“Let’s leave the rest of the mushrooms,” said Jim. “I feel a pain!”

By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, September 5, 1936.

“Mushrooms,” said Jimmie Frise, “are now in season.”

“For me,” I replied, “mushrooms have no season. I like mushrooms on a nice rare steak. I like mushrooms on toast, soaked in their own butter gravy. But, most of all, I like mushrooms in June or January, February or December.”

“But you admit,” asked Jim, “that the best mushrooms are the ones you pick yourself in the woods and cook yourself, about nine p.m. at night at the conclusion of a lovely September day out in the open, mushroom hunting.”

“No, Jim,” I said, “I can’t say I do. As a matter of fact, I have never done that. But my feeling is, I prefer a good professionally grown mushroom that you can buy at any store to the wild article precisely as I prefer a nice piece of high grade beef to a hunk of wild venison.”

“I thought you were a sportsman,” sighed Jim.

“A man can be a sportsman,” I explained, “and still like good food. If your idea of a sportsman is one who sits out in a frozen bog all day nibbling dry sandwiches and then comes in to a good meal of lukewarm canned beans and tea that would make your toes open and shut or float an egg, then I am not a sportsman. I like good edible tasty food, that’s all.”

“Good edible tasty food,” said Jim, “makes me think of a dull, sickening thud or something. It makes me think of fat men who live in furnished rooms all alone and go through life gently and silently staring at everything and nobody knows their name. Good tasty food. It makes me think of the kind of woman you describe as a great little housekeeper. Ugh.”

“You like good food,” I protested.

“Yes, but now and then I like a little adventure,” said Jim. “I like to surprise my insides. Imagine being insides. Imagine spending your whole life at the mercy of somebody outside who does all the picking and choosing. And all you have to do every day for all your life is receive a lot of guck, always the same, never anything new, never any excitement.”

“Radishes,” I pointed out, “onions.”

“Pah,” said Jim. “I believe in giving my insides a surprise every now and then. I like to go to one of these Italian restaurants and eat one of those great big soup plates full of rubbery spaghetti, four feet long doused with meat sauce, red hot peppers, paprika and spices.”

“So do I,” I admitted. “Within reason.”

“Reason nothing,” said Jim. “You just ought to feel my insides when I start sliding that spaghetti down, all cool and smooth and hot and scratchy. Boy, my insides fairly shout with joy.”

“A tall thin cold glass of water,” I agreed, “often gives me that feeling of cheering.”

“A tin dipper full,” corrected Jim, “from a pump.”

“I never really can enjoy a drink from a pump,” I explained, “because of looking down the end of my nose for wrigglers or thinking of pollution.”

Jim studied me for a long moment.

Men Who Lived Gloriously

“There is no thrill,” said he, “like the wild thrill. No flavor like the gamey flavor. We are the flabby descendants of ages of men before us who lived gloriously on what they killed or picked up in the forest. It took us countless ages to arrive at roast beef and ham and eggs.”

“During which time,” I pointed out, “millions died in agony from eating the wrong thing.”

“If you like,” agreed Jim. “But certain things wake in us an ancient thrill, a sense of freedom, a feeling of reality, and among them are mushrooms and venison and partridges and speckled trout.”

“Hear, hear,” I confessed immediately.

“My suggestion is,” said Jim, “that this week-end, we go mushrooming. This is the time of year. Mushrooms are to be gathered at all times of the year, from spring to autumn. But the autumn is the best time.”

“How about toadstools?” I asked

“There are only a few poisonous species,” explained Jim. “And hundreds of edible species.”

“Jim, if there were only the one poisonous species,” I stated, “it would be too much.”

“Wait a minute,” said Jim. “I’ve got a government bluebook on mushrooms here somewhere. I’ll show you how simple it is.”

He hunted around through his files of old newspapers, straw hats, discarded suspenders, old snapshots he had lost for years, and so forth, the usual artist’s files, and then he produced the pamphlet.

“See,” he said, “it’s got pictures. Here’s one I’ve often eaten. Look. Deadly Agaric. No, no, but that one. That is deadly. Wait a minute. Here it is. See this lovely one. The Destroying Angel. No, no, wait a minute. That’s the worst one of all. I’ve got its picture right here. Somewhere.”

