Basket of Pearls

By Bridget Weiss
Photography by Carole Topalian

When I was four, my older brother and sister won a free trip through the Sears toy department in the Hancock Center. They had 15 minutes to fill two large baskets with anything they wanted. Observing this unfathomable privilege ruined me for years, and it all but destroyed the work ethic my parents had tried so hard to instill. As a result, I became the kind of adult who waits for checks in the mail from kindly strangers, who hopes to win a lottery for which I forgot to buy a ticket, who stands ready to move into a house left to me by a deceased, previously undiscovered, relative.

And though many have tried to convince me over the years that unfettered abundance is indeed illusive and rare, I have proof that they’re just not trying hard enough. 

Terms and conditions apply, of course. You must not mind getting a spider bite or two. You must be willing to read a book carefully and take notes. You must be prepared to stomp through soggy woods. You might return home empty-handed.

Are you still with me?

It is with great satisfaction, then, that I share my secret treasure trove of copiousness, though I won’t go so far as to disclose my sweet spot other than this hint: a few acres between two state parks, east of town.

My deserved plenitude comes in the form of oyster mushrooms.

Heavy rains and cooler weather coax these fungi into the light, and interestingly they prefer pine and cottonwood trees on which to set up house. Growing directly on living or fallen wood, they sometimes cluster in vast numbers on a single log, resembling a large community of oysters on the half-shell (oyster mushrooms get their name from a sideways growth of the stem).

Texas Mushrooms by Susan and Van Metzler offers everything you’ll need to know about foraging the oyster—from the rudiments of collection, to taking spore prints (a do-it-yourself test for positive identification and a safe harvest). Oyster mushrooms are some of the easiest to discern, but mistakes can always be made by the uneducated gatherer.

Let several weeks of spring rain accumulate, then take a drive to Bastrop or Buescher State Park (or other places where cottonwoods flourish). Be sure to bring along the book and your notes while scouring creeks and riverbed bottoms. Try not to get lost in the woods, as that can ruin a lovely afternoon. Once safely home, confirm your catch with the aforementioned spore print.

Prepare the darlings by trimming away dirt, leaves and any stalks that are woody or brown. Tap the caps to remove small beetles whose home you have chosen to serve as an appetizer. Rinse the mushrooms briefly in cold water (they take longer to cook if you allow them to bathe indolently), and pat them dry with a cloth. Sauté whole, or broken into large bites, for about two minutes in a small glug of olive or other mild fruit oil. Add a minced clove of garlic, cracked black pepper to taste and a splash of white wine along the way. Garnish with sprigs of fresh marjoram and serve simply, with a plate of crostinis or baguette chunks.