Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

The Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz is on the hunt.

The organization, an affiliate of the North American Mushroom Association (NAMA), is collecting mushrooms for the 36th Annual Fungus Fair. The organization of mushroom hunters, or mycologists, plans the event in partnership with the Santa Cruz Museum Association. The fair, which takes place this Saturday and Sunday in the Louden Nelson Community Center, will feature a large mushroom display and typically draws about 2,000 visitors.

Phil Carpenter of the Fungus Federation is serving as co-chair for the event. He said the annual mushroom collections often range from less than 200 to about 300 specimens. This year, however, the mildly wet fall and winter seasons have made the conditions for mushrooms ideal and the federation is expecting even more.

“The whole idea is to try to bring the whole concept of wild mushrooms to the public eye,” Carpenter said. “We always collect fresh mushrooms, all wild-picked.”

In addition to the display and various lectures, food will play an important role in the fair. Organizers will sell ice cream made from candy caps, a popular mushroom that tastes and smells like maple syrup. Chef Joe Schultz of Capitola, who used to operate local restaurant India Joze, will be doing a cooking demonstration and selling mushroom dishes. Chef Jack Czarnecki, who has appeared on various television programs, will take a few days off from his fine dining restaurant in Oregon, The Joel Palmer House, in order to do a demonstration.

Czarnecki is not the only visitor traveling from out of state for the fair. Tom Volk, a mycologist from the University of Wisconsin La Crosse, will be giving a lecture called “Toads and Toadstools,” about old wives’ tales associated with fungi — poisonous mushrooms, molds, etc. Volk said that out of 79 similar clubs in the country and eight others in the state of California, the Fungus Federation is one of the more active groups.

Volk also came to Santa Cruz two years ago to give a speech on his 10 favorite mushrooms to eat. He enjoys searching for edible mushrooms, an excellent source of nutrients and protein. It was the possibility of finding food that originally sparked his interest in mycology.

“When I first took mycology in 1978, I found out you could get free food, so as a poor college student, that got me started in collecting mushrooms,” Volk said. “And once you start to look at them closely, they’re really pretty amazing. There’s a huge variety of colors and shapes and sizes.”

Co-chair Carpenter enjoys watching young mushroom hunters grow and develop through that same phase.

“They really have this sense of the treasure hunt or the Easter-egg hunt,” Carpenter said. “It’s kind of like the thrill of discovery. Really, the hunter-gatherer basic instinct we’ve all gotten away from returns, and it’s kind of fun.”

Marjorie Young, who is co-chairing the fair with Carpenter, believes there is another draw to amateur mycology besides the search.

“Buddhists say ‘it’s in the search, not in the find’ — although, I have to tell you, finding edibles is really great fun,” Young said.

Young will be selling her mushroom cookbook “From Duff to Dawn” at the fair. A variety of vendors will be selling edible mushrooms as well as kits to help people grow their own. The federation will also lead forays of groups into the woods to look for more interesting fungi, some of them edible.

“We’re in a position now where we like to have things that are natural and organic, and you can’t get any more so than that,” Volk said. “I’ve been places where no one’s ever been before, and so I’m pretty sure that they’re clean and free of pollutants and such … You don’t know what you’re gonna find, and you may find your dinner.”