Vermonter Melany Kahn captures the love of foraging in her new children's book
Vermont has long been a kind of hunter’s paradise. But beyond taking a bear, moose or wild turkey during their designated hunting seasons, a first-time children’s book author has spun a tale about a kind of hunting — or more specifically, foraging — that can be done almost any time in Vermont’s spring, summer or fall seasons.
Vermonter Melany Kahn’s new book, Mason Goes Mushrooming, which includes watercolor drawings by illustrator Ellen Korbonski, captures the love of foraging through the eyes of a child and his canine companion, Buddy, as they journey through Vermont’s lush countryside hunting for edible mushrooms.
Kahn considers herself a second-generation forager who began her mushroom hunting adventures more than 50 years ago. Her book is at once an adventure story for children, a guide for adults and a recipe book for fungi fanatics — and perhaps even for skeptics who have never warmed to the taste of mushrooms.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Melany Kahn about her new book, and the study of mushrooms and the joy to be found in foraging for them. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: First of all, this book is visually beautiful; the watercolor illustrations so warm and inviting. The book also, though, offers an education that destigmatizes some of the fears of foraging, and I'm wondering what inspired you to write a book about foraging through the eyes of a child?
Melany Kahn: Destigmatizing, Mitch, is a perfect word. How mushroom hunting became such a no-no is very American. In Europe and East European countries it's quite popular and it's a multigenerational passion and pastime. And the fact that it has gotten a bad rap, I felt like it was very unjust, both for the humans and for the forest.
Is it a bad rap because people are scared of mushrooms because some can be poisonous, some can make you sick? Is that what you're talking about?
It's actually more universal than that, Mitch. I think nature and the outdoors in general, has been put at arm's length, primarily due to a bit of something that we call technology. So opening up the world of the forest, of the cemetery, of the playground, of the urban oasis, is at the heart of foraging. And the bonus being that at the end of the treasure hunt, you could walk out of the woods with a basket full of the most delicious umami-flavored mushrooms that at the supermarket or store would go upwards of $30 a pound. And you just score them for free.
And our hero in this book, in this journey, as we go out into the woods looking for mushrooms, is Mason. And he's not a fictional character, right? Who is Mason?
Mason is my son. And he is named after his grandmother who was quite an extraordinary mycologist herself. And Mason himself as a young child, he started at the age of two. One of the pictures that I have, he has a mushroom basket in one hand and a pacifier in the other hand.
He just wanted to be out there and found the joys in doing it. Now look, I'm not trying to be a ‘Debbie Downer’ here. But there are mushrooms that are poisonous, and some that if you eat are just not going to be good for you — you're gonna get a really bad tummy ache. How do you address that issue in the book?
First of all, it's absolutely 100% accurate to say that this is a hobby, like many other hobbies, that needs to be taken with a grain of safety. The best way to learn how to forage is to do it in the oral tradition of a group of other fellow mushroom hunters who are happy and willing to share that knowledge
Melany Kahn, one of the things I love about this book is the poetic feel on each page. I don't know if this was intentional on your part or not. But for an example, could you read the third page in the autumn section, it's got the picture of the deer on it enjoying these black trumpet mushrooms?
"Mushrooms are all around us. And they really could open up the whole world of the forest in a new way for anybody who wishes to go out and do this."Melany Kahn, author of Mason Goes Mushrooming
Sure, and let me just say briefly that the book is separated into four seasons, four mushrooms, four adventures, four recipes — all designed to help to learn four very beginner mushrooms: the morel, the chanterelle, the black trumpet and the lobster mushroom.
And on this page Mason has followed the deer to the black trumpets, with the help of his trusty companion, Buddy.
"Buddy sets off with his head down and nose twitching. They follow hoof prints to a clearing and spy a herd of deer, who prance off in a flash, white tails leaping. Mason combs their grazing area. “Aha!” There’s the first black trumpet under a curled beech leaf. Mason gathers a heap, but leaves plenty for the deer."
I just love that. This really is an extraordinary thing, I think again, for children, for adults as well. That's what I love about this book, you can read this with your kid and then just go out into the woods. I mean, is that sort of what you're hoping here, that people, families read this book together and say, "You know what, let's do this. Let's go out on that adventure. Now we've read about these mushrooms. We've seen Mason with his adventures — let's have some of our own."
Absolutely. Again, I would recommend if they're really serious about learning how to forage for wild edibles that you do it with a mushroom group, which happen every weekend all throughout Vermont — all throughout New England really.
But if you just want to take a meander in your back 40, go and collect a basket of mushrooms — not with the the specific purpose of eating them —but just to touch them, smell them, feel them, break them up, look at their structure, look at their spongy bottoms. Look at what they grew out of. There are so many fantastic things to be learned about the world of fungi that's going on all around us in this wonderful state that we live in.
Without fungus we don't exist. They do everything. They make our soil; they make our beer; they make our bread; they make all the good stuff that goes on in our gut. Mushrooms are all around us. And they really could open up the whole world of the forest in a new way for anybody who wishes to go out and do this. Great exercise, fun, free, fabulous way of exploring Vermont.
Have questions, comments, or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts to @mwertlieb.