For most of us, mushrooms are simply a topping we order on our pizza. But for Silver Lining Productions president Diana Manson, they’re a link to the great, untamed wilderness that cell phones, e-mail and other modern conveniences have all but driven out of our daily lives. When she’s not haggling over deal points with partners for Olivia or one of the many other kidlit properties that Silver Lining is managing, Manson trades in the asphalt of New York City for 12 acres of tick-infested forest in Southwestern Massachusetts, where she gets down on all fours to ferret out fungi.
In the spring and fall, Manson sets out with a group of amateur mycologists hoping to find rare porcini species. While mushroom-hunting isn’t likely to rival bird-watching in terms of sheer enthusiast numbers anytime soon, many clubs have sprung up across the U.S.
There are plenty of poisonous classes of fungi in Massachusetts, which can be fatal if eaten. So once you get yourself geared up (rubber boots, high collars and long sleeves are recommended), you need a color guidebook. But since many mushrooms don’t match the photos in the books, the fun begins in trying to properly identify them – a process that often involves performing minor mushroom surgery. ‘You can get bright orange ones, which, when you cut them open, bleed blue. It’s really quite spectacular,’ says Manson.
Though she doesn’t proclaim to have a franchise on mushroom minutiae, Manson scored a coup last spring when she stumbled upon the Polyporous Umbellatus (which in English means many-pored tiny umbrellas), an extremely rare find for the Northeastern U.S. So uncommon, in fact, that the North American Mycological Association (NAMA) posted a picture of Manson’s discovery on its website (www.namyco.org).
Along with being outdoors, Manson’s hobby dovetails nicely with her other passion – cooking. Her favorite mushroom recipe? Wild portabellos cooked in a pan with a little bit of olive oil, butter, lots of thyme and fresh pepper cracked with a mortar and pestle. ‘It has an overpowering, earthy flavor, which store-bought shrooms can’t match,’ says Manson.
To avoid the swarms of bugs, Manson has lately moved the hunt to more open spaces in Massachusetts, finding pre-revolutionary cemeteries to be particularly fungi-fertile.
Led by Manson’s hippie brother-in-law, the group draws enthusiasts from all walks of life, who pore over the fungi with a forensic accountant’s intensity. Last year, three elderly French people joined one excursion. ‘No one knew who they were. They didn’t speak a word of English,’ says Manson. ‘I figured they just got homesick for the real thing [truffles].’