Last supper

by 2400 2,400 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

Last supper

Detail from Champignons Suspects, coloured lithograph by A Cornillon, c.1827. Photo courtesy Wellcome Images

Like the deadly pufferfish, wild mushrooms are for culinary daredevils. Care to play Russian roulette with your dinner?

Cal Flyn is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph and New Statesman, among others. She lives in the Highlands of Scotland.

2400 2,400 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

I decided to move out of London earlier this year and spent much of the summer in the Lake District where my boyfriend works as a mountain guide. When the sun shone, we swam in the river where it ran still and deep, and on quiet days — to stave off fears about work, unanswered emails, unpaid invoices, my imminent poverty — I pulled on my boots, left the house and went out foraging in the hedgerows.

By June, the broad leaves of wild garlic had sprung up in place of the bluebells, a strong perfume announcing their arrival on the breeze. Wild strawberries, each barely a mouthful, came next, and plums. Then, when the leaves began to change, the raspberries, brambles and hazelnuts hung in heavy clusters from their branches. There is something deeply satisfying about returning home and turning out your pockets into the fridge. To take on the role of gatherer, food provider. September was spent sticky-fingered, lips stained crimson from the juice. Peeling, slicing, stewing.

When the rain set in, the berries turned to mush. But for the first time I noticed how the forest floor changed as the fungi began to emerge. Small grey caps nudged each other out of the earth, woody shelf-like brackets protruded from the trees, huddles of long-necked toadstools took shelter under the low branches. Here was a rich seam, entirely untapped. It seemed wasteful, somehow, for us to stand and watch as they grew, matured, and rotted away uneaten, then drive to the supermarket to buy kilograms of mass-grown mushrooms in plastic trays. And so, armed with a copy of the Collins Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain and Europe, we wandered through the woods at Grizedale.

Every few feet, we stumbled across a new, unidentified species. What about this? I called, waving him over. An Amanita excelsa, do you think? We squinted at the picture in the book, compared it to our specimen, side by side. It had the same soft white stalk, a felty skirt, pretty tan cap with pale scaly spots. Beside each entry in the book, there is a symbol: a smiling face or a skull and crossbones. Edible or poisonous? Next to ‘Amanita excelsa’ there was a smiley face. But, looking carefully, the colour didn’t seem an exact match for our toadstool. Different lighting? Natural variance? Or a wholly separate species?

‘Edible, mild taste; smell of turnip’ said the guide. Fine. But then, wait: ‘NB. Danger of confusing A. excelsa with A. pantherina and the very rare A. regalla.’ Hmmm. I leafed back through the book. A. pantherina did look similar, but it had the skull and crossbones. ‘Poison acts like A. phalloides but is stronger,’ it warned. I flicked back another few pages. ‘A. phalloides... causes the destruction of the liver and even small doses can be fatal. The poison is active for years and cannot be destroyed by cooking. 50g is fatal to a human being.’

We looked at each other, dropped the mushroom and walked on.

Mushrooms are bloodthirsty. The clues are in the common names: destroying angels, devil’s boletes, poison pies, beechwood sickeners. The Roman emperor Claudius, the Habsburg Charles VI and even the Buddha are all thought to have succumbed to their poison. While walking through a Highland estate in 2008, Nicholas Evans, the author of The Horse Whisperer, picked some brownish wild mushrooms that he took to be porcini. He and his wife and brother-in-law ate them fried with butter and parsley. And then, one by one, their kidneys began to fail. (Evans received a replacement kidney from his daughter, and his wife accepted one from a friend, but his brother-in-law is yet to find a donor. He must still undergo five hours of dialysis several times a week).

In May this year, British newspapers carried stories about a woman who picked handsome golden toadstools from her garden for a soup. Honey-scented, pleasant tasting. Only later, in the emergency department of the nearest hospital, did she learn their name: Amanita phalloides — death caps, as they are commonly known. Half a mushroom would have been enough to kill her, the coroner said. She’d eaten five.

Fungi seem to speak a different language entirely

When we hunt for mushrooms, we encounter a species with which we have no natural affinity. Beautiful pale toadstools might be toxic, while twisted black growths could be edible. Their appearance makes no intuitive sense. Colouring and scent in plants and animals is commonly used as a form of communication: ‘Don’t eat me! I’m poisonous!’ Or ‘I taste good!’ Fungi seem to speak a different language entirely.

