Residents of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and its surroundings have come to know the large numbers of mushroom foragers who arrive every year between late September and early November as “Russians.” In fact they are almost all Soviet-born Jews and their immediate descendants, now living throughout the northeastern U.S. Although they will cook the mushrooms in traditional dishes, or preserve them—through various methods—for later use, much of the appeal comes from the hunt itself. The veteran mushroom picker and writer Maxim Shrayer describes the annual ritual, and speculates as to how Jews came to adopt it:
Was mushroom hunting a Jewish tradition in the Slavic lands? I doubt it. For some strange reason, I can’t think of a 19th- or early-20th-century Jewish literary work where mushroom foraging or eating is described. There are, of course, plenty of such scenes in Polish or Russian literature—think of Anna Karenina and the episode in which Levin’s half-brother Koznyshev and [Kitty’s female friend] Varenka go mushroom foraging, and Koznyshev fails to propose. There also doesn’t seem much of a mushroom trail in Jewish cuisine, save for an occasional recipe for a mushroom kugel or else for buckwheat kasha or pearl barley with onion-fried mushrooms. Given the cult status of mushrooms in Polish or Russian cuisine, and also considering how many Slavic dishes the Ashkenazi Jews have made their own, it’s curious that mushrooms have such a marginal status in East European Jewish cooking. . . .
[T]he three grandparents I got to know (and also some of their siblings I’ve met) never shared childhood memories of foraging mushrooms in the former Pale. I don’t believe they had any. My father’s uncle Munia Sharir, who left the ancestral Kamenets-Podolsk [in modern-day Ukraine] in 1924 to become a ḥaluts, left a memoir in both Hebrew and Russian. In the chapters devoted to his Podolian youth, Uncle Munia didn’t touch on mushroom-picking. . . .
I suspect that for Jews of my grandparents’ generation, mushroom-picking was a habit acquired in the 1920s and 30s, part of a complex of social activities that came after moving into the mainstream. For many Jews of the former Pale of Settlement, developing a love for mushroom-picking must have been simultaneously a form of Russianization and Sovietization. At least, this is my tentative explanation for the rise of mushroom-picking among Jews during the Soviet period. My late maternal grandmother, Anna Studnits, who came to America with our whole family in 1987 and lived to be ninety-five, enjoyed collecting and cooking mushrooms. Yet I always felt that with her it was not a childhood love, as it had been for me since as long as remember. . . .
[Thus it seems that], as a mainstream Soviet phenomenon, mushroom picking reached the American shores with the rest of the Jewish immigrant baggage. More than a loving tribute to one’s Soviet youth, mushrooming in America is becoming a Jewish tradition because much of what we brought with us is now being added to Jewish American culture. I admit that there is something of a contradiction here, but I also think there’s some truth to what I’m saying. To put it most bluntly, while in today’s American mainstream Soviet Jews may be thought of as “Russian,” mushroom-picking in America may very well be considered a Jewish family activity.
Read more on Tablet: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/217228/picking-mushrooms-in-america