He thumbed through the pamphlet, showing me dozens of photographs of the worst-looking creations the Lord ever made. What day these flat, flabby, pallid things were made is not mentioned in the Good Book.

“Ah, here it is,” cried Jim, exhibiting a dreadful bulbous-looking monster that seemed to have a skin disease. This is the Shaggy Mane.”

“Has it got hair on it?” I protested.

“Certainly not,” said Jim. “That’s a poetic name for it. Nothing in nature has such poetic names as mushrooms. My boy, I assure you once you have tried mushroom hunting you will become a mushroom hunter for life. In the cool September weather, in the early morning when everything is fresh and dewy, you go forth into the woods and along the margins of meadows, searching on the ground for these quaint little elfin creations of nature. They are white and cream and tawny brown. Pearly and bluish. They grow secretly in the shadow of trees, along the edges of old logs, in clusters where the long grass suddenly thins. In olden days, the people thought the fairies made mushrooms for chairs and parasols. They thought where the rings of mushrooms grew the fairies had been dancing.”

“I wouldn’t wonder,” I said darkly.

“Mushroom hunting in September,” declared Jim, “is as delightful a pastime as bird watching in May. Besides, you can’t eat songbirds, but you can eat mushrooms.”

“I might go with you,” I said, “but only for the fresh air.”

“Here,” said Jim, turning to the government pamphlet again, “are the rules about how to avoid the poisonous species. Listen. It says, ‘Avoid fungi when in the button or unexpanded stage; also those in which the flesh has begun to decay, even if only slightly, and those that contain larvae or worm holes.”

“How delicious,” I said.

“Avoid all fungi which have stalks with a swollen base,” continued Jim, “surrounded by a cup-like or scaly envelope, especially if the gills are white.”

“It sounds like a snake and a fish combined,” I declared.

“Avoid all fungi,” continued Jim, eloquently, “having a milky juice, unless the milk is reddish.”

“Ah,” said I, “reddish milk is O.K. huh?”

“Avoid all fungi,” read Jim, “which have a bitter, unpleasant taste or an unpleasant odor.”

“I’d be sure to like those,” I agreed, “straight off.”

“You see,” said Jim. “Here it is in cold type, perfectly plain and simple. We can’t go wrong.”

“I tell you, Jim,” I said. “You collect mushrooms, and I’ll collect poison ivy.”

Baskets on Our Arms

But Jim is a man of imagination, and Saturday dawn he had me up and away to that country of beechwoods and pine and ash which lies amidst the limestone of Guelph and Georgetown, and across meadows soaked with dew we strode upward toward the skyline carrying baskets on our arms.

And sure enough, along the edge of a lovely beech wood we found in the meadow little encampments of the common mushroom. And I must confess that it was a pleasure to find them, and to kneel down and pick them, all firm and cool, and see how easily and crisply they broke apart, cap from stem. Jim and I soon had the bottoms of the baskets covered with them.

Into the woods we walked slowly, studying each tree trunk carefully, and finding amidst the pine woods the fluted stalk or Fall Morel, a curiously twisted and wrinkled thing like an old, old lady, but really only a day old; and incredibly yellow coral fungi which Jim said were beautiful to eat, but which looked to me like asparagus gone to the dogs.

On dead trees we found flat fungi as red as Chinese lacquer, and in a quiet and lovely grove of birch trees, already fading to yellow, we came upon a lonely little thing of beauty, white as alabaster, curved and beautiful as a child’s hand, rising like a dream out of the rotting earth mould.

“And here,” said Jim, proudly, “is my dear friend. Amanita Verna, the Destroying Angel. This frail and ghostly little plant has enough deadly poison in him to kill a tableful of guardsmen.”

So we looked at it for quite a few minutes and thought of our poor ancestors who didn’t have government pamphlets or any other knowledge, and then we kicked it to pieces and stamped on it, and wiped our boots on good wet meadow grass and went down afar to another beech-edged meadow to fill our baskets with the common mushroom.