Yet it is not altogether indecipherable, and with careful study one can learn to tell them apart. I began to teach myself: comparing picked mushrooms to the pictures in a book, reading the checklist of qualities beneath each name. This one here: is it long-stemmed or bulbous? Does it bleed milk? Are the gills crowded or porous? Is the cap slimy or dry? Does it taste bitter or spicy? Does it smell?

There is, I discovered, a thriving online community of mycology devotees who swap tips on the best fungi gathering sites, offering second opinions on mystery mushrooms and, location permitting, hunting together in woods nearby. They are cautious and methodical. Even so, these shoegazing nature-lovers have one of the most dangerous hobbies in the world. In the five years between 1993 and 1997, there were 6,317 cases of mushroom poisoning in California alone, according to the Western Medical Journal. Sixty-one of those patients had to be admitted to a critical care unit. Every time mycologists bring home a fresh batch, they risk an upset stomach at the very least, and at worst a slow and painful death. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver wrote in ‘Mushrooms’ (2005):
those who know
walk out to gather, choosing
the benign from flocks
of glitterers, sorcerers,
panther caps,
shark-white death angels
in their town veils
looking innocent as sugar
but full of paralysis:
to eat
is to stagger down

To eat is to stagger down indeed. The toxins in the death cap mushroom make themselves known within 24 hours, as the body is racked with abdominal cramping, vomiting and diarrhoea. After a day or so, the symptoms die down and the sufferer recovers, gets up from his bed and thanks God for His mercy. But he has not been saved. Silently, secretly, the poison is invading his body, shutting down his internal organs, wreaking irrevocable damage upon his liver and kidneys. Jaundice will follow, then seizures. Within two weeks, he will be dead. There is no antidote.

All of this raises the inevitable question: if the risk is so huge and the pay-off so small, why do it? The identification process is interesting, of course, and mushrooms are pleasant enough to eat. But perhaps the real intrigue arises from the risk itself — and the skill required to sidestep it.

We see something similar with fugu, the Japanese pufferfish, which is served as sashimi, or thin, raw slices. The skin of the pufferfish, as well as its ovaries, eyes, kidneys, liver and intestines, contain a deadly neurotoxin. Poor preparation of fugu results in the near-instantaneous death of the eater. Nevertheless, diners flock to the few restaurants outside Japan with staff qualified to serve it. And one thing is certain: it’s not because of the magnificent taste. Although connoisseurs rhapsodise over fugu’s ‘delicate’ flavour, the general consensus is not enthusiastic. ‘Unusually tough,’ reads one representative review, ‘with a mild fishiness. It lacked almost any flavour of its own.’

The trace of the poison that remains on the plate brings a tingle to the lips and mouth as it goes down — a sensation called shibireru — which adds a frisson to the meal. A non-toxic strain of the fish was developed to much fanfare several years ago, but it never proved popular. Without the danger, fugu lost its appeal. Is this just simple daredevilry, then? Perhaps not only that. There is also a celebration of the expertise that can turn a foodie’s game of Russian roulette into a skilfully played hand of poker. With fugu, it comes from years of specialist training: chefs wishing to serve pufferfish must undergo a rigorous education before sitting both a theory and a practical exam in its preparation. Mycologists, on the other hand, do not need a licence to pick mushrooms, and so the equivalent know-how comes down to conscientious self-study. Hours must be spent poring over field guides, testing for bruising, peeling the caps, nibbling the flesh, preparing the delicate, starlike spore prints overnight. (Trim the stalk, rest the cap gills down on a sheet of paper then cover with a glass. By morning, the mushroom will have released its dusty spores onto the paper below, thus revealing the colour and texture that provides a valuable clue to its identity.)

'Ultimately, I use a microscope. It gets that geeky when you want to eat different species but you don’t want to die’

‘Just getting used to the terminology in the fungi books can require a dictionary,’ says Melissa Waddingham, who forages for wild mushrooms and truffles on the South Downs in England. ‘I have many books. Not one says it all. I use the internet to help with identification, phone a friend, and, ultimately, I use a microscope. It gets that geeky when you want to eat different species but you don’t want to die.’

