landscaped areas so as to avoid contaminants).

It never fails to amaze me how many people simply do not notice this bounty that fruits in our area. Many times, when I first take people hunting they simply don’t see the mushrooms in the grass, on the ground or hiding in the shadows under a rhododendron. And then when they train their eyes to see, it is as if they have glimpsed faerie, and are amazed at this other world, always there, that has suddenly opened up before them. For the mushrooms are not always small or unobtrusive. I have found Agaricus augustuses fully 11 inches across at the cap, as big as dinner plates, or Amanita muscarias only slightly smaller and bright red with white spots hatching next to a college library.

In the woods, the Amanita muscarias, which fade as they age to a salmon pink while retaining their white spots, sometimes come up in rings fully twelve feet in diameter. These are, as it happens, one of the most interesting hallucinogenic mushrooms for shamanic use worldwide, though the amount and type of toxins varies by region, and I wouldn’t recommend playing with our local varieties. Amanitas in general are one of the more perilous families of mushrooms, containing some of the most poisonous specimens found in this region. There is recorded use of amanitas from North America to Siberia, as well as interesting speculation that they were the source of the vedic drug soma.

And, as an interesting footnote regarding hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Psilocybe stuntzii, one of the mushrooms most often hunted for its perception-altering properties, though not as potent as its cousin Psilocybe cyanescens, was originally identified on the University of Washington campus, and is named after the former professor of mycology there, Daniel Stuntz. While, at least as I understand it, these mushrooms were not originally native to this area, they have become quite common around universities, libraries, government buildings and other landscaped areas. And hunter beware: While some people would caution against any consumption — which is, of course, illegal — at least be aware that these sometimes intermingle with deadly Gallerinas, so if you’re not absolutely sure, don’t put it in your mouth. We tend to be rather attached to our livers and don’t function very well or long, without them.

So before I begin describing some of our easier and more rewarding mushrooms to hunt, a few words of caution. First off, while mushrooms are not really any more likely to be poisonous than plants, some are poisonous, mostly of a sort that will give you gastrointestinal distress, and a very few are quite poisonous and can kill you.

The problem with mushrooms is that most people learn at least a little bit of plant identification as children — enough, say, to recognize a holly’s berries and know they will be deleterious to one’s health, whereas blackberries can only enhance it. Many who can recognize red huckleberries, dandelions, wild onions, hazelnuts and other common wild edibles, know not to eat nightshade or water hemlock and have at least a rudimentary idea of what features might be significant in distinguishing one plants from another. Most of us, however, did not grow up with even this basic background in fungi, and so until we have had time to acquaint ourselves with the mycological world and train our eyes to their identifying features, our abilities to reliably tell one mushroom from another are often rather weak. It’s not that mushrooms are inherently more difficult to distinguish, but that as a culture we tend to be less learned in how to go about this. However, until we have had a chance to hone these skills, it is not a good idea to go sampling mushrooms that you believe resemble those found in guides, or even this article. The first rule or foraging is never to eat anything you haven’t positively identified.

This same precaution applies to people who have learned to hunt mushrooms in one area, and then moved to another. While your skills will do you in good stead, make sure you take a while to familiarize yourself with our native mushrooms, both nourishing and otherwise, before you add them to your diet. The most common cause of mushroom poisoning on the west coast is among immigrants who eat certain (sometimes deadly) Amanita species that are not native to their homelands, not being aware of the need to distinguish them from familiar edible species.

If you want to make a more serious study of mushrooms, there are a number of excellent guidebooks — paramount among which are David Arora’s pocket guide All the Rain Promises (perhaps the best introductory text on mushrooms) and the larger and more hard-core Mushrooms Demystified. Even better, the Puget Sound Mycological Society (www.psms.org) holds monthly meetings throughout the fall, winter and spring and is a good place to learn hands-on identification from experienced mushroomers, among other diversions.

I use the word “mushrooms” here to describe any fleshy fungus, edible, umbrella-shaped or otherwise. The popular term “toadstool” has no particular biological meaning, though it is sometimes used, primarily by those who are not fond of mushrooms, to refer to ones they regard with suspicion. All mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of organisms that live either in ground or in wood or another organic substrate (called “mycelia”) or in symbiosis with plant roots (called “mycorrhizia”). The most recognizable mushrooms have the umbrella shape we are accustomed to from the grocery store, consisting of a stem and a cap, the underside of the cap having either gills (as do the more common cultivated varieties) or pores (mushrooms with pores look as if the underside of the cap is made out of a porous, spongy material).

Here are a few of my favorite mushrooms, ones that fruit in profusion this area and that are, if not foolproof at least (to steal a phrase from David Arora) reasonably intelligence-proof. Again, I do not expect this listing to replace a guidebook or trained identification, but I hope it might be a good place to start informal investigations. (If in doubt, if you have found a field of beautiful mushrooms that you can not identify on your own and yet cannot in conscience ignore, drop me a note at tylik@eskimo.com, and I’ll try either to help you or refer you to someone both local and qualified.)

Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oriedes)

This is one of the most common ring-forming lawn mushrooms, and a great favorite among pagans for its folkloric associations. (Do not, however, assume that all ring-forming lawn mushrooms are edible — many circles of mycelia will fruit along the perimeter, forming rings. Nor does the fairy ring mushroom always form rings.) This mushroom is an opportunist, meaning that it will fruit spring and fall, often several times a season, as long as the conditions are right. (Mostly, it awaits sufficient moisture.) The mushroom world has given us a great variety of hard-to-differentiate “little brown mushrooms” (known as LBMs), many of which most mushroomers do not bother with, but this one is worth knowing, as it is not only common but tasty, with a light, delicate flavor that goes particularly well with lemon and the gentler alliums.

This cream- to buff-colored mushroom stands only two to three inches tall, with a cap usually about one inch across in diameter at maturity. Its gills are straight, evenly spaced, do not fork or split and have light-colored spores. The cap often has a hump in the middle, giving it a bit of the appearance of a hat at maturity. The stem is fibrous and not particularly appetizing. The entire mushroom dries very easily and reconstitutes quickly after being soaked in water. Collecting mushrooms from a circle will encourage the underground mycelia to produce more, just as collecting beans results in more beans, and so can be done without fear of damaging the organism.

Boletes and Cousins

Boletes are plump, fleshy mushrooms with spongy pores on the undersides of their caps rather than gills. This is the clan of the Porcini, one of the most highly prized of all edible mushrooms. The clan breaks down into three families, Boletus, the true boletes; Suillus, the slippery jack; and the Lecinums, a family that includes the birch boletes and other fine edibles.

The basic rule of thumb given for boletes is that they are safe to eat if their pores are yellow or white, and neither the pores nor the stem are red, or stain blue when bruised. However, while this rule of thumb will take you fairly far and is the reason boletes have a reputation for being a safe family, it is not entirely reliable. Better by far to get a proper identification book and key out each mushroom completely.

If the “bolete” you find has a notably slippery or, if drier, sticky surface, it is a slippery jack. (Also, slippery jacks tend to but don’t always have larger pores that are often radially arranged.) Slippery jacks are among our most common boletes, and if they are not among the most prized, the edibles among them can be fine despite their tendency towards sliminess.

If the “bolete” you find does not have a sticky or slippery cap, has closely packed pores and a smooth stem, you have found a true bolete. Not all true boletes are edible, but many of those that are are choice, so it may well be worth your while to properly identify it. However, be warned that we are not the only creatures who like to eat boletes, so keep a close eye our for insect infestations and slug damage. Boletes age quickly and aren’t worth collecting past their prime, though they dry very well if you find yourself in possession of a large quantity.

If your bolete is again without a slippery or sticky cap, but the stem has a dark webbing that looks rather like the cheek of a dark-haired, fair-skinned man who has not shaved for a day or two, it is a Leccinum. While this family is not generally as highly prized as some of the true boletes, some of them are quite tasty and very common in this area, especially growing in association with birch trees. These, too, dry very well, though they rather oddly turn black in the drying process.

Chicken of the Woods

This is a shelf mushroom, rather like the hard, white-bottomed artists’ conks one finds growing off the sides of trees. However, chicken of the woods is one of those mushrooms that is easy to recognize because it looks like nothing else on this earth. Softer than a woody conk, growing in ruffled shelves on the sides of trees and dead wood, chicken of the woods is an amazing day-glow orange on top, and a paler yellow underneath. When young and tender, it can be delectable, having a flavor and texture very similar to that of chicken, though it requires a long cooking. Older specimens tend to be tougher and sour, though this can, at least in part, be remedied through long cooking and careful seasonings. This mushroom is often available during the fall at the Pike Place Market.

As with most mushrooms, even once you have positively identified it you shouldn’t have a large serving if you haven’t eaten it before, because some people have unpleasant reactions even to mushrooms that are generally edible.

Chantrelles

For many, the chantrelle, golden and shaped like the mouth of a trumpet turned upward toward the sky, is the prince of the wild mushrooms. (However, there is another mushroom named “the prince” that is a large, almond-scented relative of the grocery store agaric and not in the least related to the chantrelle.) Chantrelles are forest mushrooms, growing from mycorhizia. They are most easily identified by their thick, veined gills, which stand out as rounded ridges rather than the knife-edges of true gills. In our area, both the white and gold chantrelles are fairly common, though only the gold is hunted in large numbers for the commercial trade. Personally, I like the white at least as well. There are also more fragile black and blue varieties.

Not all native chantrelles are edible, there being a common inedible variety that is feathered across the surface of the cap. If in doubt, e-mail me and I’ll help resolve the problem for only a tithe.

