Mushroom forager finds delicacies in Draper backyard
On a warm September afternoon, George Simmons is out and about, holding a steak knife in one hand and bracing a blue cane in the other. He eyes his neighbor’s lush lawn, not in admiration, but in pursuit of fungi.
He’s on the hunt for inky caps.
Right now, conditions aren’t ideal for finding this common Utah mushroom—or any for that matter.
“A wet spring and a wet fall are ideal,” he says. But, mushrooms persevere despite the dryness, and he finally spots a single inky cap specimen in a shady, moist spot, overly ripe and thus inedible. Nonetheless, he braces himself with the cane, bends over and digs it up with the knife, stem and all, in order to properly identify it.
“You need about 10 of these for a serving. They shrink when you cook them,” he says. At their peak of ripeness, inky caps are an excellent eating mushroom, one that blends well with other foods and into soups. When they decompose, they liquify into a black inky substance.
Mushroom-foraging has been more than a hobby for Simmons. In 1941, when George was two years old and his dad was at war, his mother had to raise eight children on her own with little money for food. Their grocery store was often a cow pasture in California’s San Joaquin Valley where “meadow mushrooms” grew in abundance year-round.
“As soon as I was able to walk, I’d go out collecting mushrooms,” he says. Plentiful and topping out at four pounds, the meadow mushrooms could feed the family for free. His mom fried them in oleo (margarine) and he loved them at first bite. “They’re still my favorites,” he says.
Later in life when he moved to Utah, he was one of the first to join the Mushroom Society of Utah, (“A bunch of outdoorsy, cerebral types,” says his wife Norma) and enjoyed many mushroom-hunting excursions to the Uinta Mountains, followed by a mushroom-centric dinner in the Francis Town Hall.
He’s found choice specimens in the high country, including favorites like the porcini or king bolete, usually found above 8,000 feet. “You cut them up like steaks, fix them like steaks and they taste like steaks,” he says. Another is the hedgehog, with a spiny exterior and peppery taste. He’s found “a few” golden-colored chanterelles, but they are an elusive delicacy.
Down at 6,000 feet, in Draper’s Suncrest neighborhood where he lives, mushrooms aren’t as plentiful, but they are here if you know where to find them, especially the inky caps or Coprinoid mushrooms. Lower down in elevation, he’ll search Draper City Park as well as the cemetery for them, but he complains that with all the lawn spraying, they develop a “contaminated taste.”
Despite whipping off defining details and Latin names for every mushroom, Simmons claims he isn’t “too involved in the science of mushrooms.” He relies on books, his “fungal file” full of news clippings, expert mycologist identification, and common sense to determine which mushrooms are edible. He’ll err on the side of caution when he has to.
A friend once gave him mushrooms called gyromitra that resemble little brown brains. “I had one book that said they were edible, another book that said to watch out,” he recalls. “By the time I read both books on the same mushroom, I threw the mushrooms out. I am colorblind and one of the things was that if it was dark brown it was one kind, if it is light brown it was the other. I couldn’t tell if it was dark or light brown.”
Few mushrooms are instant death, but many will “really mess with your digestive tract,” he notes. “If it’s gonna make you sick, it’s not worth the risk.”
Utah has over 100 varieties of mushrooms and new ones are still popping up. Should a mushroom forager locate a new variety, that mushroom will be named after the forager. Simmons says new specimens have been found in Lehi, as well as underwater microscopic fungi discovered in the Great Salt Lake. The latter elicits a ho-hum response from him.
“In my situation,” he says, “if I can’t eat it, I am not interested.”