Short of death, Waddingham told me, the price of error might include ‘a life on dialysis, liver transplant, organ failure, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, headaches, trippy mood alterations — even from non-hallucinogenic ones — and possibly allergic reactions.

‘God knows why us lunatics take the plunge. I guess I like the elitism of eating wild fungi. It makes me feel special that I can enjoy the wonderful and weird things that most of the population don't eat. And adrenalin is addictive — I always get the fear after eating a new species even if I’m 100 per cent sure.’

Exactly that. Despite the warnings, despite the meagre returns from the enormous risks, I could not help but be fascinated. Perhaps it was the fungi’s sudden ubiquity that caught my attention, or their other-worldliness. In any case, I was transfixed. But there is only so much you can learn from books. The pictures never quite match up, the sensory descriptions are too opaque for a novice to be certain.

Seeking support, my friend and I tagged along on the coattails of the botanist Paul Nichol, Cumbria’s county recorder of fungi. Paul spends his days tramping through the woods noting the spread and frequency of different species.

We followed him through Whinfell Forest, near Penrith, where he showed us what he looks for. ‘Eyes down,’ he said. ‘Walk slowly. Here, smell this —’ I sniffed a toadstool obediently: the smell of flour. ‘We call that The Miller. Delicious to eat. Now this —’ A fishy, decaying smell. ‘Also good. Surprised?’

A dark, contorted mass got the green light (‘an elastic saddle!’) and then a pestle puffball, pale and phallic with a soft white interior like a marshmallow. He pointed out a clump of rare nidulariaceae fungi behind rock. They look like tiny birds’ nests, full of little spore ‘eggs’ that wait patiently for a well-placed raindrop to scatter them into the moss. ‘Look closely,’ he said. ‘You’ll probably never see these again.’

If we were ever unsure about a mushroom we could try cutting it open, Paul suggested, to see if it changed colour on contact with the air. He demonstrated with a plump green toadstool and rested it on a nearby stump. Within seconds, the flesh was transformed: a deep blue sap flooded the raw surface. ‘The inkstain bolete,’ he explained. ‘You’ll always recognise it that way.’

Some mushrooms can be identified by the trees that they grew under — edible saffron milk caps prefer conifers, for example — and some of those will grow in symbiosis with their trees, feeding them nutrients in return for sugar, growing in neat concentric circles around the trunk like fairy circles.

The toadstool itself is only a tiny part of an enormous unseen, underground mass — the mycelium — that spreads like a cobweb through the soil beneath our feet. ‘In Oregon, loggers stumbled on an underground mycelium that had grown like a mat to cover 2,200 acres,’ Paul said. ‘They think it’s the greatest living organism on the planet.’

A whole world opened up in front of me. It felt as if I’d switched on the television to find an urgent broadcast. Aliens exist! They’ve been here all along! They’re in the lawn, they’re in the woods, they’re in the cracks of the pavement and the bottom of your airing cupboard. World leaders unite as they ask: what happens now? Do we just carry on as before?

Neville Kilkenny remembers keenly this sense of wonder. He was in his early forties, working as a joiner, when his wife bought him a ticket for a day’s ‘fungi foray’ into the woods around Edinburgh as a birthday present. Within two years, he had sold his business to retrain as an apprentice mycologist. ‘There is nothing,’ he told me, ‘and I mean nothing quite like seeing an area of natural forest with its fungi in full flush. I remember the first time I visited Black Wood of Rannoch, a SSSI [site of special scientific interest] in Scotland in mid-August, when there was literally an explosion of fungal diversity. It wasn’t so much a quiet pleasure as I literally shouted out loud for the joy of being there.

‘Inside all of us there is a whoop for joy to be found upon encountering an undisturbed patch of chanterelle or porcini, just waiting to get out.’

Inspired, I returned to the woods. This time I came home with a basket of fresh mushrooms. It was a good harvest: common puffballs, honey fungus, slippery jacks, amethyst deceivers. Or, at least, that’s what I thought they were.

We cleaned them and cooked them. We ate. And then we waited.

Read more essays on death, food & drink and general health


  • Howard Treesong

    It would be way too much of an insane risk to take to pluck mushrooms, the toxicity of which you are not aware of, just for the thrill of consuming a mushroom.

