My father was a hunter and would eat any sort of mammal or bird. I don’t think he ever considered reptiles except for gator, but he’d eat pretty much any other sort of animal. He and an uncle of mine even picked up a roadkill armadillo one winter evening at their camp in Florida and ate it for supper. Although I know that eating such things is possible, and I would do it if I were really hungry, I tend to look to the fish and vegetable worlds for my food. It’s convenient and the items come in smaller pieces.
As open-minded as he was about meat, my Dad was totally opposite when it came to any plant or fungus. He wouldn’t eat wild plants, not even the good ones like dandelion buds (mmm, like a plant with butter on it already) or poke salad (the American version of asparagus). My Dad would not even eat a mushroom bought in a grocery store, the sort that people buy in half pound or pound boxes at Walmart. I’d be sitting there eating mushrooms with my dinner and he’d be staring at me, and eventually he would say, How do you know that’s not poisonous?
It didn’t matter what I said back to him, that for example this is an agaricus mushroom grown in sterile conditions and it’s perfectly safe. Probably lots safer than an armadillo picked up off a highway in Florida, Agaricus is very common and nothing else gets mixed in with it, because few mushrooms respond so well to cultivation as Agaricus. I could go on and on and explain to my father how you identify mushrooms, by shape and by spore color and by physical features and color, and it would not matter. In the end, my father would still stare at me and say, But how do you know?
Well, in all fairness to my father, in the end there is only one way to know. You eat the mushroom and see what happens.
This is one of the interesting things about mushroom hunting. You are always finding new mushrooms and the line between poisonous and nonpoisonous, or edible and inedible, is not always clear. Most people stick to a few types that they know well, and that’s a generally safe procedure. If you really don’t go any farther than that, don’t learn all the things you should know, even that first and generally approved advice isn’t safe. There are almost always look-alike mushrooms that resemble the edible types but are not edible and often are actually poisonous. You need to at least know enough to detect those, because in the wild, mushrooms don’t come already sorted, in little plastic foam boxes. It’s not like eating a deer, if you find something that looks like a deer you can probably eat it if you cook it thoroughly. Even if it’s not a deer, if it turns out to be a dog or a cow, you can still eat it. Mushrooms are not like that.
I’ve been mushroom hunting since the early 70’s and I don’t think my level of expertise has climbed much since I started. I started with the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and I still have it. Maybe at this late date it has been revised, but the basic identification procedure in my guide book is still accurate. Unless I know a mushroom type well and have eaten it before, I always go through the procedure, and often by the time the spore print is done the mushrooms I picked are inedible, too rotten to taste, but it’s worth it. I often find a flush of mushrooms that look and smell good and even though I don’t know what they are, I pick a bag of them to take home. Then I go through the procedure of identification, and often I find out they are not edible. I have to throw them out. That’s part of mushroom hunting. If you want to do this, get used to it. Get a good field guide, and the Audubon field guide is still the best. Be prepared to pick a lot of mushrooms you wind up throwing out.
Terms in mushroom hunting are not quite solid. The terms edible and inedible are kind of blurry in actual application, as are poisonous and nonpoisonous. Edible and choice usually means it is a good culinary mushroom. Edible means that you can eat it safely, but it does not mean that it tastes especially good. I’ve eaten lots of edible mushrooms that I don’t even want to eat again in a survival situation. Just because you can swallow it safely does not mean it is good food. OK, maybe if I were starving I would eat those, but I wouldn’t be happy about it. I’ve eaten edible mushrooms that are so bitter I spit them out immediately. I suppose there was some nutritional value in chewing them.
Poisonous, on the other hand, can also mean other things. The Audubon guide I use was written by people who considered hallucinogenic mushrooms to be poisonous, because they make you see things differently. I probably already see things differently and I’ve eaten hallucinogenic mushrooms that had no apparent effect on me. Again, I’m more interested in whether or not they taste good, and some hallucinogenic mushrooms do not. Some of them do taste good. There are no strict guidelines. But the important thing here is, in the field guides I use there is no distinction between genuinely poisonous and harmful mushrooms, and mushrooms that are merely nauseating yet give you wonderful visions of pointless or important things. Book authors sometimes think that having visions is a sign of being poisoned. Eh, I’m a Buddhist with Indian leanings, I have visions anyway. You need to know far more than is in any single field guide if you want to play in that zone.
