[Update: Now that I’ve lived in Indiana over ten years I am finally getting in tune with the mushroom seasons. The exception to this is morels. I seem to be always a little late to pick those but I do find a few. Many people here hunt along roadsides but most of the private woods are posted no trespassing, so I stick to the public properties and those are well hunted. People get there early.]
In the Ozarks people were very relaxed about hunting on private property. If you hung up a no trespassing or no hunting sign it would likely be regularly filled with bullet holes. There I had the best luck hunting mushrooms in early summer after spells of heavy rain. Here in Indiana my best season is early fall, again after heavy rain soaks the ground and wet the dead wood and temperatures have dropped. If you get weather like that before the leaves fall, hit the woods. Be careful what you pick because you’ll be dealing with all the types most people don’t know.
This year I found many poisonous types, including the Death Angel, the Fly Agaric and the Sweating Mushroom. It was a busy year for Death Angels because they were popping up not just singly but in numbers. I’ll go back to the woods several times before the cold weather hits, to possibly get lucky with a good oyster mushroom haul. They come out when the temps cool off to late fall and early winter levels.
I do not have an innate fear of eating mushrooms. That lack of instinctive fear of new food probably separates people who survive in the wild most of the time, from people who don’t usually make it. In an emergency, if you’re willing to sample something new, you at least have a chance. I believe this is how many of the unusual dishes known to Asian cultures were discovered. You wouldn’t be the first to try outhouse maggots or rotten cabbages if you were driven to it by starvation, and you might like them. Both are on the menu in certain countries. I’ve eaten the rotten cabbage, although it’s called kimchee and it’s not actually rotten. Just sort of rotten, a naturally fermented and stinky pickle. I won’t try the outhouse maggots because I grew up using an outhouse and I know what’s in there. They might be delicious, but I’ll pass on that one.
My father, in contrast to me, was afraid to eat nearly everything that didn’t run off when he shot at it, including mushrooms sold in supermarkets. If it wasn’t on the Army menu in 1942 he wouldn’t touch it, and he’d fear for your life if you ate it. That must somehow have been a relic of things that happened on D-Day, an event he lived through, although I’m not aware of any secret toxic mushroom programs undertaken by Nazi Germany. Maybe if you’ve come that close to dying you just won’t take any more chances on odd food. Dad’s horrified comment whenever I cooked a meal with supermarket mushrooms or any kind of mushrooms was, “How can you know one of them isn’t poisonous?!” Well, I think if you buy them from a bin in the supermarket you’re pretty safe, and there are ways to learn the trade of picking wild fungi without dying horribly. The possibility of a horrible painful death from ingesting the wrong wild mushroom always does exist. Mushrooms are tricky. That’s part of why I like them.
One of the wonderful things about eating mushrooms, in particular a new type, is that you don’t know what will happen. No matter how carefully you match the mushroom to photos and other detailed information, no matter how patiently you’ve waited for a spore print to develop, it’s tough to be absolutely sure it’s safe unless you’ve eaten that mushroom before. Even then you have to be very careful. You might be allergic. You might have picked a dangerous lookalike. Lookalikes might not even taste bad. People sometimes eat the Death Angel, a deadly but solitary mushroom, after having picked one in a cluster of other edible mushrooms. The flavor apparently isn’t strikingly different, but you die about three days later after toxins destroy your liver. The first signal of this is horrible abdominal pain, days after eating the mushroom, and by then your liver is ruined. When “boat people” from Vietnam and Cambodia settled here after those wars, several entire families did die from eating the Death Angel, since it resembles an edible mushroom found in Asia. Liver transplants sometimes save victims, but you can’t count on that happening. You must be ever vigilant if you eat wild mushrooms.
I first started picking and eating wild mushrooms when I lived in Seattle in the 70’s. On hikes I’d see many kinds and finally got curious enough to learn which were good. Even when you’re 99 percent sure a mushroom is safe to eat, there’s a critical moment of indecision when it’s on your fork. After it takes the plunge, your stomach reacts as an entirely independent organism, recoiling in surprise and exclaiming, “OK, what the hell is that?!” Three days later you can breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the meal.
Probably the best way to learn mushroom hunting is to join a group of people who’ve survived many previous mushroom hunts. Living experts are the best source of mushroom information, and observation can teach you many things you’d find difficult to learn on your own. I recommend learning from other experts. I’ve never done that myself, because I don’t trust anybody but me. I’ve come back from quite a few mushroom hunts with a sack full of mushrooms I was overjoyed to find, only to discover after consulting detailed references at home that none of them were edible. That happens. I’ve had many more successes than failures, but I always triple-check everything. If it’s a new mushroom to me, it might decompose before I finish testing it and studying it. I am careful.
