It's Oct. 11, a few weeks since his 66th birthday, and last night Whitey Hitchcock was sure he had finally found one—a Hen In the Woods mushroom. These particular mushrooms can grow up to 25 pounds or more in the right conditions around this region. You can cook them and eat them—if you happen to discover one, and Hitchcock thought he had done it at last.
But then he woke up. That Hen In the Woods was all a dream.
Not so with others. The stocky, bespectacled, gentle fellow with a lavish grin that can replace a hard stare at a second's notice has found morels, chanterelles, lobster, honey, and Lions Mane mushrooms—even one named Chicken of the Woods.
In his signature T-shirts (most mushroom themed) and worn jeans, he's tramped Norris Dam and Cherokee Forest and some woods in Oak Ridge and Asheville, cataloging hundreds of mushrooms on his life list, some of them edible, some not. In recent months he's started selling some of his finds—the ones in large enough quantities at the Market Square Farmers' Market.
It's been 17 years since a mycology grad student by the name of Coleman McCleneghan spoke in a class where he was interning; she got him to take her class at the Smoky Mountain Field School and to join the Asheville Mushroom Club—which got him hooked.
But never in that time has he come across a Hen In the Woods, though they do grow here.
"Oh, they do," he says. "And I've been with people who found them. Just recently I had been walking the woods with a friend, and we went to the cabin where we were staying to drink some tea. I went in the building and came back, and he had found a Hen In the Woods, two or three pounds, right behind our cabin."
If he did discover a Hen In the Woods, Hitchcock says he'd eat it if it were small, or maybe take it to the market if it were bigger. "It will get eaten one way or the other by somebody. I just want to find it."
And then, no doubt, he'd set another goal. Because foraging for mushrooms has become a deep-seated pastime for Hitchcock, a part of his being.
"I love the variety of hunting mushrooms—the colors, the puzzle of trying to identify. I'm a forester by training, and this also got me in the woods, which I love. It made me look at the small things in nature, rather than the trees, as I used to. From there it just snowballed."
After the service and college, Hitchcock worked with TVA for a few years as a forester, and then went with the Forest Service in Atlanta for a few years after that. Then he made a big shift: "I went and got a doctorate in exercise physiology," he says.
From there he worked at a VA hospital in Birmingham, Ala. for about five years, then came back to Tennessee, got a teaching license, and commenced to teaching physiology, anatomy, and ecology until retiring about two years ago. He's also an Anderson County commissioner, serving six years so far.
Yet when you see him set off on a hunt, it's clear that this is his intended occupation—the evolved version of Dr. Whitey Hitchcock, the culmination of all that's gone before, his utter and complete comfort zone.
He strides, fast, a nod to his history as a triathlete. He eyes a bit ahead, talks comfortably about fallen logs, deer, how mushrooms don't always grow on trees even if they look like they are. His tone is that of the educator—patient, pointed, ready with an analogy. He deftly leaves a newbie forager in the precise spot where she can find a chanterelle—a little dry and just this side of edible, but an edible mushroom nonetheless.
All the while, Hitchcock carries his identification knowledge in his head and a sturdy walking stick in his hand to bushwack. And he always brings a basket. It might come back filled with honey mushrooms this fine September day, or a new lichen to show his stepson, or nothing at all.
"Those days you make sure to say how much you appreciate the fine scenery," he says with a laugh.
That same evening, Hitchcock presides over a "Wild Mushroom Forager" dinner/cooking class at the Avanti Savoia warehouse off Manyardville Pike, providing some of the ingredients from the day's foray. As promised, he's changed T-shirts, now wearing a black mushroom shirt and sandals with tie-dye socks in place of his sturdy hiking boots. A well-heeled woman sweeps in first, crowing to Hitchcock about the fabulous mushrooms she purchased from him at the farmer's market. "The best I've ever eaten in my life!" she says and he nods sagely when she says she simply sautéed them with shallots and olive oil.
Hitchcock does that himself, sometimes, but the self-described "frustrated chef" also concocts all manner of recipes.