Shaggy Manes

Shaggy manes are another opportunist, and another mushroom commonly found in parks, on lawns and other haphazard locations. These look like tall, white eggs, standing on end, usually in grassy areas or on ground that has been disturbed in the last few years. On closer investigation, you will find these fragile, white mushrooms have hollow stems and a long gilled cap covered with delicate feathery white shags that almost completely hides the stem. As they age, the bottom edge of the cap begins to turn pink, and then dark, and finally dissolves to black liquid. This liquid is essentially the same as giving the shaggy mane’s buff-colored cousins, the inky caps, their name. It is dark brown, and thinned with water does indeed make a fine ink, well-suited to magickal use. In fact, collecting shaggy manes and inky caps for ink might be one of the safest ways to embark on mushroom hunting.

Oyster Mushrooms

These days, many people are familiar with this white to grayish-buff wood-growing mushroom, since it is widely cultivated and available (for a fancy price) from most grocery stores. There are actually a great many varieties of oyster mushrooms, and they are common growing on trees and dead wood throughout this region. These are tender, gilled mushrooms that grow in shelf-like lobes with either no discernible stem or a stem off to one side rather than centered, as is the case with most familiar mushrooms. They fruit spring and fall, as conditions permit. In fact, a distinction is made between “angel wings” and “oyster” mushrooms, the former whiter and more delicate than the latter. However, both cook up well.

Happy mushroom hunting!

A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn

A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn

article

by Catherine Harper

Sometime in September I wake up and the sky is gray, the day is cool, the bright golden harvest has begun its descent into the quieter late autumn, and even as much as I love the sun, I am relieved. It’s as if the shorter days give me license to stay content inside, writing and cooking, or to cover up outside after I have become a little weary of sun and skin. By the time the weather turns, I am always ready to turn a bit inward. It has been a sunny summer and a good, warm harvest, and now it is time for things to be a bit more muted and for rest.

By Mabon, I should have a cord or two of apple wood stacked for the oven. The bright fruits of summer are finishing in the garden, the winter squash thinking about hardening their shells, the beans and tomatoes coming in. The sunny days are some of the best for hiking and bicycling, cooler weather bringing us out of summer’s languor. But the Indian summer, if we are so lucky as to be granted one, is transitory, a red and gold finale to the light half of the year, and the gray days and rains are waiting.

What is startling about our winters is not so much the amount of rain (well, maybe some years), for all the press that it gets, but the contrast between our mild climate and the dark that descends on us. For all that we see little snow or freezing, the Puget Sound is decidedly north, and through the equinox the length of the days shifts rapidly, swinging toward the winter days, which are barely more than half the length of their long summer counterparts. Add the frequently overcast sky, which lets so little light through, and non-natives who have spent the summer munching cherries and blackberries through our 10 o’clock twilight often find themselves fleeing south.

But the dark time of the year is not without its pleasure, a period of rest and contemplation after the frenetic summer. It is a wonderful time for the pleasures of the table, with maybe even a fire on the heart, or a soup simmering on the back of the stove. People begin to move indoors again; life becomes private. And in the fall many of us go into the woods, alone or in quiet twos and threes, and spend time among the shadowed places, relishing the cool, the dark, the rain, and looking for mushrooms.

Mushrooms have a mixed reputation in this country, especially those vast arrays of species that aren’t the familiar grocery store buttons. Esteemed by foodies, feared or scorned by much of the populace, valued by some for their hallucinogenic properties, most people seem to approach mushrooms with opinions already formed. It should not be a surprise, since so much of our culture we have inherited, with our language, from the English, who are, compared to many of their mushroom-loving European brethren, noted fungiphobes. (Which is not to say the English never partake, but merely they tended to regard the mushrooms with a skepticism quite different from the affection of the French and Eastern Europeans, or the wild adoration of many Russians, to name a few.)

The Pacific Northwest has been greatly blessed by the mushroom gods, and we are a veritable haven for fungi. The woods and wet falls and springs are ideal for mushrooms, and we have one of the larger and most reliable fruitings of anywhere in the country. Even in the city, on lawns, in parks and landscaped patches, we have an unusually rich and diverse community of fungi (though care should always be taken when hunting in landscaped areas so as to avoid contaminants).

It never fails to amaze me how many people simply do not notice this bounty that fruits in our area. Many times, when I first take people hunting they simply don’t see the mushrooms in the grass, on the ground or hiding in the shadows under a rhododendron. And then when they train their eyes to see, it is as if they have glimpsed faerie, and are amazed at this other world, always there, that has suddenly opened up before them. For the mushrooms are not always small or unobtrusive. I have found Agaricus augustuses fully 11 inches across at the cap, as big as dinner plates, or Amanita muscarias only slightly smaller and bright red with white spots hatching next to a college library.

