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Eating Mushrooms
Without Killing Yourself

Chanterelle, Cantherellus lateritiusMushrooms are a joy to pick and to eat. I have spent a good part of my life in Europe where mushrooms and mushroom picking are highly regarded and I think it's a shame that North Americans pay so little attention to them. As I write these words thousands of wonderful little Chanterelles, Cantherellus lateritius, pictured at the right, populate the forest floor around my home, and I wish I could share with you the delight I feel each year when this species first appears, and how great they taste softly sautéed and introduced into my omelets.

Despite my enthusiasm for mushrooms I am keeping this page's title as it is because you really can kill yourself by eating the wrong mushrooms. Moreover, some of the poisonous species can even occur in North American backyards. The question then arises, "If it's so dangerous, why even bring up the matter?" There are two good reasons:

  • It's possible to learn which mushrooms are edible and which are not, and the learning process is fun and not dangerous. One must just stay alert and use common sense.
  • Mushroom picking is a tradition going way back. It's part of our human heritage, and there are simply few things more pleasant than spending a Sunday afternoon roaming hillsides with a basket in hand, as on a gigantic Easter-egg hunt.

Once you let people know that you're thinking about eating wild mushrooms, you'll hear various "tricks" for determining whether your finds are edible or not. Well, let me tell you that there are no tricks for revealing this fact. Depending on silver spoons to change color when exposed to a poisonous species, or for the shape of a mushroom's cap to identify it as poisonous -- is a good way to get your stomach pumped. The only certain way you can know whether a mushroom is edible or not is by knowing its exact identity, and by knowing that that species is edible.

Experienced mushroom hunters have developed a process for fudging the matter. If they find an unknown species, they'll simply taste a tiny bit. If things go OK, then later a little more is eaten. Finally, if there are no problems, the mushroom is devoured. Of course, if you tend to be hypochondriacal, the moment you eat the first sliver you begin imagining all kinds of effects, so the nibble-a-little strategy doesn't work for some personality types.

The nibbling approach isn't as dangerous as it seems. There are only a handful of truly deadly poisonous mushrooms, and they can be learned easily and avoided. There are quite a number of species, however, that are mildly poisonous and/or hallucinogenic. The truly deadly species I've encountered smelled so bad or were so bitter that it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to eat them. Really, here you need to exercise common sense. If your friends consider you slightly loony, then just go buy your mushrooms from stores.

AmanitaOne genus of mushroom deserves special mention because several of its species are deadly poisonous -- it's the genus Amanita. Among the Amanitas are species with such charming English names as "Destroying Angel" and "Death Cap." If you develop an interest in mushrooms and acquire a mushroom field guide, one of the first things you should do is to look up the Amanitas in your area and learn their characteristics. Meanwhile, study the picture of deadly poisonous amanita here. Here are the main things to notice about it:

  • It arises from a cuplike volva
  • On its stem there's a conspicuous ring, or annulus
  • Its spores are white

Now, not all poisonous amanitas have all these three features, but if you do find a mushroom with these features, the safe thing is to simply stay away from it!

Because many mushroom features, particularly odor and texture, aren't well described in books, there's no better way to learn mushrooms than from someone who already knows them. Elsewhere we emphasize that nature study is something you can do on your own if you're so disposed, or have no one to teach you. Only here are we saying that it really may be best to learn from someone who's gone before you.

Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus Therefore, as a mushroom collector and eater myself, what personal advice can I give you? Here are the three first suggestions that pop into mind:

  • First, don't get spooked by the words said above about the amanitas and a few other poisonous species. See that pretty plate-sized "shelf fungus" at the right? It's an abundant, easy-to-recognize species called the Oyster Mushroom because it tastes like oysters. If you're nervous, start with this one, for there's no poisonous species looking exactly like it..
  • Don't pick mushrooms that are past their prime, for often old mushrooms are filled with tiny maggots
  • Don't overcook your finds; fry them lightly and quickly in butter, with a little black pepper.

You may be interested in the following books available from Amazon.com USA and UK, all about mushrooms from an eater's perspective: