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A Family Tradition Built on Foraging Mushrooms

For many people, holidays involve “tradition”. For one Kenosha family, its Christmas tradition centers around a special mushroom; and the preparations begin, in late autumn with the harvest.
We’re packed into Michael McNamara’s small Nissan – his grandfather - Peter Rizzo – sits in the passenger seat.

Rizzo was born 90 years ago in Kenosha. His parents emigrated from southern Italy – he has no clue why they landed in Kenosha.

Rizzo worked for American Motors for more than three decades. He and his wife Edith raised three children and have lived in the same spotless brick Cape Cod for nearly 60 years.

But Peter Rizzo isn’t interested in chitchatting about such matters - he’s on a mission. He wants to lead grandson Michael to mushrooms that grow at the trunk of giant oak trees. Rizzo calls them nashke.

Michael – a “developing” chef – looked up the “proper name.”

“It’s called maitake, or hen-of-the-woods and every Christmas he makes a dish with the mushrooms and sausage,” Michael says.

We motor to an undisclosed location in search of the edible fungus. According to Rizzo tradition, foragers work alone, brag about their successes but NEVER disclose specific locations. The family is safe with me - I have no notion where we are.

Michael searches all of his grandfather's secret spots without success.

As we get out of the car Rizzo wishes us luck because, for the first time, he won’t trek into the woods.

Michael says last year was the first time his grandfather walked the woods with him.

“He couldn’t really walk that well so he decided to take me out and show me his secret spots,” Michael says.

Michael stoops to clear fallen leaves beneath a giant oak. He’s learned that the mushrooms look like a bunch of oak leaves at the base of the tree. Last year as Michael and his grandfather struck it big on this very spot – as for us?

” No sign of any,” Michael says.

We deliver the bad news. Peter Rizzo is disheartened.

“I thought for sure because of the heavy rain that we had and the cold nights, it would be perfect timing,” Rizzo says.

He directs Michael to turn right. Eventually we reach another of Rizzo’s secret spots.

“This is where we got kicked out last year,” Michael says.

We explore unhampered, but come out without any mushrooms. We tramp one parcel, then another, inspecting dozens of trees. Absolutely no luck.

The oak tree from which Michael's grandfather and great grandfather harvested mushrooms year after year is in the distant background.

Peter Rizzo directs us to his father’s lucky spot. Growing up, he foraged here every year with his dad. He points affectionately to the distant oak, saying it always delivered. Yet Rizzo says, after his father died, he never found another nashke there.

Michael wants to give it a go, anyway! As we push our way down the steep slope and through thick overgrowth, Michael grows silent – you know he’d love to present his grandpa with a huge mushroom from this spot. I break the suspense with a culinary question.

How does he like to prepare nashke?

“I sauté them with butter and garlic and maybe some fresh herbs. He boils them which I think is terrible but I would never tell him that,” Michael says.

We eventually return to the car, one final time, empty-handed. Rizzo shakes his head.

“ I can’t believe it! I thought we’d get at least one,” Rizzo says.

The truth is, Rizzo’s not despairing for himself. A nephew shared his harvest this year, so the 90-year-old has a pile of nashke – preboiled the way he likes them – in the deep freeze. Plenty to cook up his traditional Christmas dish.

But this year, Rizzo didn’t wait for Christmas. He served his special mushroom sausage dish to family on Thanksgiving.

Life, he says is too short – why wait?

Peter Rizzo and grandson Michael with nashke harvested by Rizzo's nephew.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.