Don’t Try This at Home

Ciocia Felicia showing off freshly picked mushrooms

No Polish family is complete without an aunt who means business.  Ciocia (pronounced Chuh-Chuh) means Aunt in Polish. Meet Ciocia Felicia: seamstress, wild mushroom picker and lover of big eye-glasses. She also has an affinity for picking lucky scratch tickets too, but I’ll save that for another post.

Ciocia relaxing in her J-Lo glasses

 Ciocia likes to pick mushrooms and I don’t mean the kind in the bin at Market Basket. She likes to go to a public park or will duck into some wooded areas in the neighborhood when she senses a good spot. With plastic shopping bag scrunched up in her hand, she’ll disappear into the woods. This might not be strange to those living on a farm in the country in Poland but I grew up in a mill city in Massachusetts.

Not exactly a detail I readily shared in the hallways at school, at first, because it didn’t seem unusual. There were always other Polish families who sat in our kitchen and talked about mushrooms popping up in surprising abundance or shook their heads to confirm their lack of presence while coffee percolated and my mother served open-faced ham sandwiches and plates of tomatoes with minced onions on top.

By the time high school rolled around, picking wild mushrooms seemed like an ancient past time that I wanted to run far away from, lest someone should think I wasn’t cool. I likened it to the time in 2nd grade when I wore my gym uniform Polish eagle t-shirt to the roller rink and my brother said, “Get away from me!” as he ran-skated ahead. So I devoted my time to what other kids were doing in high school, acknowledging my superior intelligence over my parents, saving up for my first bottle of Calvin Klein Eternity perfume, and getting into cars with boys who already knew how to drive.

Recently when I was home for the summer, Ciocia came home with a plastic bag full of mushrooms.

bag of mushrooms

“How do you know? Could be poison.” I asked.
“Jannett,” she replied in Polish with a voice similar to the one she used when I skipped church,” I was born among mushrooms.”

As a kid, I remembered how she and my mother dried them. The mushrooms shriveled and turned into paper-light buttons and half-moons that rattled in a brown paper lunch bag. That bag hovered around in the cabinet on top of the Kool-Aid container that my brothers and I pulled off the shelf a hundred times a day. The mushroom bag was always in the way. It was pulled out and then stuffed back in so many times, the outside of the bag became soft and worn and the fibers of the paper stood up like soft hairs. Sometimes I would open the bag and take a sniff of the deep musky aroma. I’d close it back up and upon not finding any Ritz crackers or Cheese-Whiz would close the cabinet and proclaim that there was nothing to eat in the house.

would I have picked this one?

I wonder if I could learn how to identify the good mushrooms from the poisonous ones. But I came back to a familiar whirl pool- like when I asked for the recipe for Pierogis and my mother and Ciocia laughed and said, “No recipe. You watch.” I remember I asked, ‘How much water, mom?’ She repeated the question to herself and then with her finger showed me a nick in the bowl and said, “Up to here. “ Great. I can make pierogis if I have YOUR bowl. I figured learning how to identify wild mushrooms was going to require the same kind of apprenticeship. An apprenticeship I feel about twenty five years too late for.

13 comments on “Don’t Try This at Home

  1. Anne Zimmerman says:

    I love it. Your photo caption “bag of mushrooms” cracks me up. Oh so great Janni. I love having my coffee on Sunday morning and reading your post!

  2. Young B. Kim says:

    OMG LOL My grandma and my aunts would go pick these weird root thingies whenever we “went to the mountains” (drive four hours to mountains, eat Korean BBQ, drive back four hours). They would go into the woods with scrunched up King Sooper’s bags, and walk out with overstuffed bags of those roots in their fists. Our entire backyard would be covered with bamboo mats for the next few days to dry them out.

    I have no idea if they ever made it into anything we ate for dinner.

    Favorite Line: “…getting into cars with boys who already knew how to drive.” ;-}

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      That’s a great story Young. I wonder what they were? You have to ask. I love that Aunts and Grandmas go into the woods to pick weird root thingies. It’s something magical.

  3. Tom Laferriere says:

    This story Jannett, was great, on so many levels. Being 1/2 polish and trying to to learn to make pierogis with my grandmother for the last 10 years, and I still ask, “How do you know how much water or flour to add?” and being told,
    “You’ll know by looking at it.” Never an exact amount. The other part is knowing you and your family over many years, I can close my eyes and see your house on Hildreth St, and that whole period. I’m glad Cocia knows what to pick, I know I don’t. Thank you for writing this story.

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Thanks so much Tom. I’m so happy to hear you could relate to the story. It seems universal that to learn the old ways, we must watch and get the knowing into our bones. No recipe cards. I regret not taking a greater interest in cooking before. Hard to balance taking stuff from the past and working on the present. Glad you’re out there reading!

  4. Nate Hardcastle says:

    I bet those mushrooms would’ve been poisonous to anyone except Cocia Fela.

  5. Love the pics of Cocia! My Dad had a book call the Stalking the Wild Asparagus and he would spot it driving down the highway at 50 mph. I always admired him for this skill. Also remember going to down to the rail track to pick bags and bags of wild raspberries and sucking on honeysuckle flowers. Thanks for unearthing all these wonderful memories.

  6. Cheryl says:

    I desperately want to go foraging for mushrooms with your aunt. Or at least be present when you receive your next cooking lesson.

  7. Marek says:

    But if you pick all the mushrooms, the elves will have no where to live!…biedne bezdomny krasnoludki! Like life’s not hard enough for them?

    Just promise me you won’t pick the ones that have the wide red caps with white polka dots, you will see they have little doors, windows and chimneys on them.

    You don’t want a cranky krasnoludek on your case – your laundry will never dry, your milk will spoil, your flax will break as you try to spin it- and that’s just for starters. Trust me on this one.

  8. Genoefa says:

    dosyć często bywam w tym lesie, gdzie kiedyś ciocia Fela zbierała grzyby

  9. Laura says:

    I have some recipes that I’ve written down while watching my mom cook, and they say stuff like “add a bunch of parsley” or “add some flour so it’s not too sticky.” What does “some” mean and how much is “too sticky”?

    • Jannett Matusiak says:

      Laura, I sometimes wonder if cooking with the old country folks is the way Luke Skywalker felt when he was told to use the force. We are naive until we experience. Also, my mom’s cooking revolves around pots and pans that seem to hold some kind of element that cannot be duplicated. For example, we have what I refer to as the kielbasa pan. It’s a silver stainless steel sauce pan that for as long as I can remember, never had a handle. It’s sheered off. how? no idea. Hot? Yes! You need a serious mitt when you pull that sucker out of the oven. It cooks the kielbasa perfectly. Crispy, just how we like it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *