Mark Losinger, of Middlebury Center, Pennsylvania, spent most of his childhood doing fun things outdoors, and relatively early on discovered nature could provide not only a good time but some good food.
“One day when I was six years old my father had come home with a bag of morel mushrooms that a coworker had given him,” he recalls. “To my six-year-old eyes, they looked like the last thing a young boy would want to eat. After a quick fry in butter, they quickly became my favorite food.”
Losinger, now in his third decade of of hunting mushrooms, says the drawback of wild harvesting is that these delicacies only grow two to four weeks a year, and you have to go and find them yourself.
“From that year on, my family would explore the forests in May in search of our favorite seasonal treat, the morel mushroom. I didn’t know it at the time, but morel mushrooms are one of the most sought-after, highly prized and expensive edible mushrooms in the world,” Mark says. “If you are a lover of the outdoors or interesting and unique foods, learning wild mushrooms can be rewarding and could quickly become an obsession.”
Just ask him and his wife, Mary Feeney. The two met while she was a student at Mansfield University studying nutrition. The couple both loved outdoors and food and together made a hobby out of searching for wild edible mushrooms, learning of the virtues of fungus together.
“Season after season we would learn more edible mushrooms, some not so good, others spectacular. We would attend mushroom walks, led by experienced foragers, pick the brain of the old Polish guy down the road, and of course buy and read mushroom field guides and consult colleagues,” Mark says. “I worked in a fine dining restaurant while Mary was going to school and was able to befriend and interact with some of the finest chefs in the world. I was able to see first hand what a chef could do with such exotic fair as wild mushrooms. With Mary’s passion for the health benefits of eating wild mushrooms and my love of exotic delicious foods, we make a strong team.”
Mark says the number one rule of mushroom hunting is to never put a wild mushroom in your mouth without being 100 percent positive of its identification.
“Some mushrooms (even in your own back yard) can kill you with one bite. There is no rule of thumb or ‘wives tale’ to tell if a mushroom species is poisonous or not. You simply have to just know the differences,” Mark says emphatically. He says if folks can tell the differences between a raspberry and strawberry, they can also learn the differences between the poisonous mushrooms and the ones that are all right to eat.
“Often times Mary and I have been questioned by a curious passerby as to what we were picking,” he says. “When we tell them wild mushrooms, we are usually met with the same response: ‘you better be careful, if you eat the wrong ones you could die,’” he says.
Most mushroom species have a season, while others pop up unexpectedly, but usually in the time between early spring and late fall. The oyster mushroom, however, he notes, is usually found in January.
Mark says there isn’t a lot that has to go into planning a mushroom hunt. Typically, a mushroom hunter just has to understand the season and the particular habitat for each species to be successful; you can, of course, combine the hunt with other activities. “If you are a hunter, or enjoy fishing, what could be more rewarding from a successful excursion than to find some wild mushrooms to cook with your newly acquired fare?” Mark asks. He and Mary enjoy fishing or hiking and they always keep an eye out for edible mushrooms along the way.
“Occasionally, we find so many mushrooms that we abandon our original plans and just pick mushrooms. The only tools a person needs are a knife, a bag to carry them (we recommend a laundry bag from the dollar store), and the knowledge to ID them,” says Mark. “There are hundreds of edible mushroom species, but Mary and I focus on the choice edibles. We regularly pick morel, chanterelle, oyster mushroom, king porcini, black trumpet, hen of the woods.”
Mark says wild mushrooms cook as store-bought mushrooms do. They can be dried, pickled, canned, or frozen.
“We fry them in butter or deep fry them and we add them to soups and sauces. One of our favorite things to do is dry them, and then grind them into a powder. This powder we use as a kind of spice or seasoning. We sprinkle it on pizza, eggs, garlic bread, or anything else that could use an earthy flavor. It is excellent as an additional seasoning on meats.” If they have a successful harvest, they love sharing it with their friends and neighbors.
Mark and Mary run The Pennsylvania Foragers Club on Facebook. Through this Web page, visitors can share photos, ask questions, or get advice about wild food in Pennsylvania and upstate New York.
“In addition to founding and running the Pennsylvania Foragers Club page, Mary and I have led mushroom forays, and wild food educational sessions at Hills Creek State Park, and given seminars to collegiate honor students at Mansfield University and Lock Haven University,” Mark says. “We also co-teach the one-credit wild edibles class for Mansfield.”
When they’re not out looking for mushrooms, the couple stays busy with other pursuits. Mary is a registered dietician and received her doctorate in human development with an emphasis on health promotion. She is currently a full time assistant professor at Mansfield University in the health science department. Mark is writing a book on the practical harvest of wild edible mushrooms, though who knows if he’ll give away all his secret spots.
“There are quite a few people in our area who love to pick wild edible mushrooms, but getting them to talk about it, or show you where, can be difficult,” he says.