Even when it comes down to the most popular mushrooms, like morels, you need to know your stuff. The true morels are safe enough, but there are in some areas lookalikes like Fairy Caps which are not edible. In the Northwest I came home with bags of fairy caps sometimes and when I went through the identification process I was sad and threw them out. Not edible, but they are common in some regions and do resemble morels. In the Ozarks once I stumbled upon a flush of huge morels, and of the sort that are obviously true morels. I picked twenty pounds, took them home, ran through the procedure, and found a gray area. In mushroom hunting there are lots of gray areas.
Giant morels may or may not be edible or poisonous. It depends upon the type of tree they infest. The fungus grows on tree roots and absorbs toxins contained in the tree, so if it’s a harmless tree they are fine and if not, they can contain the same chemical used in rocket fuel. I did not do a taste test on my lot, just threw them out. I do know a fellow who ate one, though. I worked with him at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, when I was the Old Broom Maker there, and he told me this story.
Some friends of his went morel hunting one spring and brought him a sack of huge morels, morels so big he had never seen them before! and clearly neither had the people who gave them to him, which is probably why they gave them away. True mushroom hunters are suspicious of new things. He fried one up for supper and it was delicious! This is also a typical feature of the deadly types, the Destroying Angel mushroom is said to taste wonderful. Then three days later you get excruciating pains because your liver just died. Good taste is not a solid indication of edibility. This fellow found this out quickly that evening, and spent the entire night with his head hanging over the edge of his front porch while he vomited endlessly. Hydrazine poisoning, you get that if you drink rocket fuel. Best to stay away from the Giant Morels.
I had a wonderful mushroom year in 2017, was just great. I did not find any morels and locally other people said their luck was the same, mushrooms don’t flush annually like corn and beans. But I found a wonderful flush of yellow foot chanterelles, and I just missed a flush of oyster mushrooms. Now that I know their season here I will be on the lookout next time. What I found late in the fall, was a mushroom I have seen before but never eaten until now, because the books say it is poisonous. The books also say they are not sure.
This is real mushroom hunting, when you have something in hand that may or may not kill you or cause you to go insane for a few days, yet might taste really good.
I was hoping this was the Fly Agaric, the sacred mushroom of Siberia, but even though it has been naturalized in the U.S. the results are not nearly so powerful here as in the old country. In Siberia, shamans would eat these mushrooms to obtain visions, and the effects were so wonderful that other people would drink the urine of the shamans to experience similar things. Apparently, after going through a shaman the poisonous effects were much reduced. I’ve read that a fatal dose of these would be about 30 mushrooms, so in terms of poisoning it doesn’t seem too terrible. If I ate 30 pizzas I would die, too.
Sadly, the Americanized version of the Fly Agaric is not so potent, and this probably has to do with that tree-to-mushroom symbiosis that put my Silver Dollar City friend on his porch for the night. It’s not just the mushroom, it’s what the mushroom eats. The Audubon field guide says there are many variations of this mushroom in the U.S. now, so many that no one really knows whether they are toxic or not, but the expert who wrote that section said that this version of the Fly Agaric does not cause visions. Sadly, I would agree with him, because I picked about 15 pounds of them this year and have eaten some.
I will give my best guess about these and call them, for now, Panther mushrooms. There are many subspecies of the Fly Agaric in America now. The cap color and the pattern of the white scales on top matches this description, of the variety someone named Panther. In pine forests here, in the fall, they are common and numerous. Obviously they are an Amanita, have the gills and the veil and nearly always the ring of tissue loose on the stalk that marks an Amanita. Some of the Amanitas are deadly, and the Amanita family includes the Destroying Angel, similar in all ways to the Panther except that it is pure white. I see them around here frequently, and even though they may not be Destroying Angels they are close enough to that description that I will not mess with them or even poke them with a stick. You don’t want to eat a Destroying Angel by mistake, even if it is pretty and tastes good. You die a few days later, in horrible pain, if you do eat one. So I’m careful of Amanitas. The Panther is an Amanita. I took some convincing to try it.
I found one clump of these, this past fall, and that first day I passed it up, no sense in taking chances. The next day I went back to that same woods, because there was a good flush of other moderately edible mushrooms happening. When I came to that clump, the mushrooms were gone. All that remained was a single stalk, with the tooth marks of a deer on it. Hmmm.
