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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 pleasure 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 have to admit this: A person really can kill himself or herself 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.

MUSHROOM-EATING "TRICKS"

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.

TRICKED OUT...

After eating mushrooms for over 40 years, in 2006 I got poisoned. I made a series of mistakes, one of which was depending too much on my books' descriptions, and the other was nibbling too much on my first nibble test. You can read the account of my poisoning in my Newsletter for that week.

Experienced mushroom hunters have developed a process for fudging the matter. If they find an unknown species, they'll simply taste a tiny bit (See note at the right). 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.

THE AMANITAS

Amanita in KentuckyOne 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 the deadly poisonous amanita at the right. 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

THE SNEAKY PARASOL MUSHROOM

If you should know the Amanitas because some of their species are the most poisonous  mushrooms you're likely to find, you should know,the Parasol Mushroom Chlorophyllum molybites, because it's the species that poisons most North Americans. The Amanitas often stink so that few would want to eat them in the first place, plus they're distinctive, so people know to stay away from them. In contrast, Parasol Mushrooms are sneaky because they're fairly odorless, pretty, typically appear in abundance, and... taste like custard. That's one below.

Parasol Mushroom Chlorophyllum molybites

How do I know it tastes like custard? Because this is the species that poisoned me in 2006, which I mention above. You can read the account of that poisoning in my Newsletter. Below is the spore print of Chlorophyllum molybites so you can see the unusual color of its spores.

spore print of Parasol Mushroom, Chlorophyllum molybites

This species often grows in large groups in grassy livestock pastures, and often forms "fairy circles" -- group themselves into a big circle or portion of a circle.

ADVICE FROM A MUSHROOM EATER

Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus As a mushroom collector and eater myself, what personal advice can I give you? First, read my Newsletter in which I described being poisoned by one... Then, don't get so up-tight about mushrooms that you give up on the idea of eating them. Just learn how to identify them with certainty, and then get to eating. Here are three suggestions:

  • Start with something easy to identify and which you're sure about. 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 reviewing mushroom-eating books available from Amazon.com by clicking here.

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