Mushroom Madness

Perhaps, now when we have only the anticipation of and the desire for fresh wild fungi, it is time I should reveal the true depths of my mushroom depravity. This crazed search for culinary fungal delights has driven me ever since my teenage years. Ever since that day I discovered that my mother had lied to me, they were not all poisonous!

My first guidebook was a small paperback called “Nonflowering Plants”. It contained only drawings and descriptions (poor ones at that), nevertheless I scoured the forest collecting “edibles”. Given what I know today, it’s quite surprising I’m still here. I collected and consumed numerous fungi that I’m sure were not what I identified them as. Thankfully, I’ve only been ill once in nearly 40 years of foraging. In the early days anything listed as edible was fair game and I tried them all except for the Amanita group. I purchased Orson Miller’s book a few of years into my hobby and it provided much better guidance and photos. Listed below are just some of the culinary oddities and culinary failures.

The very first wild mushrooms that I can remember eating were scarlet waxy caps (Hygrophorus coccineus). It may have even been my first foray. There they were on the stream bank, these blood red 2 inch caps were growing out of the moss and there were lots of them! I collected enough for a fry pan full and headed for the kitchen. I heated a little butter and garlic and tossed them in. They began to shrink and shrink and shrink! That pan full became about 2 tablespoons in short order and they tasted just like garlic and butter with a slight off flavor. I don’t recall ever collecting them again.

I remember well the gray/black omelet from first Old man of the woods (Strobilomyces floccopus), much more from the color than from the flavor and the green omelet from well…. I thought it was Boletus bicolor.

Ever tried witch’s butter? Cook it up with butter and garlic and it tastes just like butter and garlic. The local wood ear (you know, that black fungus in the hot/sour soup at the Chinese restaurant) has both the flavor and texture of rubber bands. Don’t believe me? There’s some fruiting at my place now and you can have it.

Later in my fungal career I discovered nonpoisonous fungi that were relatively safe to taste but “edibility unknown”. I remember tasting Carbon Balls (Daldinia concentrica) on a foray. They had a good walnut flavor but an acrid after taste. Are they poisonous? I don’t know, I can eat small amounts with no ill effects. One happy occurrence was my discovery of the immature stage of Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae). It is widely believed to be medicinal in its’ mature woody form, but the early white immature form is a delicious mushroom. I don’t believe any mycologist lists it as edible yet but I believe it will come.

If you are a vegetable gardener look for the Mayan truffle (corn smut) on you corn. The kernel deform into globular gray masses. Farmers here think it’s a scourge but it is treasured in Mexico and Central America. Eat your smut, its delicious!

I recall a well known mycologist (who shall remain nameless) preparing and eating stinkhorn “eggs). I know of a person who has eaten Urnulla (devil’s urn). I frequently chew on Sterium sp. while hiking.

These are but a few oddities that come to mind this month. I hope the article amused you. Keep the faith, morels are coming soon!!!!!

Steve Peek
Field mycologist and long standing member of the Asheville Mushroom Club