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The mushroom hunters

WE had gotten carried away and so didn't notice the warning sign and went from a state park into a private woods. (Habit played a role here, too: In the Soviet Union, all woods are public.) A dog barked, and the owner of the grove came up to us. We begged his pardon but added that we were not hunting, fishing, gathering berries, or even picking flowers. We were doing none of the things prohibited by the various signs posted here and there on the trees. ``What is that for?'' the owner asked, pointing to the bulging plastic bags we were carrying. We opened them, and his eyes were struck by the varicolored splendor of the caps of our foundlings.

``Why are you picking them?'' he asked, even more astonished than before. ``After all, they're poisonous.''

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At that, we gave him a little lecture. We explained that while some mush-rooms are poisonous, others are quite edible. We said that there are dozens of kinds, some of which are as nutritious as meat, and that they can be fried or used for soup, butter, or pies. We added that during the war, when there was nothing else to eat, some Russian villagers had survived thanks only to mushrooms.

``And in the winter?'' he persisted. We responded with a detailed account of how to preserve mushrooms. Drying is the best way, but one can also salt and pickle them. But instead of reassuring him, our explanation only puzzled him all the more. As we walked away, he watched us with an expression of disbelief. So this year we gathered mushrooms in the state park and private woods around Middle Grove, near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., under the gaze -- at first puzzled and incredulous, then envious -- of our new compatriots.

We would have had every reason to be skeptical of the famous American pragmatism if two of our neighbors had not followed our example and our advice as to how to tell good mushrooms from bad (at first they gathered them on the basis of esthetic criteria, but unfortunately many poisonous mushrooms are very pretty), and how to prepare them. Our pupils, after easily grasping mushroom know-how, quickly became our competitors, although we said politely: ``There are enough for all.''

How could we have failed to understand their twofold passion -- for the woods and for cuisine? We don't know anything more tasty than mushrooms, and we don't know anything in the woods more beautiful than mushrooms.

In one of his books, Nabokov makes a comparison of the Russian and English languages in favor of English. But when it comes to mushrooms, English is lacking. For many varieties, it has only the scientific Latin names, which in popular parlance are replaced by the general, nondescript word ``mushroom.'' This situation is offensive as compared to that of flowers. And yet mushrooms are no less pretty, and how wonderful is their smell!

The king of mushrooms is the one the Russians call simply the ``white'' (in English, edible boletus) -- squat, with a thick white stem on which a brown cap is solidly set. Then there is the vivid red cap of the ``under the aspens'' (rough-stemmed boletus) on a furry stem, as if it had just been painted by an Impressionist. Or the trembling cap of the ``under the birches'' (brown cap boletus), on its slender, curving stem. Or the slippery, golden ``buttery''; the rust-colored ``little fox'' (chanterelle); and a group of varieties that grow in family-like clumps: the varicolored ``eat-raw'' (Russula), the ``red-head'' (saffron milk cup), the ``mossy,'' and the opyata, which grows around birch stumps.

Unlike berries, mushrooms are not picked: They are hunted. Russians call that pastime ``the third kind of hunting'' (coming after hunting and fishing). Or they call it ``quiet hunting'' -- without shots, without the splashing of water and, most important, without killing.

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One has to be able to distinguish the good mushroom from the poisonous, the genuine from the false one resembling it. This is all the more difficult in that almost every variety of good mushroom has its double, its imitator. Or perhaps it should be put the other way around, since the good mushroom imitates its bad counterpart so as not to be eaten by worms, snails, squirrels, elk, or human beings. But it is not enough merely to be able to tell good mushrooms from bad: One must also be able to find them. No matter how many of them there are in the mushroom season (July, August, September), one must know their habits and subterfuges in order to locate them. Each variety of mushroom takes root in some particular place. The ``under the birches'' and ``under the aspens'' grow under birches and aspens. The ``mossy'' hides itself in moss, and the ``buttery'' likes the sides of roads. The ``white'' is fond of dry places where it is sheltered by an oak, a spruce, or a pine. The modest ``eat-raw'' (it actually can be eaten raw, but it should first be sprinkled with salt) grows everywhere. It is the plebeian mushroom; when there are others, it is thrown out of the basket. It is valued not so much for its taste as for its appearance: the varicolored, brittle cap with a lamellate underside on a snow-white stem.

Mushrooms vary as much in their taste as in their appearance. That, however, calls not for description but for serving up samples.

Every day we came home with bulging bags. For two weeks we bought almost nothing in the supermarket. We breakfasted, lunched, and dined on mushrooms in those infinite varieties of dishes one can make from them. Our room was filled with the marvelous scent of dried mushrooms. We brought back a good 10 pounds to New York. From them one can make almost anything one can make from fresh mushrooms, preserving their flavor and nutrient qualities. We are now supplied for winter mushroom dishes, thanks to which we shall remember our delightful summer expeditions.

Mushroom-gathering has, once and for all, reconciled us with our life as 'emigr'es. With mushrooms we have treated and cured our nostalgia because the earth is everywhere the same: one earth, with butterflies flying over it and mushrooms growing out of it.

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