Again, this is a dicey area. Just because a deer eats something does not mean humans can eat it safely. If you see birds eating berries, that doesn’t mean you can. But having lived in the wild for a long time, I’m more tolerant of this idea than most book authors who have never eaten such things. Acorns are poisonous, but not deadly, and if you’ve ever eaten one you know that there is no danger of eating a fatal dose because you literally can’t. Although acorns are poisonous due to high levels of tannic acid, acorns were a major food source in old America. You just need to know how to process them, and this does include a sack and a stream of running water for about three days, plus some technical skill. Depends also on the variety of acorn, some are good and some are not, some can be eaten out of hand but this depends on species and even individual trees. In California, Native Americans fought wars over particular trees. They were that good. Yet college professors will warn people not to eat too many acorns, as though you could eat a fatal dose by accident. Excuse me, you can’t even eat one acorn by accident. This is when I suggest that maybe people should go outside sometimes. Deer have strong stomachs and can tolerate things humans can’t. Birds have a totally different digestive system than we do, yet leave things behind that we can actually eat. But! in the wild, if you see that something is eating a particular thing, that’s a good indication that humans might be able to eat it, too. It depends. It’s a maybe. Maybe kills you, maybe not. Hmmm.
So I came back and did some serious Panther Mushroom hunting, wound up with about ten pounds, maybe more, and had to fight the deer to get them. The deer love these mushrooms. I did see that a deer sampled what I though was a Destroying Angel, ate only one bite and did not bother them ever after. Also a sign, follow the advice of the deer. I have read of a mushroom expert who boldly took a bite of a Destroying Angel and was not horribly killed, but I do not want to do it myself, and my deer buddy also had that same opinion. Did not come back for seconds.
Online I learned that the toxic effects of the Fly Agaric can be minimized by drying, which also intensifies the psychedelic effects. So I dried all the Panther mushrooms I picked. One can only hope.
This is standard advice for anyone who hunts mushrooms. When you find a new variety, even if you see it listed as edible and choice and are certain of the identification, just eat one. Cook it, eat it, wait 24 hours to see what happens. Different people respond in different ways to mushrooms. Some tolerate certain types, some don’t. If you picked a bag of Inky Caps or Shaggy Manes, and you have never eaten them before, this test means even if you are fine with them you’ll have to discard the rest. They have a very brief shelf life before turning into black goo. If you use them in cooking, think of them as squid ink. In Seattle there was a cluster of these at the base of a big maple tree in the parking lot next door to my house. I ate Inky Caps there frequently. They need to be close by or they rot before you get them into the wok. Anyway, I did this test with the Panthers after they were dried, and there was no hurry, this is a type of mushroom that can be preserved by drying.
I tried the Panthers in several ways, cooked and uncooked. I made a tincture of vodka and dried mushrooms, one cap to the tiny jar. Ate it. No ill effects. Tasted good. No visions, dammit. Tried a larger dose, three caps, still no visions, but they taste really good. So in spite of this being listed as a poisonous mushroom, it seems to be fine, just like the deer said, and the deer said, Damn! This is a good mushroom! I have quite a lot of these Panther mushrooms in dried form and will eat them. I like them and they haven’t killed me.
If I told that to my father, were he still alive, he would be horrified. He would say, But how do you know?
Eh, you do your best, and try not to be terrified of life, death, or visions of the possible future. I live in the Trump administration, the Cold War was nothing compared to this. I can eat some dangerous food sometimes.
OK, I will add this Ozark story. I’m getting older, stories are required now : ). I learned so much from my older neighbors there, back in the old days when people there still lived in rough plank cabins. If you’ve seen the cabin the Clampetts came from in the Beverly Hillbillies show, that was how my old neighbors lived, and it was for real. Lots of my neighbors were extras on that show, we were the real deal.
Two of my neighbors, Floyd and Gladys, lived on the edge of the old “Bar Pit” which to most of us was interpreted as the Bear Pit but was not, it was actually the Borrow Pit for the railroad track that had been installed sometime before us. Bar, borrow; Bumagillia, Balm of Gilead; there were misunderstandings of that sort commonly. But Floyd and Gladys liked mushrooms and went hunting for them every spring and summer.
One summer, they found a mushroom they had never seen before. It was a solitary mushroom, one of the most dangerous types. Nothing to compare it to, just one mushroom all by itself. They picked it, took it home. Gladys cooked it up, divided it onto their plates. They sat and looked at it, wondering. Then, even though they had never seen this mushroom before, they ate it. They said later on that it was good. They had no book to guide them, only knew what their forebears had told them, and they took a chance.
About twenty years later, both Floyd and Gladys, aged about 85 years, died. Draw from that the conclusions you will choose.