In the woods, the Amanita muscarias, which fade as they age to a salmon pink while retaining their white spots, sometimes come up in rings fully twelve feet in diameter. These are, as it happens, one of the most interesting hallucinogenic mushrooms for shamanic use worldwide, though the amount and type of toxins varies by region, and I wouldn’t recommend playing with our local varieties. Amanitas in general are one of the more perilous families of mushrooms, containing some of the most poisonous specimens found in this region. There is recorded use of amanitas from North America to Siberia, as well as interesting speculation that they were the source of the vedic drug soma.

And, as an interesting footnote regarding hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Psilocybe stuntzii, one of the mushrooms most often hunted for its perception-altering properties, though not as potent as its cousin Psilocybe cyanescens, was originally identified on the University of Washington campus, and is named after the former professor of mycology there, Daniel Stuntz. While, at least as I understand it, these mushrooms were not originally native to this area, they have become quite common around universities, libraries, government buildings and other landscaped areas. And hunter beware: While some people would caution against any consumption — which is, of course, illegal — at least be aware that these sometimes intermingle with deadly Gallerinas, so if you’re not absolutely sure, don’t put it in your mouth. We tend to be rather attached to our livers and don’t function very well or long, without them.

So before I begin describing some of our easier and more rewarding mushrooms to hunt, a few words of caution. First off, while mushrooms are not really any more likely to be poisonous than plants, some are poisonous, mostly of a sort that will give you gastrointestinal distress, and a very few are quite poisonous and can kill you.

The problem with mushrooms is that most people learn at least a little bit of plant identification as children — enough, say, to recognize a holly’s berries and know they will be deleterious to one’s health, whereas blackberries can only enhance it. Many who can recognize red huckleberries, dandelions, wild onions, hazelnuts and other common wild edibles, know not to eat nightshade or water hemlock and have at least a rudimentary idea of what features might be significant in distinguishing one plants from another. Most of us, however, did not grow up with even this basic background in fungi, and so until we have had time to acquaint ourselves with the mycological world and train our eyes to their identifying features, our abilities to reliably tell one mushroom from another are often rather weak. It’s not that mushrooms are inherently more difficult to distinguish, but that as a culture we tend to be less learned in how to go about this. However, until we have had a chance to hone these skills, it is not a good idea to go sampling mushrooms that you believe resemble those found in guides, or even this article. The first rule or foraging is never to eat anything you haven’t positively identified.

This same precaution applies to people who have learned to hunt mushrooms in one area, and then moved to another. While your skills will do you in good stead, make sure you take a while to familiarize yourself with our native mushrooms, both nourishing and otherwise, before you add them to your diet. The most common cause of mushroom poisoning on the west coast is among immigrants who eat certain (sometimes deadly) Amanita species that are not native to their homelands, not being aware of the need to distinguish them from familiar edible species.

If you want to make a more serious study of mushrooms, there are a number of excellent guidebooks — paramount among which are David Arora’s pocket guide All the Rain Promises (perhaps the best introductory text on mushrooms) and the larger and more hard-core Mushrooms Demystified. Even better, the Puget Sound Mycological Society (www.psms.org) holds monthly meetings throughout the fall, winter and spring and is a good place to learn hands-on identification from experienced mushroomers, among other diversions.

I use the word “mushrooms” here to describe any fleshy fungus, edible, umbrella-shaped or otherwise. The popular term “toadstool” has no particular biological meaning, though it is sometimes used, primarily by those who are not fond of mushrooms, to refer to ones they regard with suspicion. All mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of organisms that live either in ground or in wood or another organic substrate (called “mycelia”) or in symbiosis with plant roots (called “mycorrhizia”). The most recognizable mushrooms have the umbrella shape we are accustomed to from the grocery store, consisting of a stem and a cap, the underside of the cap having either gills (as do the more common cultivated varieties) or pores (mushrooms with pores look as if the underside of the cap is made out of a porous, spongy material).

Here are a few of my favorite mushrooms, ones that fruit in profusion this area and that are, if not foolproof at least (to steal a phrase from David Arora) reasonably intelligence-proof. Again, I do not expect this listing to replace a guidebook or trained identification, but I hope it might be a good place to start informal investigations. (If in doubt, if you have found a field of beautiful mushrooms that you can not identify on your own and yet cannot in conscience ignore, drop me a note at tylik@eskimo.com, and I’ll try either to help you or refer you to someone both local and qualified.)

Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oriedes)

This is one of the most common ring-forming lawn mushrooms, and a great favorite among pagans for its folkloric associations. (Do not, however, assume that all ring-forming lawn mushrooms are edible — many circles of mycelia will fruit along the perimeter, forming rings. Nor does the fairy ring mushroom always form rings.) This mushroom is an opportunist, meaning that it will fruit spring and fall, often several times a season, as long as the conditions are right. (Mostly, it awaits sufficient moisture.) The mushroom world has given us a great variety of hard-to-differentiate “little brown mushrooms” (known as LBMs), many of which most mushroomers do not bother with, but this one is worth knowing, as it is not only common but tasty, with a light, delicate flavor that goes particularly well with lemon and the gentler alliums.

