There is fungus among us, and it’s delicious
Published: September 28, 2011
It’s a rainy autumn day, and I am slowly traversing an unusually wild (i.e., forested, with relatively undisturbed undercanopy) patch within a Baltimore City park. Following a fallen oak tree down its gargantuan length, I see that the ground near the broken-off stump is covered with literally dozens of mushroom clusters, voluptuous cascades of glistening caramel-brown caps. My mouth literally waters at the sight. I’m nearly certain these are honey mushrooms, Armillaria mellea—the sticky shine on the caps is heavily indicative thereof. But, like any experienced fungus hunter who plans to live a long life, I want to make assurance double sure. I settle in and pull out a field guide and some spore print paper.
Yellow-brown sticky cap with white gills attached to and slightly descending stalk: check. Partial ring on upper stalk: check. Black, string-like rhizomorphs: check. Powerful odor of cannabis: Hmm, that unusual property isn’t mentioned in the Audubon guide, nor the Peterson. Wow. Honey mushrooms, in my experience, don’t generally have much odor, a trait confirmed by my books, but the ones in front of me smell very, very strongly of marijuana. If I can’t make a definitive ID there’s no way I’m going to gather these ’shrooms—there are too many poisonous lookalikes—and this funky smell is a deal-breaker. Dang.
Elation fading to disappointment, I start hiking back up the hill along the other side of the prone oak, and that is when I see the trio of high school kids hunkered down along the trunk very quietly passing a fat blunt back and forth. Ah, the adventures of urban mushroom hunting.
Fungi grow just about anywhere, even in the city: All they need is moisture and relatively undisturbed soil or a little dead wood. Although mushrooms seem to appear suddenly, they are always there—the parts we’re familiar with, that pop up aboveground, are only the fruiting body, the strange fleshy flower, of the subterranean mycelium. This is the actual mushroom “plant,” an incredibly complex organism living underground (or under tree bark).
Mushrooms grow rapidly and abundantly, particularly in the autumn, especially when it’s rainy. And edible varieties are ridiculously easy to find. Of course, some mushrooms are toxic or even poisonous; though only a very small percentage of North American species are deadly, it’s not a mistake anyone wants to make. There are, however, some very delicious varieties that are relatively safe for beginners in that they are easily identified and have no toxic lookalikes. When I teach mushroom hunting, I concentrate on the following three choice edibles, all of which I find frequently and abundantly in and around Baltimore.
(The following is intended only as an introduction to local edible mushroom species. DO NOT use these brief descriptions as a basis for gathering and eating them. NEVER eat a wild mushroom unless you are an experienced mycologist, or have received a positive identification of your find from someone who is. And pretty please don’t e-mail me blurry cell phone pictures of shit you find growing in your backyard, because this does not constitute positive ID. I am absolutely not responsible if you go out, find a mushroom, eat it, and get really sick or even die, dig?)
Chicken of the woods: Laetiporus sulphureus is also known as the chicken mushroom (or sulphur shelf mushroom), so called because the flavor and meaty texture make it taste, well, like chicken. It’s the ideal beginners’ mushroom—common, easily found, and absolutely no poisonous lookalikes. Chicken mushrooms are polypores, meaning they have porous flesh instead of gills on their undersides. They have a long season; when they first emerge, they’re tender throughout, but the edges of mature chickens are still delectable.
Puffballs: Yes, these are those white (Calvatia gigantean) or light brown (Calvatia utriformis) orbs that pop up on lawns and in parks everywhere this time of year. When young they are a choice edible, meaty white orbs of solid white flesh with a strong, earthy flavor. (When mature they’re just a lot of fun to stomp on, exploding in a smoke-like puff of spores.) You must always cut them in half lengthwise to make sure there are no immature stalk or gills inside. This is unlikely, but if you find anything that doesn’t look exactly like marshmallow—undifferentiated and uniformly white—lurking inside a mushroom you’ve ID-ed as a puffball, throw it away. There are poisonous Amanita mushrooms that in juvenile stage look very similar to small puffballs, but the stem and gills are visibly developing inside.
Don’t wash puffballs; just cut off the outer skin, slice, and sautée. The really big boys—gigantean grow to beachball size—can be cut into steaks and grilled, or battered and fried like cutlets.
Oyster mushrooms: Pleurotus ostreatus is easily identified because it always grows on dead deciduous (e.g., not pine) trees, in shelf-like tiers, although it is not a shelf mushroom: Oysters have gills, though virtually no stalk. Living up to their name, oyster mushrooms have a marvelous, delicate ocean-y flavor, though they get their name from their habit of growing in clusters like aquatic oyster shoals. They range in color from white to ivory to tan to brownish gray, and are moist and hairless but not sticky. There’s nothing that looks like these that would make you sick if you ate them.
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