    I eat to sustain myself and because I enjoy good food. That does not include eating something that invites certain death after consumption. Why would you possibly want to do that?

    • Stephen

      The thinking of someone sheltered and paranoid. I have gone on countless mushroom picking trips with my father and cooked them in a pan the same day with bits of bacon. Like most things in life, all you need is someone who knows what he's doing.

      • Howard Treesong

        You can call me absolutely anything you want. We are talking about consuming something that can potentially kill you in very seriously unpleasant ways or incapacitate you for life. And that's just because you had to try and eat something 'interesting'.

        The risk versus reward equation doesn't cut it for me. I don't believe mushrooms taste so unbelievably good that I should run the risk of accidentally eating the wrong one and, oops, die horribly. I can't even begin to sell that equation to myself. It cannot possibly be worth it. If the worst that could happen is a day of stomach cramps and talking to god on the big white telephone I'd say: well, you have to take a risk sometimes. My kidneys shutting down, my mental health (that which there still is) compromised or my internal organs slowly dissolving from the inside out, how is that even a reasonable risk to take?

        About paranoia: only the paranoid survive.

        • Philippe Castagner

          You are simply ignorant of the ACTUAL risk, while reflecting a deep cultural bias.

          Out of ignorance, you don't understand that the risk is greater when you get in your car than it is when you sit down at my table for a meal.

          • Howard Treesong

            The writer of the piece mentions "But there is only so much you can learn from books. The pictures never quite match up, the sensory descriptions are too opaque for a novice to be certain."

            I'm supposed to trust the fact that someone will never make a mistake distinguishing a mushroom that is good to eat, but can look quite similar to another variety that will kill you overnight. And depending on the conditions in the forest, individual variety in shape and texture, you're kind of sure, just maybe not quite, and you never actually had those before, but you heard they are tasty.

            That's not russian roulette to you, picking up mushrooms that takes an extremely experienced specialist to make a reliable judgement on whether or not this mushroom passes muster or that mushroom is just poisonous enough to kill off your entire family tree in one evening of fine dining.

            I'm deeply biased alright. I'm biased towards surviving the meal experience. Does that work for you? Because it certainly works for me.

          • Philippe Castagner

            Again, as I mentioned before, one of my first rules for novices is not to try to match mushrooms in the real world to pictures in a book. The pictures in a field guide are artwork. The text is used along with knowledge of the descriptive terms used and what the properties they describe look, feel, taste, or smell like in the real world. Actual mushroom hunters follow rules like "when in doubt, throw it out(side)".

            And I find it a bit circular that you keep referring to statements made in this article as supporting evidence for statements made in this article. It is quite clear to anyone who actually knows anything at all about this subject that the author did not have a clue, a guide, or any business attempting to identify mushrooms for consumption in the wild.

            Perhaps the level of ignorance is just too high for me to even reason with you. I suppose this is like trying to convince someone who has never seen a car that it is a good idea to hurtle yourself at very high velocities, in a heavy metal box on wheels, while thousands of others nearby do so simultaneously with only a system of agreed upon rules and signals to govern the predictability of their trajectories.

            And yeah, if you don't understand the culinary value of the four dozen or so wild species I've harvested and shared, I'm not sure we can relate anyway. Thanks for doing a good job illustrating the flawed reasoning behind mycophobia though.

          • Jesse4

            If someone had never seen them before, a dog and a cat would look very similar also. But after a little practice and familiarity, almost no one can mistake one for the other. Same thing with mushrooms. It's really pretty easy to learn to ID the poison ones, and there isn't much excuse for confusing a poison one for an edible. People that get poisoned always make mistakes that any competent beginner would never make. It's really not risky at all IF you learn a bit about what you're doing and pay attention.

          • Howard Treesong

            A dog and a cat would look familiar? Can you name two sets of cats and dogs that could be mistaken for one another when you first saw them?

            I'm not inventing it here. I'm going by the author's own admission that there are mushrooms that are not easily verifiable, in fact they can easily be mistaken one for the other. And the consequences of eating the wrong one can be grizzly.