This cream- to buff-colored mushroom stands only two to three inches tall, with a cap usually about one inch across in diameter at maturity. Its gills are straight, evenly spaced, do not fork or split and have light-colored spores. The cap often has a hump in the middle, giving it a bit of the appearance of a hat at maturity. The stem is fibrous and not particularly appetizing. The entire mushroom dries very easily and reconstitutes quickly after being soaked in water. Collecting mushrooms from a circle will encourage the underground mycelia to produce more, just as collecting beans results in more beans, and so can be done without fear of damaging the organism.

Boletes and Cousins

Boletes are plump, fleshy mushrooms with spongy pores on the undersides of their caps rather than gills. This is the clan of the Porcini, one of the most highly prized of all edible mushrooms. The clan breaks down into three families, Boletus, the true boletes; Suillus, the slippery jack; and the Lecinums, a family that includes the birch boletes and other fine edibles.

The basic rule of thumb given for boletes is that they are safe to eat if their pores are yellow or white, and neither the pores nor the stem are red, or stain blue when bruised. However, while this rule of thumb will take you fairly far and is the reason boletes have a reputation for being a safe family, it is not entirely reliable. Better by far to get a proper identification book and key out each mushroom completely.

If the “bolete” you find has a notably slippery or, if drier, sticky surface, it is a slippery jack. (Also, slippery jacks tend to but don’t always have larger pores that are often radially arranged.) Slippery jacks are among our most common boletes, and if they are not among the most prized, the edibles among them can be fine despite their tendency towards sliminess.

If the “bolete” you find does not have a sticky or slippery cap, has closely packed pores and a smooth stem, you have found a true bolete. Not all true boletes are edible, but many of those that are are choice, so it may well be worth your while to properly identify it. However, be warned that we are not the only creatures who like to eat boletes, so keep a close eye our for insect infestations and slug damage. Boletes age quickly and aren’t worth collecting past their prime, though they dry very well if you find yourself in possession of a large quantity.

If your bolete is again without a slippery or sticky cap, but the stem has a dark webbing that looks rather like the cheek of a dark-haired, fair-skinned man who has not shaved for a day or two, it is a Leccinum. While this family is not generally as highly prized as some of the true boletes, some of them are quite tasty and very common in this area, especially growing in association with birch trees. These, too, dry very well, though they rather oddly turn black in the drying process.

Chicken of the Woods

This is a shelf mushroom, rather like the hard, white-bottomed artists’ conks one finds growing off the sides of trees. However, chicken of the woods is one of those mushrooms that is easy to recognize because it looks like nothing else on this earth. Softer than a woody conk, growing in ruffled shelves on the sides of trees and dead wood, chicken of the woods is an amazing day-glow orange on top, and a paler yellow underneath. When young and tender, it can be delectable, having a flavor and texture very similar to that of chicken, though it requires a long cooking. Older specimens tend to be tougher and sour, though this can, at least in part, be remedied through long cooking and careful seasonings. This mushroom is often available during the fall at the Pike Place Market.

As with most mushrooms, even once you have positively identified it you shouldn’t have a large serving if you haven’t eaten it before, because some people have unpleasant reactions even to mushrooms that are generally edible.

Chantrelles

For many, the chantrelle, golden and shaped like the mouth of a trumpet turned upward toward the sky, is the prince of the wild mushrooms. (However, there is another mushroom named “the prince” that is a large, almond-scented relative of the grocery store agaric and not in the least related to the chantrelle.) Chantrelles are forest mushrooms, growing from mycorhizia. They are most easily identified by their thick, veined gills, which stand out as rounded ridges rather than the knife-edges of true gills. In our area, both the white and gold chantrelles are fairly common, though only the gold is hunted in large numbers for the commercial trade. Personally, I like the white at least as well. There are also more fragile black and blue varieties.

Not all native chantrelles are edible, there being a common inedible variety that is feathered across the surface of the cap. If in doubt, e-mail me and I’ll help resolve the problem for only a tithe.

Shaggy Manes

Shaggy manes are another opportunist, and another mushroom commonly found in parks, on lawns and other haphazard locations. These look like tall, white eggs, standing on end, usually in grassy areas or on ground that has been disturbed in the last few years. On closer investigation, you will find these fragile, white mushrooms have hollow stems and a long gilled cap covered with delicate feathery white shags that almost completely hides the stem. As they age, the bottom edge of the cap begins to turn pink, and then dark, and finally dissolves to black liquid. This liquid is essentially the same as giving the shaggy mane’s buff-colored cousins, the inky caps, their name. It is dark brown, and thinned with water does indeed make a fine ink, well-suited to magickal use. In fact, collecting shaggy manes and inky caps for ink might be one of the safest ways to embark on mushroom hunting.

