Originally appearing as "Stalking the Edible Wild Mushroom" in SusunWeed Bazaar, 2003
Ask anyone in the U.S. about eating wild mushrooms. I doubt they'll be very enthusiastic. A man in Yonkers once said to me, "mushrooms? I don't eat those things. They grow in the dark!"
Fungophobia aside, out of 10,000 mushroom species in North America, less than a dozen are actually deadly. There are about 200 common poisonous mushrooms (you won't die, but you may wish you were dead!). And there are many whose edibility is "unknown" (which means no one's willing to find out). Nevertheless, the vast majority of mushrooms out there are quite harmless. That doesn't mean you want to play fungus roulette, however. In some areas, certain poisonous and even deadly mushrooms are quite common.
It's also true that several common edibles have other poisonous species that people often mistake for them. But how familiar were these people with the mushrooms? And how careful were they?
Two strangers may look the same to you, but I doubt you'd get someone else confused with your husband or wife- at least on close inspection! Once you've seen a friend (human or fungus) on good and bad hair days, in sickness and in health, you know them. It takes time, but as you become familiar with mushrooms, "look-alikes" look less and less alike.
Only one professional mycologist is known to have died from eating mushrooms, and it was not from misidentification. He had an allergic reaction to a commonly eaten mushroom, on top of a pre-existing condition. Of all the members of amateur mycological societies, i.e., mushroom clubs, there is not one case of fatal poisoning on record. 1
Still, when it comes to eating wild mushrooms, being an expert is not about knowing a lot. It's about being careful. Amateurs can easily avoid the deadly species and mycologists can easily get poisoned. Most of us are expert drivers, and yet all of us can be careless one night. I believe what gets people in trouble most of the time is sloppy eagerness. Know what you don't know and leave your ego out of it. Even Susun Weed says, when it comes to mushrooms, don't count on your intuition! They say there are old mycologists and there are bold mycologists, but no old bold mycologists.
I'm often asked if I've ever poisoned myself by mistaking a sinister "look-alike" for a scrumptious edible. The answer is yes and no. Oddly enough, I have eaten a well-known "edible" mushroom and gotten sick anyway. Luckily I'd only had a few bites and simply got nauseous (my eager friend was not so lucky). The strangest thing is that two other friends ate the mushroom without a problem (lucky for them: there was thirty pounds of it!). This was the famous "chicken of the woods," considered fool-proof. It IS practically unmistakable, but it also makes people sick about 5% of the time (no one knows why; aliens, perhaps). In any case, a week later I was chowing on a different "chicken" without ill-effects. Hey, it's better odds than eating out!
So the truth is that eating wild mushrooms (like driving and casual sex) has some measure of risk. But then practically everybody does it anyway!
The individual who desires to engage in the study [of wild mushrooms] must face a good deal of scorn. He is laughed at for his strange taste among the better classes, and is actually regarded as a sort of idiot among the lower orders. No fad or hobby is esteemed so contemptible as that of the "fungus-hunter" or "toadstool-eater."
This popular sentiment, which we may coin the word "fungophobia" to express, is very curious. If it were human- that is, universal- one would be inclined to set it down as instinct and to reverence it accordingly. But it is not human- it is merely British.
W.D. Hay, British Fungi, 1887
If wild mushrooms are so dangerous, why after thousands of years does most of the world continue to eat them? Because the benefits far outweigh the risks. It should be no surprise, for instance, that many of those beefy-tasting mushrooms are high in protein. More so by weight, in fact, than any vegetable except soybeans. Mushrooms are also rich in most vitamins, particularly B and C, and contain practically all the major minerals, particularly potassium and phosphorus. 2
A vegetarian dream come true? Chlorophanatics take note: mushrooms are not plants; and even more so than plants, you rarely gather a mushroom without taking along a bunch of baby bugs with it. They may be squirmy but they're harmless.
Speaking of harm done, few people realize that picking mushrooms is like taking apples from a tree. The fungus is still there, in the ground or the log, doing its thing. There are mushroom spots in Europe that have been picked over for hundreds of years and they keep coming back. The only thing that's finally kicking their can is acid rain from the trucks that bring supermarket chains their produce, for instance. So walk to the woods and go nuts!
Identifying a wild mushroom starts with digging up, examining and even smelling it. There's no danger in this (and no high either, toad-lickers). You have to actually swallow about a quarter teaspoon of a deadly mushroom for it to kill you (or your neighbor, in case you're wondering).
There's just one thing to remember, even if the only mushrooms you ever want to put in your mouth are the ones at the salad bar. It's good practice to always cook all mushrooms because their cells walls are indigestible raw. Your body can't get to the nutrients if it can't get into the cells, plus if you eat enough, well, you've seen Animal House. Yes I KNOW you've always eaten button mushrooms raw. That doesn't mean wild ones will be as forgiving. Many "edible" species also have toxins which are only destroyed by cooking. Remember, every mushroom is edible- once!
So, all that said, if you want to take the wild mushroom plunge, get yourself a field guide, preferably a human one. If you're going to rely on books, you're going to need more than one because there is no one good mushroom book. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. In general, I would recommend buying the following books, one at a time, in this order. If you stick with it, using each will convince you to buy the next.
Edible Wild Mushrooms of North America (David Fischer
& Alan Bessette, $30)
Mushrooms, The DK Handbook (Thomas Laessøe and Gary Lincoff, $19)
The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms (Gary Lincoff, $19)
All that the Rain Promises and More (Dave Arora, $17)
Mushrooms of Northeastern North America (Alan Bessette, $45)
Mushrooms Demystified (Dave Arora, $40)
Peterson's Field Guide to Mushrooms (Kent and Vera McKnight, $17)
Medicinal Mushrooms (Christopher Hobbs, out of print)
As you can see, a decent set of field guides can cost over $100. But since a pound of wild mushrooms costs $18-35 in the store and you can often find that much in an hour, I think it's a worthwhile invest.
Remember, the best way to learn about wild mushrooms is the traditional way. Befriend a Hungarian, join a local club, or get me to visit. Don't forget the African adage, sibbuzya takolwi bowa (Tonga for "the one who asks is the one who does not get poisoned by mushrooms").
1 D.R. Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas, 162
2 Benjamin, 23, 63