Morels are one of the safest mushrooms to hunt, but even those have hazards involved. Other species of mushrooms called Elf’s Caps closely resemble morels and amateurs can make the mistake of picking them. A type called the Giant Morel might be delicious and safe or poisonous enough to make you seriously ill. A friend of mine in the Ozarks who ate only one spent an entire night lying on his stomach with his head hanging over the edge of his front porch, ejecting all traces of the meal. The critical difference between the edible individuals and the poisonous ones can’t be seen. It depends on the type of tree the fungus inhabits. On some types of trees the mushroom accumulates hydrazine, and on others it does not. The best thing is to not eat the giant morel.
Although I’ve eaten many morels without trouble, I find that particular mushroom sort of pointless in culinary terms. To me, morels lack any distinctive flavor. I know that you’re supposed to cook them with plenty of salt and garlic and butter and maybe a little cheese, but you can cook nearly anything that way and it’ll taste like salty buttery cheesy garlic. I find it hard to detect any serious flavor in morels by themselves. I think that a plastic, reusable morel sponge might be a better approach to morel cooking. You could soak it in salt, garlic and butter and provolone cheese, and tomorrow you could wash it after it comes out and use it again. I’ll pick morels but I’m not all that enthusiastic about them.
Oyster mushrooms, fruiting with large white caps either in spring or fall or early winter on rotting logs and stumps, have far more flavor than morels do. They also have a meaty texture I like. The older ones with splitting caps often have woody stems you can’t really enjoy, but the caps remain harvestable for weeks instead of days if the weather is cool. I’ve only passed up one clump of oyster mushrooms in many years, and still regret not carrying it in my bare hands for the rest of the four mile run I was on. Next time I passed that way it was gone. People pick these quickly and you have to be first. Oyster mushrooms might even sprout in your back yard. A cluster fruited reliably for several years on an ash tree stump here, but finally gave out. I’ve left another fallen ash lying in place for several years, hoping that will happen again.
One of my favorite mushrooms is one I haven’t seen since I left Seattle. A cluster of Shaggy Manes, a variety of Inky Caps, grew at the base of a huge maple tree in the parking of the realtor’s office next door to my house there, and I’d always pick it and fry it up for supper, pounds at a time in a good year. Inky caps might not interest everyone, and some types are poisonous. Their edible lifetime can be measured in hours, and as the caps mature the mushroom turns rapidly into inky black goo. If you harvest the caps while still firm, they turn everything in the pan inky black. These mushrooms have flavor worth the fear, and in many places Shaggy Manes are common.
Many wild mushrooms do turn out to be disappointing in flavor. Some of the most abundant edible mushrooms in the Ozarks had a coarse texture and nondescript taste that made me pass them up even though there were hundreds of pounds available in season. Only a few varieties turn out to be marvelous, simply marvelous. One that I found in the northwest was a very tricky type, easily confused with dangerous species, an LBM or Little Brown Mushroom that many experts recommend avoiding entirely, since so many LBM’s are dangerous. After scientifically convincing myself it was edible, I still found it hard to swallow, but it was so good! The next year I found it growing on the back seat of my ’68 Chevy Malibu, which had serious condensation problems, and although it was growing in an artificial medium of sponge rubber and naugahyde, the flavor was just the same.
I do recommend extreme caution when eating any wild mushroom. Do consult experts and learn the trade before going out on your own. If you’re a mushroom hunter, learn all the rules and abide by them, including the rules about gathering mushrooms in your state or city. Here in Indiana it’s legal to pick mushrooms on any public land, including nature preserves. If there’s a bulletin board with rules posted, read it to find any exceptions. Local rules supersede anything you read on the internet.
I’ve known people who felt differently about the wisdom of eating strange mushrooms, and even some experts have sampled, very carefully, the deadly mushrooms, just to know what they are like. Don’t do that. Read the descriptions of the toxic effects if you’re curious. One interesting mushroom has a mildly peppery flavor that actually sounds very attractive, something like a chili pepper. The flavor gradually intensifies, however, becoming steadily hotter and hotter until it’s far beyond the effect of any chili. It hasn’t become popular.
Two of my elder neighbors in the Ozarks were avid mushroom hunters and had gathered mushrooms every year for their entire lives there. One summer they were wandering the woods and came across one little mushroom they had never seen before, and picked it. They wondered if they should try it, since it might be poisonous and might kill them. They fried it up with their supper and both spent considerable time looking at it on their plates before digging in and eating it.
About fifteen years later, both of these people died of old age. Possibly this had something to do with the mushroom, which they did say was very good. With mushrooms, you just can’t be sure.
Links of Interest:
How to Pick Wild Mushrooms — Examples of things that go wrong.
“A correspondent in Minnesota writes: “The Morel grows abundantly in some places here, but so prejudiced are many of the natives against ‘toad-stools’ that I had to eat the Morel alone for a whole season before I could induce any one else to taste it.”” — Taylor, Thomas (2011-03-24). Student’s Hand-book of Mushrooms of America, Edible and Poisonous (Kindle Locations 670-672). Kindle Edition.