            Throughout this conversation I notice I have the most incredibly hard time making people see how risqué the idea of 'harvesting lovely mushrooms from the great outdoors' seems to someone who is interested in the topic but doesn't know the first thing about it.

            "If you learn -a bit- about what you're doing" doesn't cut it. Specifically since a source is mentioned who is a person who can be relied upon to make a sound decision on yea or nay mushroom, he only had to spend all his life studying them. So, let's pick a book from the bookstore's shelf shall we and explore the world at large!

            The only thing I'm hoping for is that one day you're not going to be making a horrible mistake that is going to cost you dearly. Because the very last thing I want you to think is you recalling this exchange and ruefully acknowledge that "That idiot on the internet was right." I don't need to be right at all costs. I try not to live my life that way.

            I only want a great meal that I can survive.

          • whateveryousay

            "deep cultural bias"....hmm, that sounds serious...perhaps this person should be arrested by thought police and sent to a re-education camp. Asinine phrase.

        • KoWT

          You could write the same sort of thing about the crazy risk associated with crossing a busy road at rushhour. Life is full of risks and, unlike with traffic, deciding whether or not to eat a given mushroom has a very limited set of variables.

    • Earthstar

      Depending on the region you live in, there are only one or 2 dozen truly poisonous mushrooms that you need to learn how to identify. Most mushrooms are not poisonous per say, but simply inedible on account of taste, texture or digestibility. That leaves only a few edibles to look for and a few poisonous mushrooms to look out for. There are only a few species in season at any given time anyhow so it's pretty easy with a bit of reading and training.

    • Philippe Castagner

      wow, it's amazing you could possibly feel an entire toxonomic kingdom is inherently more dangerous.

      If I go for a walk in the woods, 99 out of 100 times I will come across a poisonous plant before I ever see a poisonous mushroom.

      • Howard Treesong

        I'm going by what the poster writes. "a life on dialysis, liver transplant, organ failure, severe stomach cramps, vomiting, headaches, trippy mood alterations", clearly I'm a baby when I don't want just a tiny little risk of dying a horrible death or suffer seriously incapacitating illness, just because I had a taste of the wrong mushroom. Am I a picky eater or what?!

        I would also not eat a random plant. I do not find myself walking around the forest, jumping onto a non-suspecting plant from a concealed location and merrily munching away at it.

        I have eaten mushrooms, the standard kind. They range from 'meh' to 'yuck' on the taste meter. I am not going out of my way to experience the exciting world of mushrooms, a delight on every plate, if I have to take a risk eating the wrong one and, in my throes of hideous agony, hear the doctor say "There's no easy way to say this. It's time to make your peace."

        It's just a dumb mushroom. One ingredient in a meal. There are alternative foods that won't get me killed in interesting ways. I'll have those if you don't mind.

        This is like that Japanese dish, fugu?, if you prepare it wrong, you die. People eat it anyway. It takes years to learn how to cook it without killing people. And the kicker? It doesn't even taste all that good. Way to take a risk eating something that doesn't taste good but will kill you just fine.

        I'm fine with your appreciation of the taxonomy of mushrooms. Eat to your heart's content. More for you! I don't need any, I'm good.

        • babby660

          myself, I'll stick with a nice portabello from the supermarket! You can grill 'em & they make a fine sandwich with fresh spinach & swiss cheese melted on top.

          • Howard Treesong

            I'm not saying there aren't any around that aren't tasty. For myself, they've never been more than something that I try to avoid eating. That doesn't mean I don't want you to eat them either. If there's a few you enjoy: by all means, eat to your heart's content.

            It's specifically going out into the wild and delighting in the find of a wonderful mushroom, yippie, oh, that one was one of the lethal ones. Oh. Dear me.

            We went out for a walk and we would 'pluck our own mushrooms to eat with dinner.' So, they did that. After the walk they put a number of them on the table and said: which one would you trust to eat? I said: "None of them."

            I have not eaten any and they were scared to prepare them because they didn't look all that yummie, even to the adventurous crowd.

            I just don't want to have to worry whether the stuff on my plate is going to kill me.

          • babby660

            yeah, I even bought a field guide to mushrooms several years ago because I thought it would be cool to lunch on some wild ones, but after much consideration I chickened out. It looked to me like it would be too easy to mistake a dinner of death for a yummy meal.