Lunch we had with us in a box, and his we ate on one of those hills looking north across a thousand farms in autumn chintz. The afternoon we wasted splendidly turning up roads never seen before, and stopping at the gates of a hundred farms to see the apples on the trees, or observe the fat cattle or simply to try and guess what some distant farmer was doing. And usually we couldn’t guess.

And through the afternoon haze we turned homeward for the feast.

“Now comes,” said Jim, “the best part of mushroom hunting. Mushrooms are best the day they are picked.”

And his family being on a picnic, we went to Jim’s for the party. We sorted our baskets and set out only the choicest of our joint catch. Washed them and dried them. Put on aprons. Dedicated one whole pound of butter to the feast, and heated the big iron frying-pan.

“I’ll fry,” said Jim, “and you dance attendance on me. Heat the plates. Set the table.”

“Bread?” said I.

“Would you eat a woollen blanket with pate de fois gras?” demanded Jim. “Just mushrooms. Nothing else. This is a feast.”

And into the browning butter Jim sliced the plump mushrooms, where they swelled and curved and darkened and shrank. And on to an oven platter he ladled them out.

“Not done too much,” he explained, “yet not underdone.”

And, in due time, we had fried in butter enough of the succulent nubbins to make a fine black heap on two large plates and an odor so wild and strange and teasing as to make us almost perspire with expectancy.

“Fall to,” cried Jim.

And we fell to, as only men who have been abroad in September can fall. And with our forks we ladled up mouthfuls of the hot and buttery darkness and found them as they should be, chewy, yet tender,

To tell the truth, right at the very start, I imagined I detected a faint bitterness. I did not like to say anything about it, because after all it was a feast and Jim was full of pride. But after I had got down about half of my pile, I slowed up a bit and looked at Jim. And, to my horror, I caught Jim looking at me with a slight look of horror in his eyes.

“Do you – ah,” I said, “detect a slight bitterness?”

“I do,” said Jim, hollowly. We pushed our plates away.

“How soon,” I asked, huskily, “do the pains begin?”

“Sometimes,” said Jim, in a thin voice, “not for two days.”

We stared at each other. What a strange way for our long friendship to end. Boy and man, come Michaelmas, blame near a quarter century. And now toadstool gets us.

“Jim,” I said, “look through this basket here and see which of us is likely guilty. I would feel easier if I thought you had poisoned me rather than vice versa.”

“Let’s leave it,” said Jim, rising sharply to his feet and clutching his stomach. “Here come the pains.”

Sure enough pains.

“Call a doctor,” I commanded.

“No use, no use,” said Jim. “I don’t think there is a cure known for fungus poisoning.”

“Will it hurt much?” I enquired.

“After all,” said Jim, turning green, “does that matter?”

“You’re quite right,” I agreed, slipping back and getting a good grip of my central neighborhood.

And then Jim’s family walked in, loudly, gaily, full of picnic.

“What on earth,” they cried, “are you cooking in that iron frying-pan?”

“Mushrooms,” said we, concealing our agony bravely.

“Did you rinse it out, for goodness sake?” they asked.

“No,” said we.

“Well, it was full of laundry soap the last time I saw it,” said the family, loudly laughing. “And that was this morning. That hasn’t been a cooking pan for about ten years.”

“We didn’t eat any yet,” said Jim. “We were just going to, when you came in.”

“Ha, ha,” said I. “Wouldn’t that have been comic, if we had eaten any.”

But Jim, looking at me, took me by the arm and led me out the back kitchen into the garden, under the stars, and we two walked up and down, pausing now and again, and walking up and down, along the back or bushy end of the garden, until nearly ten o’clock.

Editor’s Notes: Greg and Jim describe spaghetti as a rare and unusual treat, as in the 1930s, Italian food would still be “ethnic food”.

“Dance attendance on me” is an archaic term meaning “obey every command I give”.

Michaelmas is a Christian feast day on September 29. So Greg is describing his friendship with Jim dating back 25 years by that date. This would date back to the early 1910s, which would make sense since Jim’s first comic in the Toronto Star was late in 1910, and Greg started working for the Star in 1912.