Fall for foraging: Guide your food search with Pittsburgh native Gary Lincoff's book

Gary Lincoff can go home again.

The nationally known mycologist, or mushroom expert, who teaches botany at The New York Botanical Garden in New York City, comes home to his native Pittsburgh at least once a year for an event that's honoring and sharing him this weekend.

He's a lifetime member of the Western Pennsylvania Mushroom Club, which once again is feting him with its 12th annual Gary Lincoff Mid-Atlantic Mushroom Foray on Saturday at North Park's Rose Barn. Activities include morning guided mushroom hunts, a cooking demonstration and a mushroom feast. Last year, says Cecily Franklin, fellow club members prepared more than 30 dishes using wild and store-bought mushrooms.

Chestnut Festival

If you're a forager, you might want to roam down to the woods of West Virginia for the West Virginia Chestnut Festival, which on Sunday, Oct. 7, celebrates the great tree.

The fifth annual fest runs from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. that day in Rowlesburg on the Cheat River. You can sample and buy roasted chestnuts, as well as buy related items, including saplings, in Rowlesburg Park.

Continental breakfast will be served from 10:30 a.m. to noon in the River City Cafe in the Szilagyi Creative Arts Center, where scientific programs will be presented. Then, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., there's a gala dinner banquet featuring chestnut dishes ($17). For more information, contact Shirley Hartley at 304-329-1240 and Shartley812@frontier.com, and visit wvchestnutfestival.com.

Mr. Lincoff, who grew up in Squirrel Hill and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1964, is one of three speakers, and he's tweaked his topic to cover other edibles one can find while hunting mushrooms.

That's because he'll also be signing copies of his new book, "The Joy of Foraging: Gary Lincoff's Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying a World of Wild Food" (Quarry, 2012, $24.99). You won't find mushrooms in it because he covered that topic with his acclaimed, "The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms" that Quarry published in 2010. He's written other mushroom books, too, including "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms" (Knopf, 1981).

"I started writing this book 40 years ago," he said over the phone this week, explaining that the idea was to one-up famed wild-asparagus stalker Euell Gibbons with a guide lush with color images, which were shot as slides. "Joy of Foraging" took so long that Mr. Lincoff wound up having to reshoot most of the images.

The resulting paperback is a joy for anyone who's interested in learning about and finding food in the wild, whether in the actual woods or along city streets, where those in the know can stock up on greens, berries and nuts according to season.

Mr. Lincoff is up-front about being careful, so he does not include any edible plants that have toxic or deadly look-alikes. He stresses:

"To avoid poisoning from edible wild plants, know the plant first, know its look-alikes, know when it's edible, know which part is edible, know how it's edible (whether raw or cooked, and how), and know how much is too much." This he elaborates on throughout the book, which presents specifics on each plant's field description, distribution, uses and more.

Keep in mind domesticated rhubarb, he notes: The stalks are delicious; you just can't eat the leaves.

He also warns against overharvesting (and so doesn't include wildflowers that foragers could easily wipe out).

While spring tends to get so much attention from winter-weary Western Pennsylvania foragers, hungry for ramps and other wild greens, and many people forage for berries in the summer, there's also lots of foraging to be done in the fall.

There are nuts, of course -- Mr. Lincoff describes in photos and words black walnuts, hickory nuts, beechnuts, hazelnuts and chestnuts.

But did you know you can eat acorns? If you cook them properly, that is. Native Americans did.

Mr. Lincoff describes how to dry for a few days the largest acorns, preferably from red oaks, and then crack them and boil the nut meats for at least two hours, "changing the water every half hour or as the water turns a rusty red." Roast dry and grind and he says you'll get a fine flour, which you can use for making muffins, and bigger "pepples" that you can mix with water and other ingredients and form into "acorn burgers."

He includes Acorn Burgers and Acorn Bread in the 11 pages of recipes at the back of the book, and he also lays out a menu for each of the seasons. Autumn's consists of the burgers served with Mixed Wild Greens Salad with Wild Garlic Aioli, Curly Dock Soup, Jerusalem Artichoke Croquettes, Sam's Persimmon-Black Walnut Bread, Beach Plum Jam and Rose Hip Tea.

Other fall foraging favorites range from wild apples to wild grapes, from pawpaws, also known as "custard apples," to gingko nuts, which some people harvest despite the foul smell of the fruit, which can cause a rash in some people if they handle it without gloves.

Consider this guide your extra protection if you want to try foraging or expand the types of foods you forage.

His advice: "People should go slow. There's no rush." Spend time in the field and get to know what plants look like when they flower and where they are thriving, then come back. And try something you've never tried. "People should be open to new experiences."

While he's here this weekend, especially since we had all that rain earlier this week, he's going to be looking for succulent new growth of greens such as sheep sorrel and stinging nettle. "You get what you call the second spring."

For Saturday's Lincoff Foray, registration opens at 7:30 a.m., and the programs run from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The cooking demo will be by Chef Tom Chulick, owner of Back Door Cafe in Johnstown. Other speakers are Bill Russell on "Hidden Treasures -- Obscure Edible Wild Mushrooms of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic" and Dick Dougall on "Suburban Mushrooming: What's that Mushroom Growing in My Back Yard?"

Cost is $35 plus $15 for WPMC membership for 2012 if you don't have it. Students ages 11 to 18 are $10, and younger children can attend for free; register at wpamushroomclub.org or call Mr. Dougall, the foray chair, at 412-486-7504.

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


Hot Topic