Oyster Mushrooms

These days, many people are familiar with this white to grayish-buff wood-growing mushroom, since it is widely cultivated and available (for a fancy price) from most grocery stores. There are actually a great many varieties of oyster mushrooms, and they are common growing on trees and dead wood throughout this region. These are tender, gilled mushrooms that grow in shelf-like lobes with either no discernible stem or a stem off to one side rather than centered, as is the case with most familiar mushrooms. They fruit spring and fall, as conditions permit. In fact, a distinction is made between “angel wings” and “oyster” mushrooms, the former whiter and more delicate than the latter. However, both cook up well.

Happy mushroom hunting!

A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn

A Pagan Hunts the Fruits of Autumn

by Catherine Harper

Sometime in September I wake up and the sky is gray, the day is cool, the bright golden harvest has begun its descent into the quieter late autumn, and even as much as I love the sun, I am relieved. It’s as if the shorter days give me license to stay content inside, writing and cooking, or to cover up outside after I have become a little weary of sun and skin. By the time the weather turns, I am always ready to turn a bit inward. It has been a sunny summer and a good, warm harvest, and now it is time for things to be a bit more muted and for rest.

By Mabon, I should have a cord or two of apple wood stacked for the oven. The bright fruits of summer are finishing in the garden, the winter squash thinking about hardening their shells, the beans and tomatoes coming in. The sunny days are some of the best for hiking and bicycling, cooler weather bringing us out of summer’s languor. But the Indian summer, if we are so lucky as to be granted one, is transitory, a red and gold finale to the light half of the year, and the gray days and rains are waiting.

What is startling about our winters is not so much the amount of rain (well, maybe some years), for all the press that it gets, but the contrast between our mild climate and the dark that descends on us. For all that we see little snow or freezing, the Puget Sound is decidedly north, and through the equinox the length of the days shifts rapidly, swinging toward the winter days, which are barely more than half the length of their long summer counterparts. Add the frequently overcast sky, which lets so little light through, and non-natives who have spent the summer munching cherries and blackberries through our 10 o’clock twilight often find themselves fleeing south.

But the dark time of the year is not without its pleasure, a period of rest and contemplation after the frenetic summer. It is a wonderful time for the pleasures of the table, with maybe even a fire on the heart, or a soup simmering on the back of the stove. People begin to move indoors again; life becomes private. And in the fall many of us go into the woods, alone or in quiet twos and threes, and spend time among the shadowed places, relishing the cool, the dark, the rain, and looking for mushrooms.

Mushrooms have a mixed reputation in this country, especially those vast arrays of species that aren’t the familiar grocery store buttons. Esteemed by foodies, feared or scorned by much of the populace, valued by some for their hallucinogenic properties, most people seem to approach mushrooms with opinions already formed. It should not be a surprise, since so much of our culture we have inherited, with our language, from the English, who are, compared to many of their mushroom-loving European brethren, noted fungiphobes. (Which is not to say the English never partake, but merely they tended to regard the mushrooms with a skepticism quite different from the affection of the French and Eastern Europeans, or the wild adoration of many Russians, to name a few.)

The Pacific Northwest has been greatly blessed by the mushroom gods, and we are a veritable haven for fungi. The woods and wet falls and springs are ideal for mushrooms, and we have one of the larger and most reliable fruitings of anywhere in the country. Even in the city, on lawns, in parks and landscaped patches, we have an unusually rich and diverse community of fungi (though care should always be taken when hunting in landscaped areas so as to avoid contaminants).

It never fails to amaze me how many people simply do not notice this bounty that fruits in our area. Many times, when I first take people hunting they simply don’t see the mushrooms in the grass, on the ground or hiding in the shadows under a rhododendron. And then when they train their eyes to see, it is as if they have glimpsed faerie, and are amazed at this other world, always there, that has suddenly opened up before them. For the mushrooms are not always small or unobtrusive. I have found Agaricus augustuses fully 11 inches across at the cap, as big as dinner plates, or Amanita muscarias only slightly smaller and bright red with white spots hatching next to a college library.

In the woods, the Amanita muscarias, which fade as they age to a salmon pink while retaining their white spots, sometimes come up in rings fully twelve feet in diameter. These are, as it happens, one of the most interesting hallucinogenic mushrooms for shamanic use worldwide, though the amount and type of toxins varies by region, and I wouldn’t recommend playing with our local varieties. Amanitas in general are one of the more perilous families of mushrooms, containing some of the most poisonous specimens found in this region. There is recorded use of amanitas from North America to Siberia, as well as interesting speculation that they were the source of the vedic drug soma.

