Susan Konkel
Susan Konkel spots a shelf mushroom in her Brookhaven neighborhood.

Susan Konkel spotted a promising patch of brown at the foot of a tree. “Here’s something,” she said, bending down to take a closer look.

She plucked a small mushroom, held it up and inspected it quizzically. She couldn’t tell for sure what it was or if it would be good to eat. She set it aside and moved on. She was just getting started. There were plenty more mushrooms out there.

“That’s without even trying,” she said. “This is the week for mushrooms.”

The wet days of June have been happy ones for mushroom hunters. Konkel started seriously looking for wild mushrooms about a year ago, she said, and now regularly strolls through her comfortable Brookhaven neighborhood and nearby parks with an eye on the ground and a thought for the dinner menu. She’s not casually watching for fungi. She’s foraging. She seeks dinner-table treats among the suburban forest.

“I walk around the neighborhood for exercise. I thought it’d be nice to find something,” she said. “You notice things all the time. This gives you a reason to be out there and a purpose to be out there, which I like.”

One recent afternoon, as the rain lightened to a slight drizzle and wind-driven spatter from the trees, she took a purposeful afternoon walk around her block, hunting for edible mushrooms along the streets winding through new, closely-packed brick homes. “I’m always looking now,” she said.

She’d already been out hunting mushrooms once that day. During a break in the storms, she headed out to a nearby forest, where she’d found a basketful of chanterelles, golden mushrooms that now were drying on her kitchen counter. She planned to turn them into a pate for an upcoming dinner party.

She stopped as she reached a tree she had visited before. She pointed to a large, flat mushroom with a brightly colored top. She had a smaller mushroom from the same patch dried for display in her home. “They’re called shelf mushrooms,” she said. “It’s growing like a shelf.”

Konkel learns about mushrooms from books and at meetings of the Mushroom Club of Georgia. The club organizes mushroom hunts and holds regular meetings to discuss favorite fungi and to learn how to tell one that’s good for supper from one that will make you ill, or worse.

That, of course, is a problem with eating wild mushrooms. A bite of the wrong one can send a diner to the emergency room. It pays to be cautious. The Mushroom Club has numbers for Poison Control prominently displayed on its website. “There’s not a lot out there that would actually kill you, but there are some that may make you wish you were dead,” Konkel said.

During the club’s July meeting, held the night before Konkel’s chanterelle hunt, more than 40 members gathered at Intown Community Church just south of Brookhaven to hear a speaker talk about how different kinds of mushrooms smell. Some, he said, don’t smell so good.

Members filled a tabletop with examples of unusual mushrooms they’d found. They shared notes on upcoming mushroom-centered events and even a few mushroom jokes. One T-shirt read: “Amateur mycologists have questionable morels.”

Konkel first gathered mushrooms when she was growing up. “When I was a little girl, my grandfather would take us out for nature walks. This was in Wisconsin. I would collect button mushrooms. Even then I was amazed. There were so many mushrooms. He’d say, ‘No, you don’t want that one.’ … It was a different time. He was a big fisherman. People lived off the land more.”

Now, remembering those hikes, she tries to take her own grandchildren mushroom hunting. So far, they haven’t had much luck, but she’s hopeful. After all, one good gullywasher and soon there are plenty of mushrooms out there waiting to be found.

“You just have to start paying attention,” she said. “Once you start paying attention, they’re everywhere.”

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Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.