"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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The Wiles Of Store-Dwelling Fungi And Yard-Dwelling Birds
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Scifres

It is with some trepidation that I tell you this. I fear I might be labeled a sacrilegious blasphemer who deals in heresy.

But I must tell you:  Some--perhaps all--of those fungi you see in the larger grocery stores are just as good . . . just as tasty . . . as their wild brethren, including shaggymanes, hickory jacks, puffballs, and yes (gasp) our beloved spring morels.

There! I have said it! And I am glad! I know it will be a bitter pill for you dyed-in-the-wool morel aficionados to swallow, but I speak the truth. .  .  I know of which I write . . . I have been pigging out on them.

True, at least some--perhaps many--of the store-dwelling fungi are organically produced. But you can't hold that against them. Shucks! Dying of health may be no more painful that succumbing to a gravel truck (after it has pocked a few windshields with errant, high-bouncing stones).

I don't know anyone who holds the aforementioned wild mushrooms more highly than I do (and have throughout my three-score-and-10-plus). I must also admit that for many years I have looked with jaundiced eye on grocery-store mushroom bins . . . while dipping into my larder of frozen and dried wild mushrooms.

But several things occurred last year and into the early months of this year.

First, last spring was pretty much of a bust for me in the morel category. I didn't come even close to my usual find of 18 to 20 pounds from my favorite woods. Then the drought in the fall hurt production of shaggymanes, hickory jacks and hen-of-the-woods.

As my supply of wildish shrank (shrunk, if you prefer) in my freezer and the airtight pantry jars, a phalanx of fungi at the neighborhood Marsh made goo-goo eyes while I sifted through the green onions, the sugar peas, turnips and other produce delectibles.

All of this led to an encounter with a beautiful portabella (sautéed in a beef broth with a smack of garlic, orzo pasta and caper buds) at a local hash house. It was instant infatuation.

Thereafter, the wails and wiles of the sirens of the grocery-store fungi bins grew stronger, more seductive. Like the ancient mariners, I relented.

At first the name of one, "Oyster Mushroom," caught my eye. On closer examination, I could see that this mushroom looked and smelled just like my favored hickory jacks. It had/has a stem, not present in my wild ones, but otherwise I could but wonder if it would pass the taste test.

Pass it did!

Cut into strips (like I handle the wild hickory jack), dipped in a mix of egg and milk, rolled in a mix of finely rolled crackers and flour, and sautéed (in olive oil) to a golden brown, it suggested (even smelled) like I was consuming morels or wild jacks. Moreover, it was just as good in stews and soups.

That led to small purchases of shiitake, buttons, and others that appeared to have culinary potentials.

Store-bought mushrooms can be prepared (cooked) in many ways. This column has offered such information on many occasions, and many of my procedures for preparing wild mushrooms for the table. My recipes (procedures) also will be found on the "Wild Recipes" page of this website.

And in case winter ever leaves Hoosierland, our wild mushroom season (especially for morels) is nigh. A "mushroom" search of this website offers many stories from the past. There will be a new supply coming as jacks (of pulpit fame) corkscrew their way to life through the humus of the forest floor.

The oyster mushroom (foreground) and two views of the shiitake (background) . . . The oyster was about four inches long. The shiitake about two inches in cap diameter.



While wondering on a recent ornery March day if spring would ever come, my eye caught movement in a little redbud tree outside my double glass doors (six or eight feet from the monitor of my computer).

The male of the species, without a doubt. His head was coal black (almost shiny) and the wide "V" bib of the same color was accentuated by it collision with the snow-white belly. The streaks of white in wings and tail semaphored his identity with every move he made. But if there had been doubts, the rich orange sides would have dispelled them.

"Welcome back, Clarence Towhee," I said. "Spring be with you."

End of story? Certainly not! Clarence and his mate have been coming to my front-yard jungle for several years. I am presuming that they are the same birds, but it could be (bird mortality rates being as they are) that they are children--or even grandchildren--of the original Clarence.

However that scenario may be, Clarence always comes a week or 10 days before his mate--apparently to start the search for a nest site in some brush-infested glen.

I have never been able to find the nest of Clarence and his drab little mate, but they are present throughout the spring and summer. Nor have I noticed them with young.

But Dr. Harmon P. Weeks, the Purdue University professor of wildlife related studies and probably the best informed bird-nest authority of the state, says they nest in brushy tangles on the ground or slightly elevated.

Once (a few years back) while investigating the possible presence of big cats in the hardwood hills county of Southern Indiana with Dr. Weeks and Woody Fleming, a former director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife, the Purdue prof took off like Snider's hound, explaining on the run that he had seen a towhee flit out of some bushes ahead and he wanted to find her nest.

Dr. Weeks said he would bet there would be cowbird eggs in the towhee nest. He found the nest and his prediction proved correct--three towhee eggs and two cowbird.

The cowbird, as you probably know, is notorious for not building a nest, instead parasitizing the nests of other birds, many of their young being raised to adulthood by the foster parents.

Oh, Yes! One more thing. To many old-time nature lovers, the bird in question is the eastern towhee (Pipilo erythophthalmus). Somewhere along the line some hoity-toity folks decided it should be the rufous-sided towhee. Towhee works well for me. 

All columns are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Bill Scifres, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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