the Edible Wild Mushroom
by "The Mushroom Man," Alan Muskat
True or false?
It is dangerous
to touch or smell a poisonous mushroom.
mushrooms are deadly but the edible ones are safe to eat.
often cannot tell the edible species from the poisonous.
have no nutritional value.
need to cook mushrooms.
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
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. 
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
So the truth is that eating wild mushrooms (like driving and casual
sex) has some measure of risk. But then practically everybody does it
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. 
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
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,
Mushrooms Demystified (Dave Arora, $40)
Peterson's Field Guide to Mushrooms (Kent and Vera McKnight,
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").
 D.R. Benjamin, Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas, 162
 Benjamin, 23, 63
"For more information or to order a copy of my introductory booklet,
Wild Mushrooms: A Taste of Enchantment, visit my website, alanmuskat.com.
Give me a few days to reply. I'm probably out hunting!
"However they may be served and eaten, mushrooms you must
make yours at any cost... Learn to like them; WILL to like them, or
else your brief sojourn on this earth will be a wretched waste."
Pennell: The Feasts of Autolycus
stand-up mycomedian and epicure of the obscure, has persuaded thousands
to sample rather than trample the toadstools. From GA to NY to WI, this
taxonomic troubadour has enchanted audiences with mushroom poetry, folklore
and flavors from around the world. As anyone who knows the Mushroom
Man will tell you: when it comes to bringing out the fun in fungi, he's