Shroomin' at the Fungus Fair

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All photos by Erik Anderson

“See, it's starting to smell.” It's day two of the Mycological Society of San Francisco's winter Fungus Fair at Berkeley's Lawrence Hall of Science this weekend and the 'shrooms are getting a little funky. MSSF member Peter Wegner is showing us around the caps and stems and he sounds a little apologetic for the earthy musk that has descended on us as we enter the fair's specimen room. 

But he needn't be – the sight of the room's fungi, collected by society volunteers in the Bay Area over the past few days from 25 forage sites, more than makes up for any scent it emits. Not to mention the fair's culinary offerings, educational bonanza, and the 'shroom gnome hats so delicately worn by gung-ho clan members – this is the cardinal event of the country's largest amateur mushroom society. 

Fungus Fair, I think I love you.

Wegner himself has been a MSSF member for eight years. His mushroom mania began on a trip to Italy, incensed by the delectable array of edible fungi that lined dinner tables in the area. He is now  happy to tell Fungus Fair newbies that his favorite mushroom is the black chanterelle (“they're mysterious,” he says). 

Delicious meals are but one type of draw to the study of mycology – other members we spoke with yesterday expressed interest in the taxonomy of the fungi kingdom, in dyeing clothes from the mushroom's natural pigment, and in the sheer camaraderie that's inherent in finding roughly 800 others with an atypical attraction to fine fungal growth. 

“There's a lot of mentoring that goes on,” says Norm Andresen, MSSF member and conductor of the society's beginner's forays into the wilds of McLaren Park and other damp corners of the Bay. A Brobdingnagian, white-haired man, Andresen towers above the tables of the specimen room, keeping his distance from a particularly pungent stand of growths as he answers questions on their providence, properties, and shelf life (“you probably wouldn't want to eat any of these display ones, they've been getting touched by little kids all weekend.”)

In a lecture room a few halls down from Andresen's post, a man introduced as “the best mushroom photographer in the world” by fair chair person J.R. Blair is playing the music video to his self-penned ode to the fungus among us, “Mushroom Fever.” On repeat. “Hopefully we don't scare anybody away!” he announces blithely into his microphone as he readies his presentation on his recent mushroom-finding jaunt around the Americas.

Such is the intro to the glory that is Taylor Lockwood, who has achieved a near-godlike status in my eyes by having cobbled together a living off of traveling, digging around in the dirt, and hoisting himself up tree-supported ladders to get the best shot of aerially-inclined mysterious mushrooms. The man flips through a Power Point presentation of some of his best clips, which include squishy mushrooms (“good for the kids!”), fungi resembling tropical purple coral (“probably just convergent evolution”), and Brazilian 'shrooms he captured on illicit night-time jaunts through a nature preserve.

Lockwood's pitch for his calendars and assorted publications concluded, we wander past the sold-out mushroom soup kitchen and into the realm of Pat George, the society's culinary chair. George, set up at at a table kitty-corner from an impressive display of psilocybin, is distributing recipes and information on the group's regular potluck dinners. She explains that the events feature a carefully planned barrage of  the mushroom's power to sate -- mushroom ragus, mushroom desserts flavored by candy cap mushrooms (“cheesecake, biscotti, there's all kinds of stuff you can make with a candy cap,” she ventures), even the rare bottle of mushroom beer. 

It's all very tasty, as is the prospect of the MSSF's other fare for the nascent mycological enthusiast. Beginners are welcome also to the group's regular forays into the not-quite-wild for 'shrooms, many of which are located here in the city for extreme accessibility. For the lazy, Far West Fungi has set up a stand in the vendor hall that stocks the farm's "mini-farms" in oyster and shiitake -- simply uncover the germinated logs and let the fungal growth loose in a shady corner of your bedroom. 

Why so much mushroom mania here in the Bay? The answer, says SF State mycology lecturer Thomas Jenkinson, who is stationed at the fair's “Introduction to Mushrooms” booth, lies in the ubiquity of fungi throughout the year in our fair glens and dales. “The Bay Area's a real center of mycology,” he tells me. San Francisco State is the site of the West Coast's longest study of mycology, as well as what he calls “the most prolific mycology professors.”

And mushrooms lend themselves to a real community notion of life in our natural world. “Fungus is a whole other kingdom – we don't think about it that much because it's underground, but microscopic threads of it are just everywhere,” says Jenkinson. The 'shrooms are getting real neighborly down there, due to these interconnected systems. “The concept of individuality that we have – they just don't have that underground.” Lack of individuality: a trait hardly shared by the mycological aficionados of Fungus Fair.

 

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