          • Howard Treesong

            That second paragraph is a thing of beauty. I wanted you to know that.

          • babby660

            Thanks, Howard. You made my day.

          • JERRY K

            You guys have no Idea what you are talking about, just like the author.

          • babby660

            well, what do you think we are talking about? do you care to elucidate?

    • Philippe Castagner

      Quite simply, I don't eat poisonous mushrooms. It's that easy. I don't share your cultural bias, ergo no fear, no thrills. Although I do get great joy when I find something rare or out of season.

      The fear and thrills you would feel eating a plate of my mushrooms are the same a white supremacist would feel if he were forced to eat dinner as a guest of some African-Americans. It's based in ignorance, not an honest reaction to danger.

      • Howard Treesong

        It is really unfortunate that you had to introduce race into this or white supremacy. I mean, seriously, what is that doing in this conversation? It's about as useful as mentioning spare parts for aircraft carriers into a conversation about tulips. How do you even get there?

        I try a lot of things, I love encountering new tastes, cooking is a great joy. I love my traditional cuisine which, in some cases has mushrooms in it, mostly a standard white mushroom. I've also had different kinds. They don't appeal to me. The texture is not inviting, their taste is not all that great. And then you have to assume the source is reliable.

        I didn't even know eating the wrong mushroom could have such dire consequences (except 'they're lethal'). Can you not see where that is entirely off-putting? You want me to trust that the mushrooms you put on the table are safe, ingredients for which you are the only source. Imagine having to hear "Dang, those weren't fluffy bunny mellow toasties (for want of a name of an actual palatable one), they were of the 'It sure was nice knowing you' variety.'

        You managed to achieve the radial opposite of what you were trying to do. I don't think I will ever eat another mushroom again. I have enough stuff going on in my life that I don't need the additional overhead of worrying whether the stuff on my plate is going to end up killing me slowly two weeks from then. Henceforth I am allergic to mushrooms.

        Or maybe I will say I had a bad experience while sharing dinner with a member of the ku klux klan. I think I can sell that one easy.

        • Philippe Castagner

          Racism fits nicely into a discussion of cultural biases, which is in effect the article this author came up with. I think say I'm right on point. There is a lot of reasoning on display here that follows a very similar pattern.

          • racqueljantel

            So, let me get this straight -- if you don't like mushrooms, you're racist. You, sir, are beyond repair.

          • Philippe Castagner

            oh no, racist is too kind a word for someone who dislikes mushrooms.

          • LurkinLizard

            You completely missed the point. His point is, racism (an unreasoning, totally ignorant bias) is analogous to a cultural bias against fungi. They are both unreasoning and display willful ignorance. He's not saying that people who don't like mushrooms are racist, he's saying they display a willfully ignorant and baseless racists do. He's correct.

      • whateveryousay

        Are you really this stupid?

  • Medeina Ragana

    The scariest problem with picking wild mushrooms in the US, especially if they're on your lawn, is the amount of toxins that they might possess due to runoff. Pesticides, herbicides, all sorts of other nasty "cides" even pollution washed out by the rain, is absorbed by the ground and then into the various plants. Personally, I'd rather grow my own, which can be done as there are fungi spore sellers around. At least then I'll know what's in them.

    • BradMueller

      Ah. But you'll miss a nice walk in the woods. Morels can't really be confused with any other mushroom. I keep their sites a closely guarded secret..

      • Philippe Castagner

        @brad morels can be and do get confused with gyromitra and verpa.

        the difference can be taught in under a minute though.

    • Philippe Castagner

      not so fast, Medeina. Growing your own can still result in very high levels of cadmium.

      If you are concerned, stick to mycorrhizal and wood-decaying mushrooms, and stay far from roads. Mainly with mushrooms we are worried about cadmium or lead. Older roads from leaded gasoline days are particularly suspect, but remember that car tires also leave dust as they wear down, which is high in cadmium.

    • Jesse4

      Mushrooms do have a nasty habit of concentrating heavy metals and pesticides. It's a good idea to avoid those growing along busy roads and anywhere that ever gets sprayed with anything toxic.