Tonight, chefs Joseph Lowery and Karen Crumley act as sous chefs before a gleaming mirror and stove that make the whole operation look like a Food Network show, while the forester-turned-mushroom connoisseur lectures and shares tips. His recipes are all-gourmet, like Leek, Potato, and Honey Mushroom Gratin, but you can't take the science teacher out of this equation.
So in between the sautéing of leeks and stirring of heavy cream, he talks about enzymes, that sort of thing. Participants learn to cook most any mushroom so that it doesn't, um, try to digest you instead of the other way around. "It's not just Athlete's Foot fungus that will attack you," Hitchcock observes blithely. He's just as matter of fact about his standard: "I think a mushroom is good to eat until it rots," and the corollary: "If it smells nasty, leave it."
He also chats about the best way to start as a forager: Learn about 20 or so mushrooms you can find so you'll have an option all year round, and stay away from the others. He gives a few hints about identification, and the mushrooms that are literally edible but of such a taste or texture, "why would you want to?"
One participant is his wife, Oak Ridge life coach Ellen Hitchcock, a soothing spirit in bright blue who also forages. "I'm short, so I can spot pretty well," she says with a sunny smile. "Kids really love to go, too—it's like an Easter Egg hunt. I stick with the kids and we find the low-lying mushrooms.
"I really enjoy it, but of course, no one could match Whitey when it comes to loving mushrooms."
A staunch member of the Asheville Mushroom Club, he's one of the few that hunts in this area, so he doesn't precisely have to keep his best spots secret. But even though he's shown any number of newcomers around, he does keep some spots to himself. "I just speak in general terms," he says with a ready laugh.
When the deep cold sets in, or he's struck out for a few days consecutively, Hitchcock might spend some time painting watercolors of mushrooms, or dying silk with natural dyes—some of them made from mushrooms—or cultivating oyster mushrooms at his house using straw and plastic.
All these routines, what he calls "other kinds of oddball things," yield some pay, but it's not a break-even proposition. "I enjoy it, I make a little money, enough to pay for the gas and materials," he says.
He's also been writing a book, called the Soul of a Teacher, that he hopes comes out before Christmas. "It's about those 15 years, when I took all my interests, put them together and tried to put them in the classroom, to inspire kids to learn."
In the cold months, he also dreams. Of morels.
"They are a rite of passage in Appalachia—all over the nation, but particularly in Appalachia. When spring came, the mountain people got morels and ramps, and these were the first fresh foods after a long winter for a lot of people. Sitting around in the winter, I really start counting the days to when the morels come up," he says.
But the cold is a ways off, weeks or maybe a month. And Hitchcock is ready to stop talking and head back to the place where he was yesterday, to collect two mushrooms he left behind.
And to look for a Hen In the Woods.
"It grows on mature oak trees, right at ground level," he says. "I've looked at thousands of trees and walked many miles to find one, but I never have. But if I'm going to find one, before frost—now is the time."
Mushroom Foraging: Safety First
It's a wonderful hobby, but foraging for wild mushrooms can be deadly, says Whitey Hitchcock. "There are some bad ones out there." The biggest problem in our general vicinity is newcomers confusing small Jack O'Lantern mushrooms with chanterelles.
"Two like that have happened this year," Hitchcock says. "They're really sick—they ain't going to die but they may wish they would."
It is possible to avoid the poisonous mushrooms—and those that will merely cause gastric distress—while enjoying the good ones, by following a few simple guidelines from Hitchcock:
1. Hunt alongside someone who is trained and knowledgeable.
2. Study to learn the 15 or 20 readily identifiable local mushrooms, and then hunt and enjoy them. "You'll have plenty of opportunity and variety without much risk," he says.
3. As a rule, avoid all mushrooms from the deadly genus Amanita; you can easily do without the few edible varieties within the generally toxic genus.
4. Don't eat mushrooms with brown spores.
5. When you eat what you've found, never eat more than one species at a time and leave a little bit of what you're eating in the freezer. That way, if your stomach gets upset you'll have a piece for reference.
6. Follow the 100 percent rule. "If you're not 100 percent sure, don't pick it or eat it. It's a pass-fail test, and you need to be 100 percent right," says Hitchcock. "I've left a lot of mushrooms behind I was pretty sure I knew to be safe. I've never been sick, and I'm trying to stay that way."