And, as an interesting footnote regarding hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Psilocybe stuntzii, one of the mushrooms most often hunted for its perception-altering properties, though not as potent as its cousin Psilocybe cyanescens, was originally identified on the University of Washington campus, and is named after the former professor of mycology there, Daniel Stuntz. While, at least as I understand it, these mushrooms were not originally native to this area, they have become quite common around universities, libraries, government buildings and other landscaped areas. And hunter beware: While some people would caution against any consumption — which is, of course, illegal — at least be aware that these sometimes intermingle with deadly Gallerinas, so if you’re not absolutely sure, don’t put it in your mouth. We tend to be rather attached to our livers and don’t function very well or long, without them.

So before I begin describing some of our easier and more rewarding mushrooms to hunt, a few words of caution. First off, while mushrooms are not really any more likely to be poisonous than plants, some are poisonous, mostly of a sort that will give you gastrointestinal distress, and a very few are quite poisonous and can kill you.

The problem with mushrooms is that most people learn at least a little bit of plant identification as children — enough, say, to recognize a holly’s berries and know they will be deleterious to one’s health, whereas blackberries can only enhance it. Many who can recognize red huckleberries, dandelions, wild onions, hazelnuts and other common wild edibles, know not to eat nightshade or water hemlock and have at least a rudimentary idea of what features might be significant in distinguishing one plants from another. Most of us, however, did not grow up with even this basic background in fungi, and so until we have had time to acquaint ourselves with the mycological world and train our eyes to their identifying features, our abilities to reliably tell one mushroom from another are often rather weak. It’s not that mushrooms are inherently more difficult to distinguish, but that as a culture we tend to be less learned in how to go about this. However, until we have had a chance to hone these skills, it is not a good idea to go sampling mushrooms that you believe resemble those found in guides, or even this article. The first rule or foraging is never to eat anything you haven’t positively identified.

This same precaution applies to people who have learned to hunt mushrooms in one area, and then moved to another. While your skills will do you in good stead, make sure you take a while to familiarize yourself with our native mushrooms, both nourishing and otherwise, before you add them to your diet. The most common cause of mushroom poisoning on the west coast is among immigrants who eat certain (sometimes deadly) Amanita species that are not native to their homelands, not being aware of the need to distinguish them from familiar edible species.

If you want to make a more serious study of mushrooms, there are a number of excellent guidebooks — paramount among which are David Arora’s pocket guide All the Rain Promises (perhaps the best introductory text on mushrooms) and the larger and more hard-core Mushrooms Demystified. Even better, the Puget Sound Mycological Society (www.psms.org) holds monthly meetings throughout the fall, winter and spring and is a good place to learn hands-on identification from experienced mushroomers, among other diversions.

I use the word “mushrooms” here to describe any fleshy fungus, edible, umbrella-shaped or otherwise. The popular term “toadstool” has no particular biological meaning, though it is sometimes used, primarily by those who are not fond of mushrooms, to refer to ones they regard with suspicion. All mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of organisms that live either in ground or in wood or another organic substrate (called “mycelia”) or in symbiosis with plant roots (called “mycorrhizia”). The most recognizable mushrooms have the umbrella shape we are accustomed to from the grocery store, consisting of a stem and a cap, the underside of the cap having either gills (as do the more common cultivated varieties) or pores (mushrooms with pores look as if the underside of the cap is made out of a porous, spongy material).

Here are a few of my favorite mushrooms, ones that fruit in profusion this area and that are, if not foolproof at least (to steal a phrase from David Arora) reasonably intelligence-proof. Again, I do not expect this listing to replace a guidebook or trained identification, but I hope it might be a good place to start informal investigations. (If in doubt, if you have found a field of beautiful mushrooms that you can not identify on your own and yet cannot in conscience ignore, drop me a note at tylik@eskimo.com, and I’ll try either to help you or refer you to someone both local and qualified.)

Fairy Ring Mushroom (Marasmius oriedes)

This is one of the most common ring-forming lawn mushrooms, and a great favorite among pagans for its folkloric associations. (Do not, however, assume that all ring-forming lawn mushrooms are edible — many circles of mycelia will fruit along the perimeter, forming rings. Nor does the fairy ring mushroom always form rings.) This mushroom is an opportunist, meaning that it will fruit spring and fall, often several times a season, as long as the conditions are right. (Mostly, it awaits sufficient moisture.) The mushroom world has given us a great variety of hard-to-differentiate “little brown mushrooms” (known as LBMs), many of which most mushroomers do not bother with, but this one is worth knowing, as it is not only common but tasty, with a light, delicate flavor that goes particularly well with lemon and the gentler alliums.

This cream- to buff-colored mushroom stands only two to three inches tall, with a cap usually about one inch across in diameter at maturity. Its gills are straight, evenly spaced, do not fork or split and have light-colored spores. The cap often has a hump in the middle, giving it a bit of the appearance of a hat at maturity. The stem is fibrous and not particularly appetizing. The entire mushroom dries very easily and reconstitutes quickly after being soaked in water. Collecting mushrooms from a circle will encourage the underground mycelia to produce more, just as collecting beans results in more beans, and so can be done without fear of damaging the organism.

