It was colder than it should’ve been that time of year. So cold, actually, that the hideous scent from the meat factory had become stagnant, even neutral. The lawn was wet from morning frost. The sky overcast. Melancholy, at the very edge of town, this semblance of open land, caged in by rusting chicken wire. With the sun-dried hills in the distance, the place played host to the various stray cats and dogs that belonged to the land rather than the people. Rabbits were nestled between blades of grass, examining the family from afar.
The middle-aged woman with a stern face was handing out tamales to her three daughters and six nephews. Her brother, younger by the look of it, was scolding one of the boys for throwing cornhusks at the girls. As he lightly tapped the back of the boy’s head, he could feel the same sensation on the back of his own. Turning around, his anger quickly morphed into humility, as he recognized the criminal hand as his own mother’s. He sighed. It’s good to see you, he thought, smiling to himself. She gave him a warning look then happily returned to unwrapping her pork tamale. But it wasn’t hers, in fact—once free of the husk, the delicacy went to her husband, sitting proudly with a worn cowboy hat firmly placed on his head. He seized the tamale without glancing at his dutiful wife and took a large bite.
The kids were laughing about a TV show, fighting over the last bean tamale, whining to their parents. The adults were exhausted, trying to keep everyone happy and fed. The grandparents just watched, as quietly as the rabbits.
How exciting it was to see how their children had grown, how the grandchildren were as precocious as ever. They’re gonna be ok, thought the grandmother, as she and her husband shared a look.
All too soon, the sun began to set. Coyotes were calling in the distance. It was time for the family to go home. As the woman packed their baskets, it was evident that she had aged in the last year. Her veiny hands shook slightly and she slowly gathered her breath before calling for all the children to say goodnight to their grandparents. Making sure to leave two tamales, one for each grandparent, the family headed to their cars.
Staying behind, as always, the grandparents smiled and waved. Their nostrils took in the aroma of the tamales, of comfort, of family. Satisfied, they started the short walk home.
Driving out of the Elmwood Cemetery, the family did not shed one tear for they would be back next year on the same day with more tamales to share.
Not six months had passed and the rabbits were stirring. Something was different today. The family had returned.
But it was too soon for their annual gathering!
The family proceeded toward the tree to the left of the rosebush. A modest stone with an etched name, a woman’s name, was in front of the trunk. The grandparents cried. The father looked at the stone. The children ate tamales, understanding better than they let on.
Tall and inexplicably tan, the woman standing next to me had an incredible smile; which is saying something since on anyone else, the grin would’ve been overshadowed by the mirror-reflected yoga chant tattooed across her chest. How fitting that her best asset would belong to the most pertinent body part for a mushroom event: the mouth.
We were in a quaint crowd of old-time hippies and new-age hipsters at the Annual Wild Mushroom Show hosted by Seattle’s Magnuson Park. Situated on Lake Washington, and on clear days offering views of Mt. Rainier, this park is well known for both its beaches and events; it was an ideal location, a sanctuary for mushroom enthusiasts and fungus academics alike.
I had arrived at the cooking demonstration late in the game, no samples left. Perhaps the most important elements of a mushroom festival are the tastes the mushrooms. The tastes of a fungus is the essence of the fungus, the root of the mycological experience. And here I was and no mushrooms to taste. Empty plates seemed to mock me. Forlorn, in utter abandon, I turned to the nameless woman next to me.
“Oh,” she said, “if I were to die a thousand deaths and meet God at a poker game where I only have a pair of two’s and ultimately descend into hell, the richness and simplicity of this Matsutake would’ve been worth it. And in that flaming eternity of misery, the one glimmer of hope would be the succulent tang of the delicacy ever lingering on my tongue.“ She beamed. “The earthy flavors lasted minutes. I longed to hold on to every precious morsel. I chewed each chew with excitement, with joy, really. After I finally swallowed, I licked my lips.”
Closing my eyes, I imagined that treat in my own mouth as she continued—yes, continued—to reminisce.
“Doused in garlic and oil and sprinkled with paprika and cumin. It was firm yet gooey with an incredible aftertaste leaving a finite memory on my tongue”.
It was then that I knew this was the best mushroom I’d ever experienced—and probably that I would ever experience.
I snapped back from my fungal daydream and the poetic tattooed woman with the smile was gone. The crowd had detoured to a lecture with the title “Secrets of Forest Mushrooms.” How intriguing. And yet my adventure was limited by time and so I snuck over to the photography exhibit instead. Remember that scene in Fantasia when the mushrooms do that little dance to the Nutcracker Suite? The first few photos were reminiscent of that scene: short and stout, cute button-topped mushrooms. But the gallery was actually depicting a progression. The fungi became taller, darker, gruesome. Mushrooms in a basket, in a garden, then in the overcast forest. Some smooth, others coarse. Increasingly deformed. What would that black sticky one taste like? If I were to chop up two hundred and pour them in a bowl, would they wriggle when my back was turned? What about the aptly named Death Cap? Would it lure me in? Would the taste of its poison be so appetizing that I would lose all self-control? I envisaged a damp sort of odor permeating from my mouth. In the back of my mind, the image of an obituary titled “Death by Mushroom” was slowly becoming clear:
The 22-year-old University of Washington graduate with a promising future was found dead at 8:25 this morning. The autopsy revealed that an inordinate amount of Death Cap mushrooms had been consumed by the deceased, leading to acute toxicity. The final report deems this case an unfortunate fungal suicide.
The photographs were imprinting themselves on my skin, in my mind, turning my heart to one giant black viscous Shiitake. I backed away as far as I could, tearing my eyes from the display, practically sprinting to the exit.
In a long purple skirt with hair cut to the chin, a woman of about sixty thanked me for coming and asked if I enjoyed the festival. Calming my breathing pattern, I smiled and retorted that it was certainly an experience to remember. Connie, according to her nametag, explained how people just don’t get it; you have to taste the mushroom in order to fully understand its greatness.
I politely smiled. “Maybe next year.”