  • drokhole

    It's almost a reflex for me when an article on mushrooms comes along, but I can't help but share the work of master mycologist Paul Stamets. Here's one of his latest (and most comprehensive) talks:

    The Future is Fungi

  • Philippe Castagner

    This is just about the worst article on mushroom hunting I have ever read. As an actual mushroom hunter and lover, I shuddered when I read how you hiked along and compared a member of the amanita genus to photos in an attempt to make a positive ID.

    I have two rules for anyone learning to forage for edible mushrooms: don't try to compare reality to a two dimensional photograph to make an identification, and stay away from the entire amanita genus.

    There is nothing remotely dangerous or thrill-seeking in mushroom foraging AS I PRACTICE IT. Danger in this hobby comes from only one place: ignorance.

  • kd

    I enjoyed reading this article because the author made me believe I was walking through the forest. Beautiful descriptions. And I've learned a little more about risk taking. Please keep writing.

    • LurkinLizard

      You didn't learn anything about risk taking, because there's nothing inherently risky about mushrooming and the author's insinuation that there is qualifies as either complete base ignorance, or hyperbole. Definitely nothing like the truth. Running out and randomly picking a fungus and shoving it in your mouth, of course would be risky and foolish in the extreme. But there are many, many mushrooms that are simple enough to ID that a child can safely do so. NOT a risk. I'm new to mushrooming myself and I still have half a dozen or so species that I'm completely comfortable with identifying, and KNOW that I'm not confusing them with something toxic. There's nothing risky about them. But that's fine, more for me. :P

      • Jane Gaddin

        There is most certainly something inherently risky about putting anything in your mouth, let alone mushrooms. Please dont spread around to total novices that there is no risk. It is quite safe to eat many wild mushrooms. But there is always an element of risk. Any mushroom "expert" worth their salt will say the same thing.

  • John

    This is awful, awful advice. Our Italian family forages for wild mushrooms every Fall and have been doing it for hundreds of years.

  • KoWT

    Born and raised in the midwestern USA, I eat the puffballs and chicken/hen of the woods mushrooms we find without hesitation. There is no risk.

  • T R Shankar Raman

    An interesting article, but the deadliness seems a little hyped-up. Foraging by novices using photographic field guides may be deadly, but hardly representative. Remember also that many indigenous peoples around the world routinely harvest and consume mushrooms and know the edible from the poisonous. (for example in Asia:

  • aurora50

    Fungi Perfecti, the website of Paul Stamets, mentioned below:

  • Christian Schwarz
  • Taylor F. Lockwood

    This is an appalling confirmation of what we in the USA call "British fungophobia". There is no harm in eating mushrooms as long as you have a certain level of intelligence and knowledge about them – both of which have clearly eluded the author.
    If you want to bash something to get an article published, why don't you stick to the American entertainment industry? That is certainly deserving of your level of tabloid journalism.

  • LurkinLizard

    Lady, you are clueless. You do a lot of people a disservice by comparing foraging mushrooms to playing Russian roulette. I'm new to mushrooming, and I have half a dozen species that I know, absolutely unequivocally, that I can positively ID and safely eat and feed to my kids. If you've been out with fungi experts, and researched this at all, (as you relate in your article) you KNOW that there are some very safe, easy to ID mushrooms which rank beginners would even be okay with, given a minimum of basic ID info. Which means your article is a farce. The only conclusion I can come to is you are deliberately creating controversy for the purposes of getting people to read your article. I suppose at that you have succeeded. I guess that means you can put off getting a real job for another month or so, eh?

  • Dan Long

    How can someone be so educated and yet be so ignorant?

  • Christopher Hodge

    If one has access to a camera and the internet there shouldn't be an excuse for eating something one can not identify. and many other mushroom oriented on-line communities have members that are more than happy to help you figure out your fungi. There should be no rush in consuming things unknown. Local mycological societies that will help anyone get their mushrooms straight and wil help guide through learning mushroom taxonomy.

    Ignorance of what you are doing will make any activity dangerous, be it driving, cooking,or eating. Don't decry an activity for it's dangers when it is only as dangerous as you make it.

  • Granite Sentry

    Wow, look at these comments. Mushroom hunters are a touchy bunch. Must be all the toxins circulating in their blood.