Boletes and Cousins

Boletes are plump, fleshy mushrooms with spongy pores on the undersides of their caps rather than gills. This is the clan of the Porcini, one of the most highly prized of all edible mushrooms. The clan breaks down into three families, Boletus, the true boletes; Suillus, the slippery jack; and the Lecinums, a family that includes the birch boletes and other fine edibles.

The basic rule of thumb given for boletes is that they are safe to eat if their pores are yellow or white, and neither the pores nor the stem are red, or stain blue when bruised. However, while this rule of thumb will take you fairly far and is the reason boletes have a reputation for being a safe family, it is not entirely reliable. Better by far to get a proper identification book and key out each mushroom completely.

If the “bolete” you find has a notably slippery or, if drier, sticky surface, it is a slippery jack. (Also, slippery jacks tend to but don’t always have larger pores that are often radially arranged.) Slippery jacks are among our most common boletes, and if they are not among the most prized, the edibles among them can be fine despite their tendency towards sliminess.

If the “bolete” you find does not have a sticky or slippery cap, has closely packed pores and a smooth stem, you have found a true bolete. Not all true boletes are edible, but many of those that are are choice, so it may well be worth your while to properly identify it. However, be warned that we are not the only creatures who like to eat boletes, so keep a close eye our for insect infestations and slug damage. Boletes age quickly and aren’t worth collecting past their prime, though they dry very well if you find yourself in possession of a large quantity.

If your bolete is again without a slippery or sticky cap, but the stem has a dark webbing that looks rather like the cheek of a dark-haired, fair-skinned man who has not shaved for a day or two, it is a Leccinum. While this family is not generally as highly prized as some of the true boletes, some of them are quite tasty and very common in this area, especially growing in association with birch trees. These, too, dry very well, though they rather oddly turn black in the drying process.

Chicken of the Woods

This is a shelf mushroom, rather like the hard, white-bottomed artists’ conks one finds growing off the sides of trees. However, chicken of the woods is one of those mushrooms that is easy to recognize because it looks like nothing else on this earth. Softer than a woody conk, growing in ruffled shelves on the sides of trees and dead wood, chicken of the woods is an amazing day-glow orange on top, and a paler yellow underneath. When young and tender, it can be delectable, having a flavor and texture very similar to that of chicken, though it requires a long cooking. Older specimens tend to be tougher and sour, though this can, at least in part, be remedied through long cooking and careful seasonings. This mushroom is often available during the fall at the Pike Place Market.

As with most mushrooms, even once you have positively identified it you shouldn’t have a large serving if you haven’t eaten it before, because some people have unpleasant reactions even to mushrooms that are generally edible.

Chantrelles

For many, the chantrelle, golden and shaped like the mouth of a trumpet turned upward toward the sky, is the prince of the wild mushrooms. (However, there is another mushroom named “the prince” that is a large, almond-scented relative of the grocery store agaric and not in the least related to the chantrelle.) Chantrelles are forest mushrooms, growing from mycorhizia. They are most easily identified by their thick, veined gills, which stand out as rounded ridges rather than the knife-edges of true gills. In our area, both the white and gold chantrelles are fairly common, though only the gold is hunted in large numbers for the commercial trade. Personally, I like the white at least as well. There are also more fragile black and blue varieties.

Not all native chantrelles are edible, there being a common inedible variety that is feathered across the surface of the cap. If in doubt, e-mail me and I’ll help resolve the problem for only a tithe.

Shaggy Manes

Shaggy manes are another opportunist, and another mushroom commonly found in parks, on lawns and other haphazard locations. These look like tall, white eggs, standing on end, usually in grassy areas or on ground that has been disturbed in the last few years. On closer investigation, you will find these fragile, white mushrooms have hollow stems and a long gilled cap covered with delicate feathery white shags that almost completely hides the stem. As they age, the bottom edge of the cap begins to turn pink, and then dark, and finally dissolves to black liquid. This liquid is essentially the same as giving the shaggy mane’s buff-colored cousins, the inky caps, their name. It is dark brown, and thinned with water does indeed make a fine ink, well-suited to magickal use. In fact, collecting shaggy manes and inky caps for ink might be one of the safest ways to embark on mushroom hunting.

Oyster Mushrooms

These days, many people are familiar with this white to grayish-buff wood-growing mushroom, since it is widely cultivated and available (for a fancy price) from most grocery stores. There are actually a great many varieties of oyster mushrooms, and they are common growing on trees and dead wood throughout this region. These are tender, gilled mushrooms that grow in shelf-like lobes with either no discernible stem or a stem off to one side rather than centered, as is the case with most familiar mushrooms. They fruit spring and fall, as conditions permit. In fact, a distinction is made between “angel wings” and “oyster” mushrooms, the former whiter and more delicate than the latter. However, both cook up well.

Happy mushroom hunting!