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Published: October 6th 2008
Growing up in North Carolina, living just outside Durham in a house in the woods surrounded by lots of woods and plants and space to roam and explore, I felt like I was pretty in touch with nature. I spent hours upon end building forts, hiking and exploring, looking for spiders and other insects, doing all sorts of things in the forest. There weren’t many ‘rules’ given to me/us, but there was one very clear one that we all knew from a very early age: never pick mushrooms. Don’t pick them, and certainly don’t eat them, because they are almost all poisonous and many of them deadly. So just stay away from them, and NEVER put them in your mouth. In fact this is the only rule I remember from childhood when playing in the woods, other than be aware of black widow spiders, watch out for snakes, and be careful when climbing trees.
Hannah, my younger sister, was notorious for breaking this rule. I don’t know if it was the color, the shape, or what it was that attracted her to wild mushrooms, but she was always finding them, picking them, and putting them directly in her mouth. This
was in fact very scary for my parents—for my mom in particular. I remember several times having to go to the emergency room after she had eaten a wild mushroom—we would go, they would give her a drink that would make her throw everything in her stomach up, we would stay there for a few hours and then go home. Once I remember my mom was busy at home with household things so she called a babysitter to come and watch Hannah. They were outside playing, Hannah and the babysitter, and when they returned to the house they had a big basket full of wild mushrooms. If I remember correctly, Hannah even had a handful of them and was about to eat them. My mom was in shock and horror by this image.
I wonder what my mom would think if she saw me on this day, in the middle of the deep forest, with a huge basket of mushrooms, a big mushroom in my hand, and a smile on my face.
I also remember the first time in Lithuania when I heard that mushroom-picking was a thing that everyone did, a cultural activity practiced by all Lithuanians
(and many folks in other parts of Europe as well). We were having a conversation and someone was trying to find the word for a specific mushroom in English, turning to me for help. I threw out the mushroom names I knew (shitake, Portobello, canterelle….) and none of them were correct. My friend, I cant remember who, was utterly shocked that I did not know the names of mushrooms. He proceeded to describe the mushroom for me, thinking that surely I would be able to name it by description. I could not. Is this so shocking, I thought? It was explained to me that most Lithuanians, especially if they have roots in rural towns in villages, can name for you atleast 5-10 different mushrooms, describe them for you, tell you if they are edible or not, and even tell you how to prepare them. This is, I kid you not, ‘common knowledge’ in Lithuania in the same way that baseball is commonly known in the US. This is maybe not the best comparison, but this is just to say that if you are travelling to Lithuania, you might want to brush up on your mushroom knowledge.
On this particular
day, Viktorija and I traveled to Pusalotas, a small village where Viktorija’s father had grown up, not far from the city of Panevezys. Though his parents are no longer living, the home where they grew up is still there, and Jonas travels as often as he can back to the village to take care of the house, the gardens, go fishing, and to just enjoy being in the village. Though there is electricity in the house, they use wood to heat it. Though there is pipes for running water, he uses the well outside for water. There are vegetable gardens, pear, apple, and plum trees, flower gardens; when he was growing up here they had a cow, pigs, they had bees to make honey…all on a plot of about 2 acres of land. Jonas’ father was a mechanic, and his body shop was the most well-known in the village and surrounding area.
It was so relaxing and pieceful in Pusalotas and at Jonas’ childhood home.
Shortly after arriving we traveled to the forest which was about ten kilometers from the village. Jonas was taking us to one of the good ‘mushroom-picking’ spots in the area. As we drove
along he pointed out some of the old ‘Estates’/mansions that were destroyed when the Soviets came to the area. As we entered the forest he explained to me that these forests were where the people from his village went to hide out/live during World War II when the Nazi soldiers came to town. He told me that the people in this area do not think very highly of America/Americans, because during the War they were hiding out in these forests waiting for the American forces to come and liberate them—there had been rumors/promises that soldiers would come to save them, and those soldiers never came……Viktorija jokingly told me that ‘it would be better not to let anybody know you’re American. Just speak in Lithuanian.”
But enough politics. I am interested to learn more about the history of WWII in this region, but until I do I can’t really write about it. So back to the mushrooms!
We parked our car next to several others stopped on the side of the road; it was 11 AM already, a perfect day for mushrooming. Several others had already made it to the forest before we did. As we were pulling out
showing how to cut the mushroom, how to check if it has worms or not.
our baskets and getting on our boots, two guys emerged from the forest. “How are the mushrooms?” asks Jonas. “Neblogai” they say, meaning not bad. They each had about half of their basket full of mushrooms. “Not many baravykiai” they say, the baravykiai being the prized mushroom with the best flavor that everyone is always looking for. It appears that this is how you measure a good mushroom hunt—whether you were able to find many of this most sought-after mushroom.
We venture into the woods. We start out together, so that Jonas and Viktorija can explain to me and show which mushrooms are edible, how you can tell judging by the color, the size of the head and stem, the texture, how to open them up to see if they have worms….I immediately found it really fascinating, like an ancient treasure hunt. There is something ancient and magical about mushrooms. They seem so old and wise.
Once I got the hang of it we began to separate, looking for mushrooms. If someone found an area with a cluster of mushrooms they would shout for the others. Where there is one mushroom there are usually several more. If we
got too separated, we would shout to know where the others were. Viktorija, in teaching me how to mushroom hunt, would often say something like ‘maybe you should look around here somewhere,’ I would come running and begin to look. I felt like a kid at Chuck E. Cheeses. Or at an Easter Egg Hunt, but for mushrooms, in the middle of a damp and thick forest.
Six hours later, six hours of traipsing through the forest, we had filled two large baskets with edible wild mushrooms. My legs were sore from walking, my feet were sore from the boots I was wearing that were way too small for me, and my eyes were sore from looking for mushrooms.
Jonas was not tired at all, it seemed—it was as if the more he picked mushrooms and the more time he spent in the forest, the more energy he had.
We headed back to the village. It was getting late and we had a long drive back to Kaunas; before going to bed we would also have to cut, clean, and prepare all of the mushrooms for either eating, putting in the fridge, or drying, a process that
viktorija, fishing in Juodkrante, near the baltic sea.
would take several hours. We filled a basket with apples, and another with plums, all from the garden, loaded up the car and hit the road.
I have to say that because we did not get home until 10 PM and I had a baseball game the following day, I didn’t help preparing and drying the mushrooms. But I will help the next time. I’m glad I got to share my awesome day of mushroom-picking with you, and invite all of you—my friends—to visit me in Lithuania so we can go mushroom-picking together!!!
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