    The writer wasn't suggesting it was so crazy dangerous nobody should do it; she was just describing -- in a writerly and interesting way -- the fact that some of these things will kill you if you aren't careful. You notice she ended (not literally) by cooking up and eating a batch.

    Lighten up, snarlers.

  • Rahwscoe

    This is kind of silly. To collect and use wild mushrooms one must have some knowledge. Simply reading a book and looking at some pictures will not do it. But courses and mycophiles abound. And the rewards are great. I look forward to an article on how to identify and use the commonest wild edible mushrooms, and how to avoid the deadly ones. But there is no simple rule any more than there is a simple rule for which berries are edible and which are poisonous. Some will be shy. Leaves more for those of us willing to spend the time to learn.

  • John Denk

    A complete, utter crock of bulls**t.

  • Randy L

    The author is right people, mushrooms are VERY dangerous. Stay far, FAR away from the forest, because it is full of creatures just waiting to get you!!!

    Then, while you are all sitting inside your "safe" little houses I can have the whole forest to myself :)

  • MRockatansky

    I enjoyed this article. Not that it was real informative. But I appreciate the author didn't bad-rap mycophobia, culturally-patterned wariness even fear of fungi - like its some sort of scourge that must be stamped out. There seems to be a fashion in recent years, for scolding disapproval of 'fungus fear.'

    If you don't know your mushrooms, there's plenty good reason to be wary, as this feature reflects. Sensible emphasis, compared to a lot of features I see. No doubt there's quite a mystique and allure of wild mushrooms. Especially with some being gourmet edibles (or otherwise of interest). On that note - in case its of interest or value: Mushroom poisoning fatalities almost never happen from -- boletes - i.e. fleshy mushrooms with PORES instead of gills, on the underside of the cap.

    Seems almost all fatal mushroom poisoning cases involve species with gills (not pores) ... Amanita and various others. Amanita toxins occur too in certain species in other genera - some apparently much deadlier (concentrations up to 100X Amanita !!). Considering the comparative low risk boletes pose, a beginner or non-expert, whatever rank - wants to stalk the wild edible gourmet mushroom - could do worse than leave gilled mushrooms alone entirely. That's where greatest dangers, and species-ID mixup potential, seem to lurk. A very few boletes have caused serious poisonings, but its pretty rare by comparison to gilled mushrooms. Just sayin' ...

    Not much compromise in cuisine either - apparently many gourmet chefs rate bolete species (AKA porcini in Italy) - as best of all wild gourmet mushrooms.

  • Jane Gaddin

    First and foremost, i would like to say that the direct antidote to mushroom poisoning is milk thistle seed. If you are ever afraid you poisoned yourself, eat a lot of them, then take yourself to the hospital, with more milk thistle, and tell the practioners about milk thistle. If they dont already know of it, they can look it up. You can receive it intravenously.
    Secondly, this article was not dumb. Yes, it was written by someone without very much knowledge of hunting for and eating wild mushrooms, but it is something even the most experienced of foragers should be cautious. Certainly some mushrooms are unmistakable, but many others have close look alikes that can make you a little sick or very sick.
    Yes, once you learn a few important things, like the main deadly mushrooms and several easy to identify edibles that you can regularly harvest, you probably wont kill yourself. But if you want to venture more off the beaten fungi path, then you must aquire a greater language and reference map in your mind. For instance some mushrooms are perfectly fine to eat unless they grow under certain trees in which case they become poisonous. Some people will have allergic reactions when others do not. There is also a myth that eating only mushrooms growing on trees is safe. There are some that will make you very sick growing on trees. Such as golden pholiata.
    Some inedible mushrooms are edible if prepared properly, like the peppery milkcap, which i have tasted raw and is excruciating for over an hour in the mouth after chewing just a little bit and spitting it out raw.
    For any real mushroom hunting lover to simply say there is no risk to an inexperienced person, is arrogant, and dangerous.
    Can edible mushrooms be safely and easily identified over and over? Yes.
    Is it true that most inedible mushrooms are inedible due to factors other than making you sick? Yes.
    And no, there is nothing inherently to be afraid of regarding mushrooms.
    But there is much to be aware of.
    I welcome this author into the fascinating and always compelling world of the neither plant nor animal species we call fungi. It is a vast unique intelligence with much to teach us.