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  • Writer's pictureCris Harris

Pheasant's Back

A couple of weeks ago, we spent a warm afternoon rolling some giant box elder logs that have

cerioporus squamosus, which I’ve always known as Dryad’s Saddle. They are common, and can grow as big as my two hands together on dead hardwood or standing maple whose heart wood has been colonized by the fungus. But when I went to look them up, I discovered that they are also known as the Pheasant’s Back mushroom, and are edible when young. The name Dryad’s Saddle has always, for some reason, evoked in me an unpleasant combination of associations, a mix of leather and geometry and Greek mythology. The mushroom itself calls to be touched—it is always dry on top, cool and firm. Pheasant’s Back, now, that calls up the softness and speckled colors of the game bird, the gentle way they stand still when you spot them, their surprising size when they burst out of the grass.

I cut the smallest of these from its stem with my pocket knife. The flesh within was a pure white, firm and creamy in texture. The underside was pocked with tiny pores, the openings of tubes that form a layer in this genus and in others, like the boletes. Following the directions of a forager website, I scraped the thin structure of the pores away, leaving only the white under the dappled “squamules” or scales of the top side. Back in the kitchen, I sliced the whole mushroom paper thin on the blade of a mandolin, noting the smell like a cucumber that rose from the slices, and then slowly sautéed it in butter with a little water, salt, and black pepper. I read that the older mushrooms are inedibly chewy, but can make a fragrant stock. These were tender, meaty, and made a nice addition to a bowl of pho with some foraged mustard garlic leaves for my lunch.

Names matter so much—telling us what a thing is known for, what to look for, how it is associated. How we see depends on what we look for, after all. The whole system of Latin classification is based on that premise, so that this mushroom was once known as boletus squamosus, for its tube like structure and the heather of its scales, then reclassified with the cerioporus genus mushrooms, but still often known as polyporos squamosus. The old Dryad’s Saddle name seems to liken it to early settlers who imagined the fairies and imps and fauns of Old European mythology had followed them to the great Eastern forests of North America, and were using these mushrooms to ride through the unknowable gloom of those woods. Pheasant’s Back, that name is more home grown, more rooted in the fauna of this country, the experience of a bird in the hand, the pied beauty of the brindled and spotted and flecked and freckled, and the bounty of wild game growing freely in the old woods. A few logs, I read, can produce many pounds of mushrooms in a year, which by and large, grow secret and unremarked before our eyes.

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